Environmental justice is defined as 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.
If you do a search on Environmental Justice on the internet you are likely to find the following kinds of articles, which illustrate the wide range of issues. Storms hit poorer people harder - from Superstorm Sandy to Hurricane Maria, Urban noise pollution is worst in poor and minority neighborhoods and segregated cities, For many in Puerto Rico, ‘energy dominance’ is just a new name for US colonialism, Heat waves threaten city dwellers, especially minorities and the poor, In planned EPA cuts, US to lose vital connection to at-risk communities, and on and on. This issue, which many people don’t really think much about, is pretty eye-opening.
Championed primarily by African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and Pacific Islanders and Native Americans, the environmental justice movement addresses a statistical fact: people who live, work and play in America's most polluted environments are commonly people of color and the poor.
Environmental justice advocates have shown that this is no accident. Communities of color, which are often poor, are routinely targeted to host facilities that have negative environmental impacts -- say, a landfill, dirty industrial plant or truck depot. The statistics provide clear evidence of what the movement rightly calls “environmental racism.” Communities of color have been battling this injustice for decades.
What might first come to mind when examining issues of environmental justice, is the Flint water crisis, which began in 2014 when the drinking water source for the city of Flint, Michigan was changed to the Flint River. A recent settlement requires Michigan to give Flint $87 million in state and federal funds so the city can replace lead and other problem water pipes that connect homes to the city's main water line.
The Flint water crises is one of the most recent examples of environmental justice. But it might surprise you that what could be considered the modern political movement for environmental justice began way back in 1982 in poor, rural and overwhelmingly black, Warren County, North Carolina. That was when the state government decided that the county would make a perfect home for 6,000 truckloads of soil laced with toxic PCBs, making the county the focus of national attention.
The dump trucks first rolled into Warren County in mid-September, 1982, headed for a newly constructed hazardous waste landfill in the small community of Afton. But many frustrated residents and their allies, furious that state officials had dismissed concerns over PCBs leaching into drinking water supplies, met the trucks. And they stopped them, lying down on roads leading into the landfill. Six weeks of marches and nonviolent street protests followed, and more than 500 people were arrested -- the first arrests in U.S. history over the siting of a landfill.
The people of Warren County ultimately lost the battle; the toxic waste was eventually deposited in that landfill. But their story -- one of ordinary people driven to desperate measures to protect their homes from a toxic assault -- drew national media attention and fired the imagination of people across the country who had lived through similar injustice. The street protests and legal challenges mounted by the people of Warren County to fight the landfill are considered by many to be the first major milestone in the national movement for environmental justice.
Here is the main link between these two stories, separated by decades and many miles... both communities are poor and primarily populated by people of color. According to local officials in Flint, about 40% of residents are below the poverty rate. Fifteen percent of homes are boarded up and abandoned. The city of 100,000 people doesn't even have a grocery store.
In mid-February of this year, a new report from the Environmental Protection Agency found that people of color are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air. This report, which concludes that environmental racism is real, was published, even as the EPA and the Trump administration continued a plan to dismantle many of the institutions built to address those disproportionate risks.
According to The Atlantic “Under the guidance of President Trump and Administrator Scott Pruitt, the EPA has begun to walk back already anemic federal environmental-justice work, putting a stop to some civil-rights investigations and replacing or firing many of the scientists with deep technical knowledge of the subject. Last year, facing cuts to the environmental-justice program that seem likely to continue, former assistant associate administrator Mustafa Santiago Ali resigned. Further changes to move the offices of environmental justice into a policy office staffed by Pruitt hires promise to further reduce the autonomy of life-long environmental-justice staffers and reduce the effectiveness of their work.”
By contrast to the illustrious president of these United States, and his enlightened views on racism... In February 2016, during her campaign for president, Hillary Clinton demonstrated that she understood the intersection between race and the environment. She said, “There are a lot more Flints out there – overwhelmingly low-income communities of color where pollution, toxic chemicals and staggering neglect adds to families’ burdens.” She, famously said “Clean air and clean water are basic human rights – and our rights shouldn’t change between ZIP codes.”
Hillary Clinton made the link between environmental justice and basic human rights that transcends mere local, regional, and national politics. So the question that arises is what would it cost to avoid a climate disaster that would affect poor countries the most? According to leading environmental think tanks, for the United States, the bill comes to $634 billion owed to developing nations. The U.S. also would need to cut carbon emissions 55 percent to 65 percent. Worldwide, developed nations would have to pay more than $1.1 trillion annually to developing nations on top of massive emission reductions to keep climate change in check.
This question about the cost of environmental justice caused me to examine just what costs, in terms of money, are associated with the most salient reasons for environmental injustice. For the moment, I’ll set aside the emotional, psychological, and spiritual costs of not addressing environmental justice to focus on the economics. Of course, I understand that getting anywhere near this subject will cause your eyes to roll into the back of your heads. The alarms will ring off “Oh no... he’s going to talk about statistics”. Those virtual flaps on your earlobes will expand and you simply may not be able to hear the following sections of my sermon today. Please relax, my intention is to look at this in very relativistic terms.
So, the key issues in environmental justice are these, and they are basically addressed by the quote from Ban Ki-moon in your order of service:
Paying to Reduce and Reverse Climate Damage
Providing for Healthcare
Providing for Education
I just talked about the $634 billion cost owed to developing nations to cut carbon emissions and the $1 Trillion per year to developing nations to keep climate change in check.[8:16]
As for poverty, the Census Bureau showed that the percentage of Americans living in poverty is at 15 percent, which amounts to 46 million Americans. The sheer scale of poverty in the U.S. is so massive that it can seem as if eliminating or dramatically reducing it would be nearly impossible. After all, 46 million people is a lot of people. But in reality, if we stick to the official poverty line, the amount of money standing in the way of poverty eradication is much lower than people realize.
