From the Ground Up: The Environmental Justice Movement

I love From the Ground Up, Luke Cole and Sheila Foster provide such a great introduction to environmental racism and the spirit and struggle of the environmental justice movement in From the Ground Up. I wish I had read it while I was organising, but it rings so true from the first page. Look at this preface.

Preface: We Speak for Ourselves.

Stories are one way we transmit our history, share our successes, and learn from our losses. Stories are also an important part of the movement for environmental justice, which has as one of its central tenets the idea “We speak for ourselves.” This book tells the stories of ordinary men and women thrust into extraordinary roles as community leaders, grassroots experts, and national policymakers. (1)

They open with the battle in Kettlement City against a toxic waste dump, the finding of the Cerrell Report done for the California Waster Management board in 1984, which

suggested to companies and localities that were seeking to site garbage incinerators that the communities that would offer the least resistance to such incinerators were rural communities, poor communities, communities whose residents had low education levels, communities that were highly catholic, communities with fewer than 25,000 residents, and communities whose residents were employed in resource-extractive jobs like mining, timber, or agriculture. (3)

Can what we’re up against be clearer than that?

Introduction

So to start with the basics.

Environmental hazards are inequitably distributed in the United States, with poor people and people of color bearing a greater share of pollution than richer people and white people. This intuitive idea…has been borne out by dozens of studies completed over the past two decades. The disparate impact documented in studies has given birth to the term “environmental racism.” (10)

So how do we approach this as communities, as allies, as academics? They talk about their approach as internal and external — from the point of view of communities themselves and from the ground up — and the external view looking at the political economy of environmental degradation. They describe the need for both perspectives.

The internal perspective, they argue, is that of grassroots accounts, which tell a crucial narrative that — and they have a great quote from Iris Young here, pulled from Democracy and Difference —reveals the particular experiences of those in social locations, experiences that cannot be shared by those situated differently but that they must understand in order to do justice to others.” (12) Thus

This book contains stories, collective insights, legal understandings, and a political economy that ‘examines the relationship among economic, political/legal, and social forces as they influence environmental decision-making processes and environmental outcomes. (11)

I love too the broader vision of social and environmental change that this kind of engaged scholarship can support and help develop.

This broader analysis, in turn, forces us to go beyond framing the problem as merely a distributive one–certain communities get an unfair environmental burden–and to reconceptualize grassroots activism as more than an attempt to disrupt the decisions of private corporations and state agencies. Instead grassroots struggles are a crucial arena in which to restructure social relations through systems of localized environmental decision making. (13)

This is what transformative politics looks like, right? Where the Environmental Justice Movement

is not the “elevated environmental consciousness” of its members but the ways that it transforms the possibilities for fundamental social and environmental change through redefinition, reinvention, and construction of innovative political and cultural discourses and practices. … This transformation takes place on a number of levels–the individual, the group, the community–and ultimately influences institutions, government, and social structure. (14)

This has to start with the individual and the community, but it cannot end there…it has to grow, engage, have a sense of a broader coalitional politics.

The other thing?

Words have power.

Just that. What a movement is called, the words it uses, are important. They use environmental justice

because it both expresses our aspiration and encompasses the political economy of environmental decision making. That is, environmental justice requires democratic decision making, community empowerment, and the incorporation of social structure. (16)

They also broadens definition of environment to be ‘where we live, where we work, where we play, and where we learn.’ Environmentalism is linked to material environment and community through long decades of struggle. It also encompasses both home and community. (16) It is fought on multiple fronts, both fighting toxic land uses as well as working to improve lives through clean jobs, sustainable economy, affordable housing, achieving social and racial justice.

A History of the Environmental Justice Movement

This movement is firmly rooted in past justice movements. There is no single date or event that launched it, but a collection of key points. 1982 struggle of African American community against toxic dump in Warren County, NC. The drowning death of an 8-year-old in a garbage dump in Houston, 1967. MLK’s work in Memphis supporting striking garbage workers, 1968. UFW’s fight against pesticides through the 1960s. Native American struggles since European’s arrived.

They describe it as a river with many tributaries — the Civil Rights Movement, Anti-Toxics Movement. Academic work identifying its structural, systemic nature. Native American struggles. The Labor Movement. And to a small extent, traditional environmentalism. All coming together at the 1991 First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. Those amazing resolutions they put forward that are so powerful still today (see them along with a brilliant article by Dana Alston here).

Cole and Foster describe three characteristics uniting the many tributaries, key for those who believe movement and social change must be driven by those experiencing oppression:

Motives: ‘Environmental justice activists usually have an immediate and material stake in solving the environmental problems they confront’ are being made sick, dying, have a personal stake (33)

Background: ‘largely, though not entirely, poor or working-class people. Many are people of color…’ (33)

Perspective: have a social justice orientation, seeing environmental degradation as just one of many way their communities are under attack…seek remedies that are more fundamental…view the need for broader, structural reforms… (33)

The Political Economy of Environmental Racism (Chester residents Concerned for Quality of Life) — a case study on what can go right and wrong. I used to tutor kids in Chester, working class white kid parachuted into a neighbourhood via an elite College program, earning some extra money driving the van back and forth. Wish I’d been a little more woke back then. I still think about those kids sometimes.

