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LeahBader
Geography030
Dr.BrianKing
15December2014
SacrificeZonesandtheConceptofEnvironmentalInjustice
LernersmaingoalinwritingSacrificeZones:TheFrontLinesofToxicChemical
ExposureintheUnitedStateswastopaintamorehumanpictureoftheplethoraof
residentslivingwithinthethousandsofcommunitiesexposedtotoxicchemicals,
effectivelyaddingtheirvoicetothepublicdialogueofenvironmentalinjustice.He
illustrates,ingreatdetail,theconditionsoftheirdailylives,themethodologyusedto
organizegrassrootscampaignsinattempttoimprovetheirqualityoflife,andthe
commonalitiesbetweenthesevariouscommunities.Hepresentstwelvedifferentcase
studiesofcontaminatedcommunitiesaroundtheUnitedStates,discussingthecausesof
disproportionateexposuretotoxicchemicals,aswellas,theratherlargeloopholesinthe
federalregulatorysystemthatallowchemicalcontaminationinresidentialareasto
continue(Lerner).Lernergraphicallydescribesanddrawsattentiontotheenvironmental
injusticecurrentlyoccurringwithinthefencelinecommunitiesknownassacrifice
zonesintheUnitedStates.Iwillattempttodisputehischargesofenvironmentalracism
asgreatlyoverdramatizedandsensationalized,critiquethesimplesolutionsheputs
forward,andattempttoconstructamorewholesomeideaoftheconceptsof
environmentaljusticeandenvironmentalinjustice.

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Withinthebook,Lernerexhibitstwelve,differentsacrificezoneswithresidents
livingdirectlyadjacenttoheavilypollutingplantsofassortedindustrieswho,after
comingincontactwithinnumerablegallonsoftoxicchemicals,havereachedapushback
point.ThejourneytotakeactionstartswithwhatLernercallsarudeawakeningthe
momentofawfulsurprisewhenresidentsfinallyrealizethattheyhavebeenexposedto
elevatedlevelsofhazardouschemicals,sometimesforyears,andinsomecases,for
decades.Afterthissuddenepiphany,thesefencelinecommunitiesoftenstartasking
questions,butratherthanfindingtheanswersthattheyrightfullydeserve,residentsare
morecommonlygiventherunaroundfromofficialsandrarelyobtainstraight,true
responses.Thispromotesdistrustbetweenthecommunity,federalregulatoryagencies,
andthecorporations,creatingtheperfectrecipeforgrassrootsorganizationstospringup
andgaintraction.Theseorganizationsareoftenledbycommunityfiguresadeptatpublic
speaking,respectedwithinthecommunity,andwhofamiliarizethemselveswith
regulatoryjargonandbecomeamateurepidemiologists.Reachingouttoexternal
organizationstohelpthemtestforcontaminationandpetitionforchange,these
grassrootscampaignsslowlyobtainenoughscientificandanecdotaldata,aswellas
support,tocauserealchangeinthewaytheoffendingplantoperates.Usuallythis
outcomeisafinefortheviolatingcorporation,thepurchaseofnewpollutioncontrolling
technology,or,inextremecases,theclosureoftheplant(Lerner).
Lernerargues,quiteemphatically,thatthecauseofdisproportionatehazardous
chemicalexposureisduetoracialandclassdiscrimination.WhileLernerverybriefly
acknowledgesthataffluenceandwealthplayaclearroleincharacterizingsacrifice

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zones,healmostsolelyfocusesonandferventlyarguesthatenvironmentalracismis
runningrampantthroughthesefencelinecommunities.Thisconceptisunderlined
continuouslyandpersistentlywithextremelystrongandintenseopinions,thatasareader,
Ifelt,wereatsomepoints,forced.Thisinflammatoryattitude,whichplaysatheme
throughoutthebook,isbestsummedupbytheveryfirsttwosentencesoftheforeword
writtenbyPhilBrown:
Inastratifiedsocietywhereraceandclassseparateindividuals,neighborhoods,
andwholecommunities,peopleofcoloralwaysknowthattheirhomes,roads,
schools,utilities,parksandballfields,sanitationservices,andpoliceprotection
areinferiortowhiterandwealthierplaces.Soithasnotbeenabigleapforthem
toseethatsimilarinequalityexistsinenvironmentalcontamination.(Lernerix)
Iwillarguethatthisconceptofwidespread,severeenvironmentalracismisamyth.
Whileenvironmentalracismmostlikelydoesexisttosomeextent,casesofrealracismin
environmentalcontextsaremoreexceedinglyrarethanLernerwouldleadhisreadersto
believe.Trueenvironmentaldiscriminationfocusesonaffluenceandwealth,notrace.
Ofhistwelvecasestudies,onlyonecommonalitypersistedthroughoutallofthe
communitiesalowincomepopulation.Whilewealthdisparitybetweenthese
communitiesstillexistsofvaryingdegreesandseverity,allofthesacrificezoneswere
inhabitedbypeoplerangingfromthelowermiddleclasstothoselivingbelowthe
povertyline.Ibelievethatthischaracteristic,affluence,isthedefiningfactoroffence
linecommunities.

