Category Archives: Environmental Rights and Justice

Occasionally, Things Go Right

Donghra Villager

One of the challenges I’ve found in talking about environmental justice occurs when justice claims seem to oppose economic ‘development.’  In short, marginalized people around the world too often find their claims about appropriate land use policies and practices ignored or outright dismissed if these claims contradict large-scale industrial development.  For example, in the video below, the Dongria Kondh tribe in India tried to block the onset of open-pit bauxite mining sponsored by the transnational company Vedanta.  The Indian federal government and Vedanta made fairly similar arguments – opposition was ‘irrational,’ particularly since the arguments made by the Dongria Kondh seemed to rest so much on emotional, religious and cultural appeals.  Surely, these should matter little to the possibility of GDP growth, modernization, and capitalist development.  This is something we’ve seen before, including in this country.

However, the Dongria Kondh remained unconvinced: refusing to compromise on their vision of the sacred nature of the mountain, the tribe remained steadfast in their opposition to mining.  As described in this article by the Telegraph, one of the major villages, Lakhapadar, voted to ban mining in a move that was recognized as legitimate by the Indian Supreme Court.

While the Indian villagers are not convinced that this ban is permanent, it still represents a hope that even the marginalized, if supported by legal institutions, can have a positive impact on environmental practices as linked to social justice.

People, the Environment, and Garrett Hardin’s Eugenics

The Population of Asia


I find this to be an interesting map, because there are a few different ways to interpret the data (which seem pretty accurate), that reflect how you think about people and the environment.  The first is that the population of East and Southeast Asia is massive, and still growing.  Since our environmental impact is a product of our population, affluence (or rate of consumption), and use of technology – or I = PAT for short – we could say that the population of East and Southeast Asia is alarming.

This is a logical connection to make.  As multiple sites show, our 7 billion people on earth are consuming a lot of resources.  Water, oil, and other natural resources are being used at rates that may seem Malthusian.  Therefore, there is a solution that also seems pretty logical: we should curb (or reverse) population growth to slow the rate at which we are depleting the Earth’s resources.  As this handy-dandy video indicates, our population’s exponential growth over the past 200 years is something unheralded.

The problem with this line of thinking (i.e. focusing on population as the source of environmental woes), is that it shifts the blame for the state of the world’s current condition to people who have not historically benefited from its overexploitation.  While it is true that changing lifestyles in China mean that it (and other Asian countries) are consuming more and more, historically and presently, each North American and Western European consumes much more than each Asian.

Garrett Hardin – Secret Eugenicist

Further, this line of thinking may lead to very troubling conclusions.  If we focus on population as the source of our problems, then our solutions should likewise focus on population.  One prominent environmentalist, Garrett Hardin (read in almost every single class on environmental policy and politics) took this logic to its natural, eugenicist conclusion.  In a paper titled “Lifeboat Ethics,” Hardin, noting the problem of a growing world population, argued for cutting off foreign aid to poor people living in Asia.  He observed, as clinically as possible, that “every Indian life saved through medical or nutritional assistance from abroad diminishes the quality of life for those who remain, and for subsequent generations.”

The fact that it is we, living in the industrialized world, that are the primary consumers does not seem to have impressed him at all.  Of course, population is a concern.  And of course Asians (like everybody else, I should add) are consuming more than they did a generation ago.  But let us not lose site of who is responsible for the ‘Non-Negotiable Lifestyle’ that started all this.

Notes From the Field: A Prelude

Well, perhaps it will take longer to update than May 14, after all.

In any case, the next few updates will be from the field: for the next three weeks, I will be travelling through southeastern Mexico – through the states of Quintana Roo, Campeche, Yucatán and Chiapas – studying the politics of biodiversity conservation, land use management, and local autonomy over natural resources.

Why do these things matter?  First, as recognized by the Convention on Biological Diversity, Mexico is one of the 12 “megadiverse” nations in the world – 70% of the world’s biodiversity is found in these countries. Consequently, if we want to maintain the world’s natural capital, we should be concerned about what happens there.

