To operate an industrial economy, a certain amount of pollution seems like a price you’ll always have to pay. Or is it?
Not according to Robert Bullard, the father of environmental justice.
Asserting that people of color have suffered more than white people from industrial pollution, Bullard and other community activists were some of the earliest environmentalists calling for a 100% clean economy.
In 1991, environmental justice advocates held a summit meeting in Washington, DC, where they passed a list of Principles for Environmental Justice that are as bold as anything from climate activists today. For example, take Principle 6:
Environmental justice demands the cessation of the production of all toxins, hazardous wastes, and radioactive materials, and that all past and current producers be held strictly accountable to the people for detoxification and the containment at the point of production.
Wow. Just think about what this means.
They’re not just asking for fewer toxics, or better testing of chemicals before they’re released, or better disposal of toxic waste, or even more fair distribution of polluting facilities, such as making sure that industry spreads trash incinerators, oil refineries and pipelines around the place evenly by race and income of communities.
They’re asking for no pollution anywhere, ever. Then, they’re asking to clean up whatever pollution is still out there.
That’s big. And yet, given the state of clean technology today, a toxic-free economy may be more practical than most people think. In any event, if you’re serious about environmental justice, then no-pollution-anywhere is ultimately the only logical solution.
Their other principles affirmed by the first People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit nearly 30 years ago still sound bold today, and they also make good sense today. Among other things, these principles assert that “Mother Earth is sacred,” that victims of pollution deserve compensation and that workers shouldn’t have to choose between unsafe jobs or unemployment.
All 17 principles are reprinted at the end of The Quest for Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution, a collection of essays edited by Bullard, an academic researcher, author of 18 books on sustainable development and co-founder of the Climate Change Consortium for Historically Black Colleges and Universities. In 2008, Newsweek named him one of 13 Environmental Leaders of the Century.
Though published in 2005, The Quest for Environmental Justice makes a connection between race, pollution and climate that couldn’t be more timely today as America and the world seem to be entering a new civil rights movement spurred by the death of George Floyd and other black and brown people at the hands of police.
Unfortunately, some of the book’s case studies are now outdated. Some of the places that successfully resisted dirty plants in the past have now had to face a new round of industry trying to site polluting facilities in the same communities. This proves the validity of Bullard’s complaint: dirty industrial facilities are still overwhelmingly located in places where people of color predominate.
“Why do some communities get dumped on while others don’t? Why are environmental regulations vigorously enforced in some communities and not in other communities?” These are the questions that motivate Bullard’s book.
Stories of communities that have been dumped on attempt to provide answers. Many of these communities are found in the American South, a particular target for corporations to site polluting facilities. Because of the region’s poverty and history of overt racial discrimination, “by default, the region became an environmental sacrifice zone, a dump for the rest of the nation’s toxic waste,” according to Beverly Wright, author of the book’s chapter “Living and Dying in Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley’.”
Cancer Alley, Louisiana
“Cancer Alley,” an 85-mile long strip of more than 150 oil refineries, chemical plants and plastics factories located along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Known for its unhealthy air and water, activists recently rebranded the area as “Death Alley.”
Probably not by accident, before it became known for dirty factories, the rural area was home to many black communities. Some of these are historic, founded by emancipated enslaved people and dating back to the years after the Civil War.
Local residents get few benefits from the industry placed in their communities — jobs and economic development are often promised but seldom delivered. But local communities of color do bear the brunt of the costs. These include fouled air, water, and land, along with devastation to historic sites like burial grounds for the enslaved located on former plantations.
Ironically, many dirty industrial plants in Cancer Alley are located on property formerly hosting plantations. Economically, that’s because the area’s sugar planting economy declined in the mid-20th century. But it’s also symbolic, drawing a historical line of oppression directly from slavery to Jim Crow and sharecropping to industrial pollution.
With all the studies that Bullard and his co-authors present, it’s hard to deny that dirty plants are unfairly distributed in communities of color, despite denials from industry and government officials.
Writers of the book’s chapter on Cancer Alley and chapters on other examples of environmental racism across the U.S. and beyond also document well the health impacts of pollution: high rates of cancer, asthma, and other diseases.
Four Decades of Environmental Justice
Bullard has been documenting such cases for four decades. He still continues to write and speak about how government regulators and big corporations continue to act as if black and brown people don’t have the “complexion for protection” from industrial pollution.
