Environmental justice has the potential to remake America’s economic landscape and undermine our domination by fossil fuels—and for many powerful people, this makes it a very dangerous idea. A look at the origins of environmental justice reveals its profound critique of American business values, the values on which the new administration has hung its worldview, its priorities, and its reputation.
Here is how the Environmental Protection Agency defines it: “Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
This idea demands nothing less than a democratization of regulation and rule setting—and resistance to regulation written by and for industry. Industry has waged a decades-long battle against democratic control and application of regulation—rules dedicated to protecting all people, regardless of their power in society, and asserting a role for all people, particularly impacted communities, in the decision-making process. This values framework profoundly threatens Trump’s “business model” of governance.
Since the beginning of human history, pollution has been synonymous with progress, from burning wood for cooking and heating, to metal smelting and coal burning, and eventually to the industrial revolution, when black smoke in cities was sometimes so thick that it brought nighttime conditions to midday.
Over time, those with the means escaped pollution and environmental degradation, creating parks and nature reserves and protecting their neighborhoods from industry through zoning and regulation. With the advent of automobiles, they fled polluted city centers for the suburbs. Those without the means to protect themselves from pollution—falling along lines of race, class, and national origin—were often displaced or stuck in degraded landscapes next to industry.
With its rapid expansion after World War II, industry further targeted vulnerable communities—poor communities and communities of color—as sites for new industrial development, where they could expect less resistance and regulation from communities desperate for jobs and economic opportunity.
The growth of industry and proliferation of pollution, combined with the emerging environmental and civil rights movements, created the conditions for the birth of the environmental justice movement. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, shined a bright light on the dangers of pesticides and other synthetic chemicals flooding our air, water, and soil. The civil rights movement activated and organized communities of color to fight for equal protection, and soon civil rights organizers recognized environmental health as another example of racial disparity.
Parks and nature reserves are wonderful places for recreation and ecological preservation, but even in their most ideal form, parks create a false dichotomy of clean spaces and dirty spaces, letting industry off the hook for its pollution and ecological destruction. This dichotomy turns environmental quality into just another scarce resource that may be accumulated by some while others are deprived. Environmental justice demands the opposite—that no community becomes a sacrifice zone for the benefit of others elsewhere.
Environmental justice was put on the map in 1982, when authorities in North Carolina sited a hazardous waste dump in the small, predominantly African American community of Afton, against the objections of the residents. When trucks began to arrive to dump soil contaminated with highly toxic PCBs, protestors lied down in the street to block them. After six weeks of protests and over 500 arrests, the residents lost the battle, but the publicity and the relationships forged as a result of the struggle launched a movement.
In 1990, Dr. Benjamin Chavis Jr., director of the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice, along with many other civil rights leaders, sent a letter to eight major environmental organizations accusing them of racist hiring practices and of being disconnected from the poor communities and communities of color most affected by pollution. This letter shook up the environmental movement.
Two years later, President George H. W. Bush formed the office of environmental equity (which became the office of environmental justice) at the E.P.A. A young African American student named Mustafa Ali was an intern at the E.P.A. at the time and joined the new office as a founding staff member. He eventually became the top environmental justice official at the E.P.A., staying through four administrations—Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—despite these administrations’ vastly different approaches to the environment.
Not until Trump’s radical abandonment of science and expert knowledge, and his all-out assault on environmental justice came to light, was Ali forced to say, “I can’t be a part of this.”
Mustafa Ali resigned, but he is not retiring. In March, he was named Senior Vice President of Climate, Environmental Justice & Community Revitalization at the Hip Hop Caucus, a nonprofit organization building the climate movement in ways that diverge from traditional environmental organizing, partnering with artists and celebrities to bring together diverse groups of people, and young people in particular, around issues of justice and the environment.
Today, the NAACP—the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization—lists environmental and climate justice as its #2 priority; and the Sierra Club—the nation’s oldest and largest environmental organization—lists environmental justice as one of its top priorities. Times are changing.
Environmental justice can be a focus of resistance to Trump’s agenda. It can also assert an affirmative vision of what could be, under new leadership whose understanding of ecological protection includes the preservation of species and ecosystems in addition to concern for the environmental health of all human communities.
In reality, this dangerous idea is the only way to protect the environment—and our democracy.