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Tostart,thepatternofminorityraceslivingwithinsacrificezonesshouldnotbe
surprisingwhenthedistinguishingfeatureofthesecommunitiesiswealth.Though
terrible,andanissuethatneedstobeaddressedwithinourcountrywhenmoving
forward,thesimpletruthisthatminoritiesoverwhelminglymakeupthelowerclassesof
Americansociety.Racialandethnicminorities,women,children,andfamilieswitha
singleparentaremorelikelytobeinpovertyorbeconsideredinthelowincome
classification.IntheUnitedStates,25%ofHispanicsand27.2%ofAfricanAmericans
livebelowthepovertyline,comparedtoonly9.7%ofwhites(NationalCenterforLaw
andEconomicJustice).Withthesetypesofstatistics,thepatternofracial
discriminationthatLernerclaims,iseasilyexplainedandtherealrootoftheproblem,
classdiscrimination,becomesmuchmoreapparent.
Anotherwaytorecognizethatclassdiscriminationisthetrueprejudiceatplayis
through2010censusdata.Asstatedbefore,Lernerusestwelvefencelinecommunities,
allofwhichhepaintsasdisadvantaged,lowincome,minoritycommunities.Thispicture
isincompleteandmisrepresented.Outofthetwelvecommunitiespresented,onlythreeof
themaretrulyminoritycommunities.Lernerforgetstomentionthisthroughouthiscase
studiesashelabelslevelsofdisproportionateexposureasracialdiscriminationtoward
minorities,wheninfact,Caucasiansmakeupthemajorityofthepopulationinallof
thesecommunities,butthreePortArthur,Texas,St.LawrenceIsland,Alaska,andDaly
City,California.Furthermore,onlyoneofthesethreecommunitieshasamajority
minoritypopulationofAfricanAmericans(theracialgroupLernersuggestsis
discriminatedagainstmostcommonly)(UnitedStatesCensusBureau).

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Lernersbookdoesalottoadvancethetopicofenvironmentaldiscriminationin
publicdiscourse,andwhileIagreethatthisdiscriminationisoccurringthroughoutthe
UnitedStatesandthatthousandsofunsuspectingpeoplearebearingthebruntoftoxic
chemicalexposurethatisnecessarytosupportAmericaseconomyandconsumers,I
fundamentallydisagreethatthemotivatorforthisdiscriminationisrace.Throughoutthe
book,Lernerassemblesadecisivecasetosupporthisargumentofracialdiscrimination,
butwhenresearchedandlookedinto,thesupportingpiecesofhiscasefallapartand
crumble.Theminoritycommunitiesexperiencingtheexposureare,afterall,noteven
minoritycommunities(UnitedStatesCensusBureau).Nottomentionwhenthereisan
increasedincidenceofminorityneighborhoodsorahigherpercentageofminoritiesbeing
exposedtoelevatedlevelsofhazardouschemicals,thesituationcanbeeasilyexplained
bytheneighborhoodslevelofwealthandclassificationaslowincomecommunities.
Unfortunately,asofrightnow,intheUnitedStates,thereisacorrelationbetweenlow
incomecommunitiesandminoritypopulationresidents(NationalCenterforLawand
EconomicJustice).
Neartheconclusionofthebook,Lernerproposesafewsimplesolutionsthathe
latchesontoandswearsbytoresolveenvironmentalinjustice.Iagreethatsolutionsneed
tobesoughtafter,buttheresolutionshepresentsareflawedandimpractical.First,Lerner
suggeststhattheUnitedStatesincreasesandintensifiesfederalregulatorystandardson
emissionstolimitexposuretotoxicchemicalsandpollution(Lerner300).WhileIconcur
thatthisisastepintherightdirection,ifnotonlyfromapublichealthperspective,but
fromanenvironmentalperspective,Iwonderifthiswouldbeeffectiveinprotecting

