Behind the Green Door


The Promise and Peril of Environmental Justice, by Christopher Foreman, Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 191 pages, $22.95

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I joined a San Francisco civil rights activist in addressing several dozen chief executive officers from the petroleum industry. My co-panelist urged the CEOs, whom she described as among the most powerful men in the world, to take seriously charges of "environmental injustice." She reiterated familiar claims that minorities and the poor suffer the brunt of ill effects from toxic waste sites and polluting industrial facilities. She pleaded for social conscience. It was an impassioned speech, full of yearning for a world without tradeoffs, a world of pristine environments and endless job opportunities.

Advocates of environmental justice speak of becoming "experts in suffering," of being "trampled on," poisoned, and murdered. Delores Herrera, a member of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, captured the mood of her colleagues at a 1995 meeting where she announced, "I'm very emotional. I feel for everybody out there."

This emotion has translated into activism directed at stopping the opening of industrial facilities or extracting specific community benefits as part of the permitting process. More than 50 environmental justice cases have been filed with the Environmental Protection Agency since President Clinton gave teeth to the concept in a 1994 executive order.

Last year, for example, Shintech Corp. abandoned plans to build a $700 million polyvinyl chloride plant in St. James Parish, Louisiana, after opponents filed a complaint with the EPA alleging that state regulators violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by issuing a permit for the plant. Rather than fight, Shintech decided to build a smaller plant in a different community. (See "Red Zone," page 14.) As a result, St. James Parish lost 255 sorely needed jobs.

In his wonderfully lucid book The Promise and Peril of Environmental Justice, Brookings Institution political scientist Christopher Foreman examines the basis for the discrimination claims underlying such cases. He concludes that "even a reasonably generous reading of the foundational empirical research alleging environmental inequity along racial lines must leave room for profound skepticism regarding the reported results." In particular, he finds that the research to date offers "no insight into the crucial issues of risk and health impact."

But Foreman's discussion does not focus on this research. Indeed, he argues that whether industrial and waste facilities are disproportionately located in minority and poor communities is in many respects "irrelevant to the underlying objectives and gratifications that stir activist and community enthusiasm for environmental justice." The movement, he perceives, is largely an extension of the 1960s-style thirst for community empowerment–a desire by minorities and the poor to participate in decisions that affect their lives. At its root, writes Foreman, the environmental justice movement is aimed at "enabling citizens to hold public institutions accountable and private capital at bay."

Foreman understands this yearning for accountability; he sympathizes with a desire for "livable" communities. And he recognizes that, notwithstanding the paucity of evidence showing environmental inequities, many minority and poor communities live amid noise, odors, filth, congestion, dilapidation–in short, the conditions associated with poverty. But he sees the environmental justice movement as ill-suited to tackling these problems. Indeed, he argues that it may unintentionally make matters worse. He supports these claims in three ways.

First, Foreman argues that its activist orientation requires that the environmental justice movement use aspirational, all-encompassing language and embrace a "boundaryless" agenda of fairness, justice, and equality. This agenda, he says, is "rooted not only in the raw imperatives of coalition politics but also in a philosophical ideal." Successful mobilizing around the environmental justice agenda must avoid "victimizing" any potential activist; hence, the agenda must "prohibit disagreeable discussion of priorities and tradeoffs." While an agenda promising all good things for all people inspires passion, it does not allow for a setting of priorities from which actions to reduce risks or improve well-being might result.

The environmental justice movement, Foreman suggests, may exacerbate the problem of "missing priorities" that already afflicts environmental policy, directing resources away from substantial risks and toward minuscule ones. It focuses attention outward, toward externally imposed risks from industrial facilities, even when those risks may be small or nonexistent, while ignoring the potentially more potent risks associated with personal lifestyle choices such as smoking, diet, and alcohol consumption. And the "not in my backyard" (NIMBY) sentiment that environmental justice activists nurture ignores opportunity costs. Foreman is not referring simply to jobs vs. the environment. He is referring also to tradeoffs between risks that occur when NIMBY activism inadvertently keeps older, dirtier facilities in operation longer or when gold-plated cleanups of waste sites leave other environmental problems unattended.

