Environmental Justice: The Invisible Hand and the Invisible Man

Ed Note: Today we kick off a new series on Environmental Justice, presented by Skeo. Please take a look at Skeo’s free whitepaper “Innovative Strategies for Neighborhood Revitalization in Environmental Justice Communities,” and follow along with the series here.

env justiceBy Cheryl Little and Michael Hancox

Environmental injustice in the U.S. is about the collision of two powerful forces: the invisible hand of the market and the phenomenon of the Invisible Man, which novelist Ralph Ellison depicts as the American dilemma of racial bias that clouds the true view of people’s value and shared aspirations for a good life.

The invisible hand, a metaphor invented by Adam Smith in the late 1700s and a prevailing symbol of free market economics, describes how individuals maximize their good through trade and entrepreneurship. In turn, society prospers as an unintended consequence of many people pursuing their own interests. But if you live in an environmentally distressed community, you have a sharp understanding of how the market has failed you, and that the invisible hand has burdened your community with the true costs, the externalities, of economic actions, while neglecting to share the benefits. On top of this, insufficient capital in your community makes it tough to participate fully in the market economy.

Two sides of the same coin: Environmental justice and equitable development

Pollution is deeply localized rather than evenly distributed. Many of the most impacted places are communities of low-income people, people of color, and tribes. Environmental justice asserts that no group of people – regardless of race, color, national origin, or income – should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental and commercial operations or land use decisions.

Environmental challenges in these communities are aggravated by a legacy of biased land use decisions, economic disinvestment, declining physical infrastructure, and social and market isolation. New capital and investment are critical for recovery. Equitable development emphasizes that all individuals should enjoy access to the social, environmental, and economic opportunities resulting from economic development and land use decisions. This means that overall investments and resources are spent fairly and create equal opportunity for everyone to participate in the economy.

Invisible communities in plain sight

Over the past 25 years, the relationships between race, income and environmental pollution have come into sharper focus thanks to publicly accessible census data, desktop computing, GIS mapping, and community activism. In 1987, the landmark report, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States asked the question: What predicts the location of hazardous waste facilities and toxic waste sites? The study found that race and ethnicity proved to be the dominant predictor, even accounting for income.

That same year, the Brundtland Commission’s report, Our Common Future, defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Just as important as intergenerational equity, the Toxic Wastes and Race report affirmed the importance of geographic equity among people and communities. Since the 1987 report, environmental justice has been the subject of numerous studies confirming disproportionate environmental burdens on low-income people, people of color and tribes.

There are hundreds of communities in the U.S. where environmental, economic and social concerns are knotted together. There are former manufacturing towns replaced by ghost cities, such as Gary and Detroit, pockmarked by landfills, contaminated sites, crumbling buildings and vacant properties; rural towns struggling with population loss and economic isolation while also dealing with abandoned mines and mills, aging water infrastructure and pesticide pollution; tribal lands where residents are grappling with pollution from mining and waste facilities while also confronting staggeringly high unemployment, overcrowded housing and cultural stress.

In these places, many forms of capital – financial, natural, social, human, and built – have been depleted without reinvestment while new opportunities are being severely overlooked. Many communities are striving to overcome legacies of biased political and economic decisions –discriminatory zoning, redlining, restrictive housing covenants, workforce discrimination, discriminatory financing, community disinvestment – that have reinforced race and class segregation, and hobbled competition and entrepreneurship.

Establishing relationships between markets and people

Markets are not just about the exchange of currency for goods and services. They are not even just about jobs that will allow people to thrive, not just survive, by providing living wages and benefits. As Amartya Sen, the Nobel-prize winning economist, noted in Development as Freedom, markets are an important way that human beings in a society interact and connect with each other. So when we see shuttered main streets in small towns; food deserts in central cities; decommissioned malls and strip malls in inner ring suburbs; and high unemployment rates on some tribal lands of up to 80 percent, we also know that vital human relationships and connections are damaged or missing. Adam Smith, as well, recognized that the virtues of prudence and “humanity, generosity, and public spirit” were necessary to keep markets and society prospering.

Communities suffering from environmental injustice and economic collapse are clear examples of market (and government) failures, but they also represent an enormous opportunity to grow our economy and expand domestic markets. One environmental activist in Jacksonville, Florida describes her neighborhood as being “like a third world country” lacking the infrastructure of a healthy economy. We need to see environmental justice communities not as the inevitable consequence of capitalism, but like underdeveloped countries where they, with the proper investments in capital, could become thriving new markets for goods and services and support the aspirations of their residents.

Businesses, particularly those already concerned about sustainability, can benefit enormously from the market opportunities that exist in the sustainable and equitable redevelopment of distressed communities. Businesses can also play a significant role in their economic and environmental renewal. What’s needed is greater transparency of actions, a focus on overcoming biases, and clarity of vision so that the invisible forces of markets and people can be clearly seen and constructively engaged for the benefit of everyone.

[image credit: uusc4all: Flickr cc]

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