Environmental racism | a window into why we have environmental issues

Environmental racism is a blame game. It is defined around the increasingly common situation where disadvantaged or minority communities find themselves pushed into situations that are hazardous or into environments that are degraded.

One commonly quoted statistic in the US is that African Americans are nearly 80% more likely than whites to live where industrial pollution is suspected of affecting health. 

Similar statistics are available for areas that are environmentally degraded or where urban decay is common. The Natural Resources Defense Council, a US environmental advocacy group, has a useful history of the environmental justice movement that tracks the evidence.

Clearly the numbers are hard to ignore. 

And no one should be forced to live in another’s mess. 

Environmental racism has also been applied to international corporations that export waste or dangerous technologies than are banned in their country of origin to countries where the laws are less stringent, so-called ‘pollution havens’. For example, it has been a long time since the insecticide DDT was used in the US but it is still available in many African countries.

poor coastal community, West Papua, Indonesia 

What would Occam say about environmental racism? 

The critical word in all this is ‘intentional’.

The notion that there is purpose in the placement of ethnic groupings into these undesirable areas seems unlikely because there is a much simpler explanation.   

Imagine a coastal village in a developing country in the Asia-pacific region — a place that once had palm trees, sandy beaches and fishermen in outrigger canoes. 

Except that world population growth has reached the village and within a generation it has become a town. Commerce has boomed and money has been made. 

The prospect of jobs, wages and all the good things that money can buy has attracted many people from the rural hinterlands adding to the population faster than the municipality or the market can build infrastructure to support them. 

There are not enough jobs to go around and inevitably some people go without. They hang around of course because there may be a job tomorrow. The oversupply of labour also means that menial work pays little.

Soon there are many people trying to survive on next to nothing. They find what accommodation they can that is close enough to where the work is and live in shanties on the swampy lowlands close to the ocean. It is hot, muddy at low tide but at least the ocean clears away most of the sewage.

These people know there is great risk in these lowlands. An earthquake could happen at any moment and bring a devastating tsunami that they could not escape. But what choice do they have?

There is an inevitable inequity built into the capitalism model. Not everyone will have enough money to live in a house on the headland with a view of the ocean high above even the biggest tidal wave.  

And throughout the world we accept this inequity.

smoke pollution from burning rubbish


So Occam would say that there is a simple economic explanation — people will live where they can until they can afford the house on the hill.  

If there is racism in any of this or in the examples from the US, then it is in the inequality of opportunity that makes it harder for particular ethnic groups to get ahead and so compete on equal terms. This certainly does exist but it is hard to label this environmental racism.

This pragmatology sounds conveniently logical until we read this statistic — “96 percent of African American children who live in inner cities have unsafe amounts of lead in their blood

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