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#733 - The Environmental Movement -- Part 2:Failures And Successes, 12-Sep-2001

In this series, we are exploring the evolution of the modern
environmental movement, from about 1965 onward. The mainstream
environmental organizations with the largest budgets are
Environmental Defense, Natural Resources Defense Council,
National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, and Wilderness
Society. Since the late 1970s, a new environmental movement has
appeared. This "environmental justice" (EJ) movement is composed
of roughly five hundred locally-based groups. Descriptions of
many of these groups can be found among the 2700 organizations
now described on our web site, http://www.rachel.org.
(Environmental groups of all kinds are encouraged to add
themselves to our web site, thus helping to make the movement
visible. If you know of groups that we are missing, please send
E-mail to erf@rachel.org or call us toll-free at (888)

The vast majority of U.S. citizens -- roughly 80% -- express
strong support for environmental values,[1] yet most have never
allied themselves with either the traditional or the
environmental justice movements, so both movements are
politically weaker than they could be. An obvious question is,

Historically, many mainstream-professional environmentalists
have viewed humans mainly as a source of trouble. This view has
turned the nation's environmental agenda away from human
concerns. Some within the Sierra Club have now rejected this
view, but it remains widely held.

An excellent short history of the environmental movement has
recently been published by MIT Press: William Shutkin's THE LAND
THAT COULD BE. Shutkin observes, "...traditional
environmentalism has focused on places where very few of us
actually live and work, such as wilderness and national parks,
while overlooking densely populated areas like cities and
suburbs." [2, pg. 127]

Shutkin goes on to say, "Left out of the [traditional
environmental] movement have been the people themselves and the
environmental issues that, quite literally, hit home -- local
issues like lack of open space, brownfields [contaminated urban
sites] , asthma brought on by air pollution, and other
environmental problems endemic to many American communities....
Local communities and constituencies have been relegated to the
back burner by both the public interest environmental
establishment and the environmental law and policy system
itself."[2, pg. 120]

Importantly, mainstream-professional environmentalists have
traditionally viewed community development and economic
development as incompatible with environmental protection, thus
turning their backs on the bread-and-butter concerns of a
majority of Americans -- the working class, the poor, and people
of color.

Shutkin: "Despite the importance of economic investment and
employment opportunities to overall community health, including
environmental protection and the availability of environmentally
sustainable production methods, these issues have not risen to
prominence among mainstream-professional environmentalists.
Similarly, the movement has failed to address the persistent
segregation of communities along racial lines, which has
resulted in the continuing development of suburban and rural
areas, with the associated environmental costs." [2,

The mainstream-professional environmental movement has not only
ignored the importance of economic development and the corrosive
effects of persistent racism, it has also solidified and
institutionalized a system of environmental protection designed
(intentionally or not) to funnel pollutants into poor
communities. As attorney Luke Cole has written,

"Environmental laws are not designed by or for poor people. The
theory and ideology behind environmental laws ignores the
systemic genesis of pollution. Environmental statutes actually
legitimate the pollution of low-income neighborhoods." [3, pg.

Cole goes on, "Mainstream environmentalists see pollution as the
FAILURE of government and industry -- if the environmentalists
could only shape up the few bad apples, our environment would be
protected. But grassroots activists come to view pollution as
the SUCCESS of government and industry, success at industry's
primary objective: maximizing profits by externalizing
environmental costs. Pollution of our air, land, and water that
is literally killing people is often not in violation of
environmental laws...." [3, pg. 643]

Because mainstream-professional environmentalism excluded other
key concerns of the working class, the poor and minorities, a
new approach to environmental protection began to emerge in the
U.S. in the late 1970s.

This new approach -- environmental justice -- focuses on the
environments in which people live, work, and play, and it
assumes that environmental protection and justice require a
political struggle against corporations. It also recognizes that
environmental protection requires us to engage, defend, and
rebuild our communities. Paragraph 12 of the 1991 Principles of
Environmental Justice said, "Environmental justice affirms the
need for urban and rural ecological policies to clean up and
rebuild our cities and rural areas in balance with nature,
honoring the cultural integrity of all our communities, and
providing fair access for all to the full range of resources."

In practice the EJ movement has had considerable success keeping
bad projects, such as garbage incinerators, out of poor
communities and communities of color. And it has established the
principle that everyone has the right to a clean environment.

As a result of EJ advocacy (and similar work by grass-roots
groups overseas), the right to a clean environment is now
becoming recognized as a basic human right.[5] In April of this
year the United Nations Commission on Human Rights declared
formally that, "Everyone has the right to live in a world free
from toxic pollution and environmental degradation." In
announcing this new human rights declaration, Claus Toepfer,
executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme,
said, "It is time to recognize that those who pollute or destroy
the natural environment are not just committing a crime against
nature, but are violating human rights as well."[5] This
declaration transforms the main concern of the EJ movement --equal
protection against environmental harms -- into an
international norm. By any standard, this is an important and
lasting achievement of the EJ movement.

