Growth of the Environmental Justice Movement: Organizing the Grassroots

AuthorBarry E. Hill
Page 207
Chapter 2
Growth of the Environmental Justice
Movement: Organizing the Grassroots
2.1 Overview
is chapter examines the growth of t he multiracial, community-based environmental justice movement,
how it has begun to challenge the approach of mainstream environmental organizations, and how its strat-
egies and tactics are markedly dierent from the traditional environmental movement.
is chapter represents Professor Ruhl’s second degree and third degree of relevance. e second degree
of relevance states that: “Advocating the opposite of the norm is no longer a tenable policy position.” In
other words, no one in a policymak ing position in government or industry can now be for environmental
injustice. is chapter, therefore, examines the growth of the environmental justice movement as a national
grassroots phenomenon to advocate the norm (e.g., that “the benets of environmental protection must be
equitably distributed over racial and income lines”). e third degree of relevance provides: “e cha rge
of acting contrary to t he norm can no longer be left unaddressed.” is chapter also examines t he various
tactics that community-based environmental justice groups have used successfully to have t heir concerns
heard and addressed when there are those who a re charged with acting contrary to the norm.
Instances of environmental injustice are many and varied. ey may be disputes over the siting of
pollution-generating facilities or over the methods of cleanup at contaminated sites. ey may also involve
a community’s lack of access to environmental lawyers and technical expertise, or its exclusion from the
decisionmaking processes of federal and state government regulators. ese instances may involve argu-
ments rega rding addressing single versus multiple sources of contam ination as a result of short-term or
long-term exposure. ey may be disputes over which populations a re most aected by pollution—the
resident population, for example, or seasonal agricultural workers, or transients (individuals visiting shop-
ping centers, or minority youth having to play soccer on elds at a former municipal landll that reg ula-
tors know is contaminated). ey may involve the notion of proximity, that is, t he eects of pollution on
nearby populations, or the adverse health eects on populations living downstream from industrial plants,
or populations aected by o-site operations. And they may involve allegations that government regulators
are not enforcing environmental laws, regulations, and policies equa lly.
Whatever the situation, the premise of the environmental justice movement is that minority and/or
low-income individuals, c ommunities, and populations are disproportionately exposed to environmental
harms and risks. e question, then, is: Who in the community has addressed or has attempted to address
instances of environmental injustice, and what tactics have they employed, thus far, to be successful?
2.2 The Grassroots Environmental Justice Movement
To a large extent, t he mainstrea m environmental movement has been supported primarily by middle-to-
upper class whites.4 Moreover, the sta s of the major national environmental organizations are dispro-
portionately white and middle cla ss, as are their members.5 Historically, these organizations, such as the
Natural Resources Defense Council, the Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, and the National Wildlife
Federation, have focused on wilderness and wildlife preservation, wise resource use and management,
4. Robert D. Bullard, Anatomy of Environmental Racism and the Environmental Justice Movement, in C E R,
supra note 1, at 15-39, 22.
5. John H. Adams, e Mainstream Environmental Movement, EPA J., Mar./Apr. 1992, at 25. For a comprehensive examination of the lack of
diversity in mainstream nongovernmental organizations, foundations, and government agencies, see the report by Dorceta E. Taylor, Ph.D.,
e State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations ( July 2014), available at
Page 208 Environmental Justice: Legal Theory and Practice, 4th Edition
pollution abatement, and population control—not on goals of environmental justice.6 As Professor Bul-
lard has written: “For the most part, they have failed to adequately address environmental problems that
disproportionately impact people of c olor.7 Prof. David Hall of Northeastern University School of Law
has stated:
e same pas sion, leadership and insights that are needed to conquer the nagging a nd sometimes f rustrating
problems of environmental protection, are needed to overcome this society’s unfor tunate history of exclu-
sion, and its present reality of passive indierenc e. If we do not take this approach then we w ill end up in the
unfortunate position of having clean air, but a violent and segregated society. We will have saved the rainforest
but lost a generation of urban youth. We will have enforced our environmental laws, but disrespecte d the very
people those laws were passed to protect .8
In sum, the traditional environmental organizations have not made a strong connection between social
justice issues and environmental issues. According to an August 13, 2015, New Yorker article entitled Envi-
ronmentalism’s Racist History, the author stated:
When the Sierra Club polled its members, in 1972, on whether the club should “concern itself with the conser-
vation problems of such sp ecial groups as the urba n poor and minorities,” forty p er cent of respondents were
strongly opposed , and only f teen per cent were supportive. (e phrasi ng of the Question made the club’s
bias clear enough.) Admitti ng to its race problem took the movement nearly two decades. In 1987, the United
Church of Ch rist’s Commission for Racial Justice published an inuential report that found t hat hazardous
waste facilities were disproportionately located in minority communities, and cal led this unequal vulnerabi lity
“a form of racism.” e environmental movement, the report observed, “has historically been white middle
and upper-class.” ree years later, ac tivists sent a letter to the he ads of major environmenta l organizations,
claiming that non-whites were less tha n two per cent of the combined seven hundred and forty-ve employees
of the Audubon Society, Sierra Club, National R esources Defense Council, and Friends of the Earth. Fred
Krupp, then executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund, replied with a mea culpa: “Environmental
groups have done a miserable job of reaching out to minoritie s.