In its annual poverty report, the Census included a table that few take note of which actually details by how much families are below the poverty line. A little multiplication and addition later, and the magic number pops out. The number is about $175.3 billion. That is how many dollars it would take to bring every person in the United States up to the poverty line. That number is just 1.08% of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
It might be helpful to put that magic number in perspective. This is just a about 1/5th of the $611 billion the federal government will spend on the military. When you start hunting through the submerged spending we do through the tax code, it takes you no time to find enough tax expenditures geared toward the affluent to get to that number as well. And this hardly puts a dent into the benefits garnered through the latest tax cut bill that passed recently.
Eradicating or dramatically cutting poverty is not the deeply complicated intractable problem people make it out to be. The dollars we are talking about are minuscule up against the size of our economy. We have poverty because we choose to have it. We choose to design our distributive institutions in ways that generate poverty when we could design them in ways that don’t. Poverty’s continued existence is totally indefensible and it is our nation’s greatest shame.
While we’re on defense spending, we might as well take a look at that. No country worldwide comes even close to matching the United States in military expenditure. The United States remained at the top of the military spending league last year with $611 billion. That's 36 percent of the global total and over three times the amount spent by second-placed China. Russia upped its outlay 5.9 percent to $69.2 billion, third overall.
To start with just a few weeks ago, U.S. forces spent at least $210 million on what was basically a show of force attacking Syrian chemical installations. Let’s go on a little bit further. An M1-A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank costs $6 million each. The US Army has over 9000 of them, at a cost of $5.4B. The still developing F-35’s fighter jet’s true cost is actually unknown, but it is, by far, the Pentagon's costliest weapon system. As it stands now, the unit price for an F-35 — including aircraft, engine and fees — is $122 million. Let me say that another way... each individual F-35 airplane costs $122M. The total F-35 program is estimated to be $1.5T through 2070.
The United States also maintains the largest number of military bases on foreign soil across the world. There are now around 800 U.S. bases in foreign countries. Military spending makes up nearly 16% percent of entire federal spending and approximately half of discretionary spending. In a general sense discretionary spending (defense and non-defense spending) makes up one-third of the annual federal budget.
Allow me put this into perspective. The $400 billion program to create a fleet of F-35s, which, is seven years behind schedule and chronically plagued with misfortunes and incompetence... and which is just one weapon system program in the United States defense budget... could have housed every one of the 554,000 homeless people in the U.S. in a $600,000 house.
There’s a way to look at what it would cost to house the homeless, after looking at how we could easily get everyone in the country to at least the poverty line.
Okay, so now let’s take look at health care. In 2012 US health care spending totaled $2.8 trillion dollars and accounted for 17.2% of the US Gross Domestic Product (GDP). You’ll notice that’ s close to the 16% of defense spending. The average annual cost of health care for the typical US family of four is now over $20,000. According to a study from Consumer Reports, paying for health care is the top financial problem for US households.
Health care is the largest private-sector industry in the United States accounting for about 13% of the total US workforce. The World Health Organization ranked the US health care system at #37 out of 191 countries in its 2000 report, between Costa Rica and Slovenia. In 2014, the Commonwealth Fund ranked the United States last in overall health care behind (in order) United Kingdom, Switzerland, Sweden, Australia, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, France, and Canada.
Obviously we’re not getting good value for all the money we spend on health care.
Now to education costs. The New America Foundation says that the federal government spent a whole $69 billion in 2013 on its hodgepodge of financial aid programs, such as Pell Grants for low-income students, tax breaks, work study funding. And that doesn't even include loans. Here’s the ugly truth... if we were to scrap our current system and starting from scratch, Washington could make public college tuition free with the money it sets aside for its scattershot attempts to make college affordable today. But rather than simply using our resources to maintain a cheap public system (and remember, public schools educate 75 percent of undergrads), we spill them into a wasteful and expensive private sector. At one point, a Senate investigation found that the for-profit sector alone was chowing down on 25 percent of all federal aid dollars. Don’t even let me get started on Secretary Monique deVries!
If the story about education sounds awfully similar to the problems the U.S. faces with healthcare costs, well, that's because it is similar. Here’s my main point... Americans have an allergy to straightforward policy solutions involving the public sector. And for that, we pay a terrible price.
On an economic level, it is these inefficiencies in our systems of distributing wealth and resources that cause environmental injustice. US citizens, who account for 4.28% of the total world population consume 24% of the world’s energy. On average, one American consumes as much energy as 379 Ethiopians. Americans eat 815 billion calories of food each day - that's roughly 200 billion more than needed - enough to feed 80 million people.
So, the problems we have, at least in the United States, about environmental justice are not economically based. I won’t go through the numbers with you here, but I believe you now understand, as I do... that we could eliminate homelessness and poverty, we could ensure a college education for all citizens in the United States, and we could begin to check climate change on the global level if we simply cut military spending by a few percentage points and if we could somehow come up with a sane approach to reducing health care spending. Unfortunately, our present form of government has an allergy to straightforward policy solutions involving the public sector. So, we are not going to be crafting solutions to these problems as long as this government is in power.
It should be clear that the environmental justice problem is not economically based... it is heart based. We have a skewed sense of priorities. That sense is, frankly, the result of fear-based politics that cannot see that all human beings are inextricably tied to one another, and to our planet. The politics of race is the politics of fear. The politics of hate and indifference is the politics of fear. The politics of injustice is the politics of fear.
Put in a brutally simplistic way, our national priority is to kill people rather than to feed and house them. We prefer corporate profits to ensuring that we pass on a less damaged world to our children. That is the moral and spiritual reality of our time.
As Unitarian Universalists we are called to something far higher. I say, it is time for us to heed that call!
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!