Second, like most countries around the world – but perhaps moreso in developing countries – Mexico is under pretty severe political, economic and social structural pressures from international, as much as domestic, forces to promote economic growth. Naturally, the idea that promoting growth in certain sectors will bring ‘development’ to a still underdeveloped country and comparatively poor population is attractive; even if such growth comes at the expense of environmental quality in the short term, it may be in the national interest in the long term. In addition, if you consider that much of the environmental issues in developing countries are linked to poverty – issues such as poor water quality, a lack of adequate sanitation, exposure to preventable diseases – then there may also be an environmental justification in promoting ‘development’ in key sectors.

Of course, the problem is that this idea that developing countries can solve their issues through development should be critically examined. While major economic sectors such as tourism (since I’ll be in the coastal area of the Yucatán Peninsula) do promote GDP growth in the aggregate, it’s not always clear that this growth ‘trickles down’ to the marginalized population who needs development most. Ownership of capital and resources tends to be highly concentrated in the large earners, and aggregate figures may mask real socioeconomic inequalities. In addition, while it would be impossible to escape an environmental impact in any human activity, a lot of this activity is highly ecologically unsustainable. Coastal hotels, such as those that characterize Cancún, are severely disruptive of natural ecosytems. Over time, the precise features that the economic sector depends on – an aesthetically pleasing coastline – are those that are at risk of overexploitation and collapse. Without proper management then, these economic activities may contain the seeds of their own destruction.

In any case, I’ll update when I can – I’m about to board, so the next time I post, I’ll be in Mexico!

Local Facets of the Environmental Problem

Smoke and Gas for Burning Automobile Batteries in 1972

Over at The Atlantic, you can find a sample of 46 photos taken in the 1970s, under the auspices of the then-newly created EPA.  These photos, taken between 1971 and 1974 show domestic manifestations of the global environmental crisis: mountains of damaged oil drums; a virtual blanket of parked automobiles; a fish, twisted and deformed from mercury poisoning; oil wells dotting Galveston Bay in Texas, site of a terrible oil spill in 1990 (bonus: there is a picture here of a couple swimming in the Bay, indicating its history as a site of recreation and nature enjoyment).

See, too, evidence of the racial and class injustice prevalent in environmental problems.  Industrial smog squatting, visibly, on a black neighborhood in Alabama.  A miner’s child, outhouses visible in the background, whose father was participating in a strike against unsafe working conditions, labor exploitation, and exposure to pollution caused by the practices of Eastover Coal Company.

A visual understanding of what environmental harm means, I think, is necessary to understand what the political debate on regulation is about.  It’s not just about jobs, profit margins, and esoteric wonkery.  It is, fundamentally, about life.

Is This Progress?

One Tiny Step Forward…

If you’ve been following the Keystone XL Pipeline development, you probably heard two things that seem like positive environmental developments.  First, the corporation behind the development of the project, agreed to reroute the planned pipe such that it will no longer run through the Nebraska Sand Hills region.  Potentially good news for Nebraskan environmentalists, ranchers, conservationists, who raised concerns about the impact of subterranean oil on the Ogallala aquifer, described as “…a massive subterranean waterway that underlies 27% of the irrigated land in the U.S.”

Nebraskan Rancher in the Sand Hills



Second, the Obama administration and the State Department recently announced that the project would be sent back for review, citing the environmental and socioeconomic considerations raised by the specter of continued oil dependency and dirty extraction.

…And One Giant Leap Back

However, any optimism about these developments should be severely tempered.  While the guaranteed protection of the Ogallala aquifer is a good thing, the obvious question that emerges is, why were they threatened in the first place?  Moreover, a careful examination of the State Department’s announcement on the Pipeline clearly indicates that the delay 1) is primarily to find a less contentious route for the proposed oil; 2) times the final decision-making such that the policy will be determined after the election.  A more cynical person than I would suggest that Obama is primarily trying not to alienate his remaining progressive-environmentalist constituency, while intending to go ahead with it anyway.  But, if the next President is a Republican, well, the possibility of the Pipeline becomes a certainty.