Second, Foreman argues that concerns about filth, noise, odors, housing disrepair, inadequate sanitation, lack of jobs, and so on cannot be adequately addressed through environmental policy. The nation's major environmental programs are not designed to tackle these problems, and merely tinkering with public procedures and enhancing the public voice in siting and cleanup decisions will not bring homes or jobs to the poor. These problems, writes Foreman, "should be addressed directly rather than riding as hidden cargo aboard exaggerated or unsubstantiated assertions of risk and racism in siting and [environmental] enforcement."

Third, Foreman notes that the advocacy tools of environmental justice, focused as they are on public mobilization, must rely on outrage and a "trolling for government and corporate villains." He warns that "outrage is an exceedingly inefficient way to foster health in minority and low-income communities." If outrage results in "blocking any facility that any person or group opposes with a cry of environmental racism, then environmental policy will have taken a path that is all but certain to produce its own victimization of minorities."

If what environmental justice advocates want is better health and less risk, they may be on the wrong track, according to Foreman. If, on the other hand, what they really want is political power–a place at the table–then they are already succeeding. Activists cannot claim that they "are today unable to effectively challenge projects of which they disapprove. Indeed, the episodes regularly highlighted as examples of injustice often portray projects either blocked outright or substantially transformed to address community concerns." The Shintech plant in Louisiana illustrates the point. The larger question is whether these successes have produced improvements in health, opportunity, and community well-being.

The excellence of Foreman's book lies in the questions that he dares to pose. Though sympathizing with the ills that motivate grassroots environmental justice advocates, he understands that constraints on time and resources, as well as the complex physical realities of our environment, make tradeoffs inevitable. And if tradeoffs exist, choices must be made. Disgust that such choices are necessary will not eliminate them. Foreman invites the environmental justice community to discuss more openly the major health risks that affect poor communities, many of which arise from personal choices.

Because he acknowledges the reality of tradeoffs, Foreman explores how information about risks might be better communicated, perhaps by introducing into local environmental justice dialogues some role for public health experts. But he is realistic. He is aware of the expansive literature that demonstrates a gap between how scientists and citizens understand risks. He is also aware that efforts to inject "the data" into impassioned discussions about risk among community activists can backfire; appeals to science are often viewed as delay tactics and evasion of central concerns.

Ironically, the participation agenda of environmental justice activists may turn out to be an important tool for advancing a more science-based understanding of relative risks. Recent experience in siting noxious facilities and waste sites suggests that people are more open to scientific and technical discussions of risk if they are involved in the process from the beginning. But environmental policy decisions will improve only if the individuals determining how clean is clean enough or "to build or not to build" experience both the costs and the benefits associated with those decisions. This linkage requires that the people at the bargaining table not be outsiders who have an incentive to push for gold-plated cleanups and block every proposed facility. Yet limiting participation in these negotiations to local citizens will draw cries of protest from national environmental activists.

Foreman does not provide us with a road map. He doesn't sort through the tangle of questions about what rights owners ought to have in the use of their property; or how those experiencing noise, odor, or emissions from industrial facilities in shared spaces might be better empowered to negotiate reductions in those effects; or who ought to have a say in these decisions.

And though Foreman argues that environmental policy is not the right venue through which to redress all the grievances of the poor, he doesn't offer environmental justice advocates a compelling alternative. He draws little hope from past experiences with job training programs, public health initiatives, and other programs aimed at improving the lives of poor people.

But this is not a shortcoming of the book. Instead, it is an honest observation about the limits of public policy. Though Foreman believes government has a role to play in advancing "social justice," his final caution is that "we cannot simply legislate, regulate, litigate, or protest our way toward healthy and livable communities." Foreman's book succeeds so well because he conveys sympathy for the concerns of poor communities without letting that sympathy stand in the way of a hard look at what is real in those concerns, what is exaggerated or misdiagnosed, and what sort of changes can reasonably be expected in a world of tradeoffs.

Lynn Scarlett (lynns@reason.org) is the executive director of the Reason Public Policy Institute.