Furthermore, some EJ groups have made the difficult transition
from environmental protection to community protection and
economic development. Some EJ groups now own and manage housing
units, computer-training labs, urban gardens, farmers' markets,
and restaurants. Some EJ groups have taken control of the
community planning process. Thus the EJ movement is beginning to
take on projects that have very wide appeal, indeed -- far
beyond the purview of traditional environmentalists. (We'll
discuss this further in Part 3.)

William Shutkin makes the point that mainstream-professional
environmentalism has failed -- even within its own terms --because it
evolved a style of advocacy that failed to mobilize
the democratic participation of affected people everywhere.
"With its direct mail machinery, centralized structure, and
top-down decision making, mainstream-professional
environmentalism has cultivated a largely passive constituency
and in the process has stripped itself of the ability to
activate and inspire robust political participation and civic
engagement, the very forces that can hold decision makers
accountable, prevent environmental harms, and institute local
and regional environmental strategies...." [2, pgs. 122-123]

Essentially, mainstream-professional environmentalism failed to
appreciate the importance of natural and social assets in
creating and maintaining robust communities:

Shutkin again: "...[E] nvironmental assets like mass
transportation, parks, and tree-lined walkways are paid for by
public funds, and they require ongoing public investment for
their maintenance and upgrade. Such assets constitute a
significant part of the country's public spaces -- the physical
infrastructure that allows people to come together, associate
face to face, and engage in civic activities. Without them, our
communities possess none of the physical resources that allow
civic life to be expressed. In essence, environmental assets are
the enabling mechanisms for civic culture." [2, pgs. 125-126]

But it's a two-way street: in our cities and towns,
environmental amenities are the enabling mechanism for civic
life, but active civic participation is essential for the
maintenance of local environments. Once again, William Shutkin:

"Most Americans have lost touch not only with their neighbors,
but [also with] the physical places where they live and work --their
environment. In the course of an ordinary day, week, or
month, many of us have little direct involvement in the civic
life of our communities, nor do we enjoy ready access to a safe,
quality environment. The two are causally connected. As a public
good, a healthy physical environment demands informed, active
public participation in local decision making to ensure that the
private sector, government, and even one's own neighbors do not
undermine long-term environmental gains in their pursuit of
short-term narrow ends." [2, pg. 126]

Sociologist Manuel Pastor, Jr., draws out the implications of
these ideas, as follows:

Whereas many environmental justice battles of the past have
focused on stopping harmful and inequitable projects,
community-based grass-roots groups can also "offer hope for a
more positive and harmonious vision of the social good." Pastor
sees at least two major benefits from this larger
community-development approach:

(1) "... Claiming the right to clean air and water can be the
beginning of a community movement to deploy natural assets in
the service of community-based wealth creation [for example, in
urban farms and gardens] ."

(2) Once a community asserts its right to a clean environment,
it is a short step to asserting a right to other "social
resources" such as schools, housing, open space, and employment.

Pastor concludes that -- without diminishing in any way the
accomplishments of the environmental justice movement in
opposing the placement of toxic hazards in communities of color
and poor communities -- environmental justice activism can go
further, becoming "an important part of the general
community-building movement." [6, pgs. 1-3]

No doubt William Shutkin would agree with Pastor on this point.
In THE LAND THAT COULD BE Shutkin has described one version of
this larger community development approach, which he calls
"civic environmentalism," our subject for Part 3.

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] Willett Kempton and others, ENVIRONMENTAL VALUES IN AMERICAN
CULTURE (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995; paperback edition, 1996).
ISBN 0262611236. And see the many opinion polls reported at:

The MIT Press, 2000; paperback edition October, 2001). ISBN

[3] Luke W. Cole, "Empowerment as the Key to Environmental
Protection: The Need for Environmental Poverty Law." ECOLOGY LAW
QUARTERLY Vol. 19 (1992), pgs. 642-643.

[4] United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice. 1992.
LEADERSHIP SUMMIT. New York: United Church of Christ Commission
for Racial Justice. The Principles of Environmental Justice are
available at: http://www.ejrc.cau.edu/princej.html .

[5] UNEP [United Nations Environment Programme] , "Living in a
Pollution-Free World A Basic Human Right" [press release No. 01/-49]
(Nairobi, Kenya: United Nations Environment Programme, April
27, 2001). Available at http://www.unep.org/Documents/Default.asp?
DocumentID=197&ArticleID=2819. For more information,
contact Jim Sniffen, Information Officer, United Nations
Environment Programme, in New York at (212) 963-8210. Thanks to
Limour Alouf for this information.

Working Paper No. DPE-01-02] . Amherst, Mass.: University of
Massachusetts, Amherst, Political Economy Research Institute,