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fencelinecommunities,whenoften,itisdiscoveredthattheplantsexposingpeopleto
toxicsareviolatingthepreexistingregulatorystandardsinsomeway.Healsoproposes
thatbetterlawsneedtobeenactedtoallowgrassrootscampaignstoholdneighboring
industriesmoreaccountablefortheiractionsincourt(Lerner307).Onthesurface,this
ideaseemsideal.Afterall,iftherearemoresevereconsequences,includingpossible
convictionsattrial,thenindustrieswillbelesslikelytocommitchemicaltrespassevents.
However,Lerneradvocatesforlawsthatdonotrequireresidentstoprovethattheir
adversehealtheffectsaretheresultoftoxicexposure.Thiswouldopenthedoortoallow
thejusticesystemtobeimmenselytakenadvantageofbypotentiallythousandsof
people.Ahigherincidenceofhealthproblemsincommunitiesdoesnotmeanthecauseis
toxicchemicalexposure(correlationdoesnotequalcausation).WhileIsympathizewith
residentsandtheirplight,duetothedifficultyofprovingacausallinkbetweenthetwo,
wecannotallowlawsuitsoverpossibleoriginsofnegativehealtheffectstoresultin
convictionsandcharges.
Lastly,Lernersuggestswestopputtingthesepollutingindustriesincommunities
thatlackinfrastructuretoprotestthem(Lerner304).MyquestionforLerneristhen,
Wheredoweputthem?Thiscanbedescribedasachickenortheeggproblem.For
example,partofthereasonlowincomecommunitiessurroundpollutingindustrialplants
isbecausetheplantslowerthepropertyvalueandoffersteadyemployment,allowing
lowincomefamiliesaffordablehousingandjobs.Insomecommunities,itcouldbe
arguedthattheplantwastherefirstandthatlowincomecommunitiesdevelopedaround
it,drawntotheareabytheattractivefeaturestheplanthadtooffer.So,whichcamefirst?

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Thepollutingindustrialplant?Orthelowincomecommunitiessurroundingit?Also,the
reasontheplantsareoftenplacedincommunitiesthatlacktheinfrastructuretoprotest
themisbecausecommunitiesthatpossesstheabilitytoobjecttothem,almostalways
exercisethatright.Therehavebeenattemptstoplacehazardouschemicalplantsinmore
affluentneighborhoods,buttheproposalsarealmostalwaysrejected.Wehavetooperate
theseplantssomewheretheyarevitaltosustainingoureconomy,andrightnow,low
incomecommunitiesaretheonlylocationsthatareviable.
Robbins,Hintz,andMooredefineenvironmentaljusticeasaprinciple,aswellas
abodyofthoughtandresearch,stressingtheneedforequitabledistributionof
environmentgoodsandbadsbetweenpeople,nomattertheirrace,ethnicity,orgender.
LernersbookemphasizestheneedforenvironmentaljusticeintheUnitedStates,while
illustratingtheextentofenvironmentalinjusticeoccurring,definedbythetextbookasa
conditionwhereunhealthfulordangerousconditionsaredisproportionatelyproximateto
minoritycommunities,(Robbins,Hintz,andMoore318).IagreewithboththeRobbins,
Hintz,andMooretextbookandLernersbookthatenvironmentaljusticeshouldbea
priorityconcern,toensureequalityforallAmericancitizens,butIopposebothoftheir
viewsthattheenvironmentalinjusticehappeningcurrentlyiscenteredinminority
communities.Thetextbookdefinitionofenvironmentalinjusticeactuallyincludesthe
phraseproximatetominoritycommunities.Doesthismeanthatsituationsincluding
white,affluentcommunitiesdisproportionatelyexposedtounhealthfulordangerous
conditionsdonotqualifyasenvironmentalinjustice?Ifindthistobediscriminatoryas
well.Allthingsconsidered,becauseacommunityhasthecharacteristicsofwhiteand

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affluentdoesnotmeantheinjusticethereisanyless,despitetherarityofthe
circumstance.Bothenvironmentaljusticeandinjusticeneedtoberedefinedtoincludeall
residentsoftheUnitedStates,notjustmarginalizedgroups,andshouldbeconcentrated
onthemaincauseoftoxicchemicalexposureinequalityclassdiscrimination.
Inconclusion,whileLernersbookprovesenvironmentaldiscriminationofsome
kind,thechargeoframpantenvironmentalracismappearstobeoverzealous.Thereasons
mostofthecommunitiesarebeingdiscriminatedagainstinthesecontextsareaffluence
andincomelevelclassification,notraceorethnicity.Wemustalsotakeintoaccountthat
theseinequalitiesanddisproportionatelevelsofexposurehavemanyfactorsaffecting
themandcannotbefixedbysimplesolutions.Whileracialdiscriminationisalwaysa
concern,thecurrentconceptsofenvironmentaljusticeandinjusticeareentirelytoo
specific,focusedonminoritygroups,andshouldbeexpandedtoincludeallUnitedStates
residents,nomatterraceorethnicity.

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WorksCited
Lerner,Steve.SacrificeZones:TheFrontLinesofToxicChemicalExposureinthe
UnitedStates.Cambridge,MA:MIT,2010.Print.
NationalCenterforLawandEconomicJustice."PovertyintheUnitedStates:A
Snapshot."PovertyintheUnitedStates:ASnapshot.UnitedStateCensusBureau,
n.d.Web.14Dec.2014.
Robbins,Paul,JohnHintz,andSarahA.Moore.EnvironmentandSociety:ACritical
Introduction,CriticalIntroductionstoGeography.WestSussex:Wiley,2014.
Print.
UnitedStatesCensusBureau."AmericanFactFinder."AmericanFactFinder.United
StateCensusBureau,n.d.Web.14Dec.2014.