At age 73, Bullard is still pulling no punches. For example, last year he published a blog post entitled “Time for Whites to Stop Dumping Their Pollution on People of Color.”
In The Quest for Environmental Justice, Bullard’s narrative is encouraging. He shows how the environmental justice movement has finally become a powerful force to protect communities, and he lists numerous examples of success along with names of organizations, university centers for study, laws and regulations, and public interest legal efforts that have helped many communities beat back polluters and get money to clean up their mess or relocate residents.
“Out of small and seemingly isolated environmental struggles emerged a potent grassroots movement,” bringing together people across “race, class, gender, age, and geographic lines,” he wrote in 2005.
In just two decades, the grassroots environmental movement has spread across the globe. The call for environmental justice can be heard from Chicago’s South Side to Johannesburg’s Soweto. The environmental justice movement is largely a response to environmental injustice. All around the world, groups are challenging the transboundary waste trade, “blood for oil” deals, environmental racism, nonsustainable development, and globalization.
But The Quest for Environmental Justice shows that the environmental justice story is also sobering.
Fifteen years after its publication, many of the same communities whose victories are celebrated in the book have since had to face new threats from industrial polluters. For example, back in Louisiana, chemical and plastics plants are still being built on Cancer Alley. A new generation of residents has tried to beat them off. Sometimes they’ve been successful. And sometimes not.
The stories of local citizen-activists are inspiring. Yet, the war goes on. Against such well funded opponents as multinational dirty energy and chemical corporations — who continue to be able to buy off state and local officials at far too low a price — it is hard to see an end to the conflict in sight unless the residents surrender.
Let’s hope that that will never happen. Or at least let’s hope that the communities will hold out until something else changes in this picture.
That change will need to come from the outside. That’s because it’s not communities of color in Louisiana or North Carolina or even Nigeria or South Africa profiled in The Quest for Environmental Justice who are creating a huge demand for oil, chemicals and plastics. It’s the rest of us.
Nothing Less than a 100% Clean Economy
When dirty industries tried to locate in primarily white communities in the 1960s or 1970s, residents were able to fight back with NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard). Industry got the message and responded with their own Plan B: PIBBY (Place In Blacks’ Back Yards).
This was never right. But those of us who lived outside the designated “sacrifice zones” could more easily avert our gaze from pollution and its damage to public health. After all, pollution has to go somewhere, right? At least it’s not in my neighborhood.
A better understanding of ecology (things really are all connected) and the behavior of dirty air and water (it moves around!) should have been enough to help mainstream environmentalists see that pollution anywhere means pollution everywhere. But maybe it took this year’s Black Lives Matter protests to finally make the plight of communities on the front line of toxic industries a concern for anyone who cares about climate, energy and pollution.
As consumers, we already knew we needed to cut back. Here’s just another reason to use less oil and gas — and also less plastic.
And as citizens, we all must work to create a clean economy where factories no longer create toxic pollution. That’s a tall order, but in the 15 years since Bullard’s book came out, technology advances make a 100% clean economy much more doable.
For years, the mainstream environmental movement was focused on preserving wilderness and paid little or no attention to protecting the environment in areas already impacted by industry.
But it’s those very industrial areas, argues the book’s chapter on Environmental Reparations, that pose the biggest threat to Americans’ health. Cities have concentrated populations, and so more people suffer from polluting facilities in cities. Also, people in the suburbs are not immune. Air and water pollution are mobile, after all, and toxic chemicals don’t always stay where they were originally dumped.
Fortunately, most of the votes are in cities and towns where people live in large numbers. And that’s a cause for hope, if only people who care about the environment can change their mindset.
The environment is not something you need to travel to find someplace far away like in Yosemite or on the Appalachian Trail. The environment is the air, water and land in the neighborhoods where we all live. And people — black, brown, white, and every other color — are also part of the environment.
The environmental justice movement should be proud of the progress it’s made over the last 40 years and Bullard deserves much of the credit. His book has retained its ability to move the rest of us to help this necessary movement to continue to move forward.
In 2006, the year after The Quest for Environmental Justice came out, Bullard did an interview with Grist about what kept him going:
People who fight…People who do not let the garbage trucks and the landfills and the petrochemical plants roll over them. That has kept me in this movement for the last 25 years. And in the last 10 years, we’ve been winning: lawsuits are being won, reparations are being paid, apologies are being made. These companies have been put on notice that they can’t do this anymore, anywhere.