* * * *
Still, the major statutes, such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, were written with no attention
to the unequa l vulnerability of poor a nd minority groups. e priorities of t he old environmental movement
limit the eective legal strategies for act ivists today. And ac tivists acknowledge that persistent mist rust goes
beyond immediate conicts, such as the split over California’s climate change law, but can ma ke them more
dicult to resolve. [M itch] Bernard [director of litigation at t he NRDC] attributes some of the misgiv ings to
environmentalism’s history as an elite, white movement. A 2014 study found that whites occupied eighty-nine
per cent of leadership positions in environmenta l organizations.9
Professor Bullard has explained that “[t]he crux of the problem is that the mainstream environmental
movement has not suciently addressed the fact that social inequality and imbalances of social power are
at the heart of environmental degradation, resource depletion, pollution, and even overpopulation.”10
According to a December 7, 2016, article in e Atlantic magazine entitled Environmentalism Was Once
a Social-Justice Movement, the author wrote:
Environmental justice scholars and advocates have made three big criticisms of what they c all mainst ream
environmental law:
First, that it doesn’t speak to how environmental harms and benets are distributed, which is especial ly impor-
tant when distribution follows the lines of poverty and race.  is criticism comes f rom the grassroots ghts
6. Robert D. Bullard, Anatomy of Environmental Racism and the Environmental Justice Movement, in C E R,
supra note 1, at 22.
7. Id. at 30.
8. e Environmental Imperatives of Leadership and Diversity, Speech at the U.S. EPA Senior Executive Service Annual Conference (May 24,
9. Jedediah Purdy, Environmentalism’s Racist History, T N Y, Aug. 13, 2015.
10. Robert D. Bullard, Anatomy of Environmental Racism and the Environmental Justice Movement, in C E R,
supra note 1, at 23.
Growth of the Environmental Justice Movement: Organizing the Grassroots Page 209
that produced the environmental-justice movement: ghts about decisions to place garbage dumps, toxic waste
sites, incinerators, and power pla nts in neighborhoods where d isproportionately poor and non-white people
lived. e env ironmental statutes of t he 1970s accomplish many things, but t hey did not prohibit these dis-
proportionate impacts.
Second, e nvironmental justic e critics cha llenge the m ainstream env ironmental idea of what environme ntal
problems are in the rst place. ey say it’s focused on the beautiful outdoors, it has an anti-urban bias, it isn’t
engaged enough with art icial human env ironments like neighb orhoods and workplaces. As one important
pair of environmental justice schola rs-activists wrote, the environment we most care about should be “the
places where we live, work , learn, and play,” whether t hey are natu ral or built. And while more prosperous
people t end to ta ke clean and safe living spaces for granted a nd be able to esc ape to w ild places that feel
“ecological ’ or “natural,” poor people often have very little choice but to spend their lives in compromised
artic ial environments.
ird, critics say mainstream environmentalism over-values elite forms of advocacy, like litigat ion and hi gh-
level lobbying, and doesn’t make enough room for popular engagement. It creates a movement of professionals
and expert s: lawyers, economists, a nd ecologists who have limited interaction with, and do relati vely little to
empower, the people who live with the most severe environmenta l problems.11
Critics of the ma instream organizations contend that despite a ll their good work, these groups are not
well suited for the eorts by people of color to address instances of environmental injustice. e grassroots
groups pursuing environmental justice have been compelled to take action independent of the established
environmental orga nizations on environmental issues that are to them a matter of survival. One of the
foundations of the environmental justice movement is the dedication of its community-based activists.
A signicant goal of the environmental justice movement is the empowerment of grassroots communi-
ties and their community-based organizations. e question is: How successful, as a practica l matter, will
these minority and/or low-income grassroots community-based organizations be in changing land use pat-
terns; siting decisions; the activities of federal, state, and local environmental regulatory government agen-
cies with respect to policy, and the implementation of policy; as well as the private sector, etc., in addressing
their environmental justice concerns? e articles that follow discuss how grassroots activism has e volved
over time; the importance of religious institutions in the growth of the environmental justice movement;
and the various tactics that have been used by community-based environmental justice organizations to
have their environmental justice concerns addressed.
2.2.1 Grassroots Activism
e Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inev-
itable... . Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrice, suering, and str uggle; the tireless
exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” e struggle for environmental justice has pro-
duced many unique leaders w illing to ma ke personal sacrices to organize politically aga inst proposed or
existing loca lly undesirable land uses. Bec ause African American churches have long been a foca l point of
political activity in their communities, some community leaders have come out of neighborhood churches.
Professor Bullard has said: “In many instances, grassroots leaders emerged from groups of concerned citi-
zens (many of them women) who [saw] their families, homes and communities threatened by some type of
polluting industry or governmental policy.”12 Seeing such threats, many people of color began confronting
corporate and governmental authorities and demanding cha nge. Minority women have been especially
visible in the environmental justice movement. Hazel Johnson of Chicago’s infamous Altgeld Gardens, for
example, has been ghting environmental injustice for many years.
Altgeld Gardens is a 10,000-person housing project on Chicago’s Southside, built directly on top of a
landll that began operating in the 19th century. It is alleged that for more than 50 years the Pullman
11. Jedediah Purdy, Environmentalism was Once a Social-Justice Movement, A, Dec. 7, 2016, at
12. Robert D. Bullard, Anatomy of Environmental Racism, and the Environmental Justice Movement, in C E R,
supra note 1, at 8.

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