Anyway, there are some lessons here about the dangers of relying entirely on legal action — now that is so so familiar. But Chester is also used to look ‘Beyond the Distributive Paradigm’. It helps open up the unequal distribution of toxic waste and industry shaped by structural factors — deindustrialization, white flight, segregation. Incinerators become an opening point for exploring these processes and patterns, and recognizing that despite the clear intersections of race and class, the US reality is that race is better correlated to exposure to environmental dangers. Only by ignoring the structural causes can these injustices be blamed on simple market dynamics and choice, or on lifestyle. But of course, that happens all the time.

There is also a need to examine the definition of racism — this has been steadily narrowed over the years through the courts, constructed as simply “race discrimination” or intentional, purposeful conduct. Under such a limited view, environmental racism requires a bad actor making very conscious decisions. Instead, Cole and Foster argue that

Understanding environmental racism thus requires a conceptual framework that (1) retains a structural view of economic and social forces as they influence discriminatory outcomes, (2) isolates the dynamics within environmental decision-making processes that further contribute to such outcomes, and (3) normatively evaluates social forces and environmental decision-making processes which contribute to disparities in environmental hazard distribution. (65)

And of course, you can trace so much of this back to segregation, deeply, historically embedded into America’s geographies. There’s a nice quote from Richard Ford: “race-neutral policy could be expected to entrench segregation and socio-economic stratification in a society with a history of racism.” (67)

The stories of specific campaigns are so powerful, opening a number of windows into the nature of struggle over time. Buttonwillow is a rural town in California, which is host to CA’s three toxic waste dumps. They give a powerful quote from Lupe Martinez, who had been working with residents on loan from UFW — but I think this is the fear of all organizers:

My fear, when it came down that I had mixed feelings of whether I was going to leave or not, was that it was going to die. That’s the organizer’s nightmare. That everything that you did might not be there at all. Maybe what you did was not what you thought you had done. And so when I left, when I was about to leave, I felt that “what if I didn’t do it right? What if all of a sudden I’m gone and it’s dead , and nothing is going to happen? So, everything that I did was for nothing then.’ (87)

Over time much has been won, but…there has been no clear victory here. Cole and Foster write

On another level, however, the struggle has been a failure: not only is the dump expansion moving forward, but many Padres members have been demoralized by the seven-year struggle. “I feel like I’m throwing rocks at the moon,” sighs Paco Beltran, “and catching them on my head.” (102)

This seems familiar, I have never been so poetic about it though. Despite the losses, there has been a rise in political consciousness, this is also familiar:

The activism of community groups like the Padres in Buttonwillow often begins as a reaction to the impact of increasing numbers of polluting facilities on the community residents’ health and quality of life. However, their activism quickly becomes as struggle over the legitimacy of decision-making processes, the exclusion from and the marginalization of disaffected residents during those processes, and the structural forces that constrain individuals in these communities from fully participating in decisions that fundamentally affect their lives. (103)

I love these stories — and I suppose I often feel more is to be learned where things falter and fail. This one highlights how important the relationship between individual organizer and community members is to these struggles — it’s curious that the whole point of organizing is not to be central to struggle, and yet I think it takes a certain kind of person to create a process where consciousness is raised, people do learn and grow collectively. That may be a different kind of person in different circumstances depending on the mix of personalities. Alinksy writes a lot about this, and it’s a conundrum I turn over in my head — the role of the individual in collective action. It’s why I think spaces like Highlander are so important, and it is happiness to see Highlander appear here, hosting workshops and providing space for discussion and reflection and growth in support of the process of struggle.

Processes of Struggle

It’s all about this:

the grassroots organizations created in the midst of struggles for environmental justice are crucial in creating an ongoing role for community participation in all decisions that fundamentally affect the participants’ lives. When local groups are able to link their victories in the environmental realm to broader political and economic struggles, the potential exists to redefine existing power relations, to unsettle cultural assumptions about race and class, and to create new political possibilities for historically marginalized communities… (105)

This comes through taking power, through redefining power relations. It means that communities must always speak for themselves, ‘that those who must bear the brunt of a decision should have an equal and influential role in making the decision’. (106)

This is not your liberal pluralism though. ‘Pluralism, in practice, tends to exclude those lacking the material prerequisites to equal participation.‘ (109) Instead we see a beginning look at the creation of a deliberative process, where ‘citizens thus create the common good through discourse, as opposed to discovering it through prexisting preferences.’ (113) I quite like this way of thinking of these conflictual and deliberative public conversations, not as public school debates but as collective endeavours to grow and learn and reach a decision. This is–or could be–the essence of what Freire describes in his work on pedagogy, much different than the European body of work around discourse gets to (though perhaps Nancy Fraser and Iris Young bring it closest).

There are challenges here too of course. This is hard. But they are trying to move towards a transformative politics. The ways in which moving from bystander to participant in struggle is transformative, but also at the community level ‘a collective emergence of solidarity, action and rebelliousness that builds on itself in an organic manner’ (156). They draw on Gaventa’s study of power and silences and struggle in Appalachia, which I love so much. They also gave this idea of institutional transformation developing through the EJ movement:

the important power building that is occurring between the Environmental Justice Movement and other social justice activism, what we call “movement fusion”: the coming together of two (or more) different social movements in a way that expands the base of support for both movements by developing a common agenda. (164)

This fusion continues, and EJ principles and learning are so clearly foundational for so much of what is coming out of the Right to the City Alliance, the Movement for Black Lives…there is so much brilliance in the US at this level.

[Cole, Luke W. and Foster, Sheila R. (2001) From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement. New York and London: New York University Press.]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.