An Eminently Reasonable Man

Take a look at the rhetoric surrounding the issue: obviously, you have industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute stating that the Pipeline will create “…thousands of jobs almost immediately,” something that has to be a concern for Obama given his poll figures as of late.

More colorfully, Rick Perry has pointed out that our dependence on foreign oil, much of it produced by nationalized companies in countries such as Saudia Arabia, places American troops and security at risk.  We strengthen hostile regimes, because we fill up our SUVs with their product.  (Ironically, this is an argument made by environmentalists for reducing oil consumption – inimical to the Keystone XL).

Something Else to Keep in Mind

In any case, despite the superficial progress, there are a plethora of well-reasoned objections, on clearly stated environmental grounds, to the project as a whole – not just the proposed expansion through the Sand Hills.  In the Colbert Report, Middlebury’s own Bill McKibben critiques the whole idea of the project.

Adding Insult to Injury: the First Nations and Injustice

One final point: while McKibben’s argument is sound, it seems as if there was not enough time on the Report to get into one of the more troubling aspects (to me) of the whole production of the Keystone.  Even if we were guaranteed that the transit of oil were safe in the US, oil extraction is severely problematic for the people who live near the tar sands: indigenous and First Nations peoples.

As can be seen in this report by the NRDC (TarSandsInvasion-full [PDF]), the extraction of oil from tar sands is immensely hazardous to the local ecosystems upon which indigenous people depend.  Air pollution, and the seepage of toxins into groundwater, aquifers, and local ecosystems have led to high rates of cancer, asthma, acid rain, and the accumulation of toxins such as cyanide and ammonia.  Not surprisingly, and as is the case in the US, indigenous people in Canada are at the lower end of the socioeconomic totem pole.  It is important to keep in mind, when we think about environmental problems, that some populations are more vulnerable than others.  Thinking about the Keystone XL (and other environmental issues) should raise questions, not just about consumption, local ecosystems, and wellbeing – but also about demographics and social identity.  Who benefits?  Who loses?  Do certain populations lose more?  In so doing, we should oppose environmentally harmful projects, not just on the basis of ecological concerns, but also on the basis of human rights, justice, and socioeconomic equity.

Corporate Personhood: Can it Work for Environmental Justice?

Corporations, Like Soylent Green, Are People

For many, the 2010 decision of the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC (PDF)  seemed like a further step in the reification of corporations.  Briefly, the decision held that it was unconstitutional to restrict the political speech of corporations (read: spending on political campaigns), as doing so violated the First Amendment rights of persons within the United States – the underlying assertion is that corporations are legal persons.  Critics pointed out that the norm of corporate personhood – giving corporate entities legal rights equivalent to those of ordinary citizens – would likely mean the concentration of political power in the hands of corporate CEOs and the wealthy.  Well, it turns out that, in addition to empowering them, the norm of corporate personhood may be used to hold corporations accountable for their actions.

Background: Environmental Injustice and Shell in Nigeria

In the 1990s, oil exploration in Nigeria was a travesty of environmental injustice.  In the Nigerian Delta, the practice of extraction was incredibly dirty – oil spills, and gas flaring devastated the local environment, and displaced residents.  Moreover, the federal government of Nigeria monopolized the control of national oil wealth, giving a disproportionately low share to the residents of states in which oil exploration was taking place.

To make matters worse, Shell, seeking to maintain oil extraction, facilitated the displacement and murder of residents of the Delta region, largely of the Ogoni tribe.  As indicated in this book excerpt (PDF), Shell contractors bulldozed farmland and houses in order to gain access to oil-producing land.  When people protested, they were shot by the Nigerian army.  When they protested those shootings, they were shot.  When they blocked the community to further oil exploration, the Nigerian army and police went to ‘dialogue’ with the community, and they were shot.  In these instances, army and police officers were paid field allowances by Shell, who later wrote to “reiterate our appreciation for the excellent co-operation we have received from the Nigerian Police Force in helping to preserve the security of our operations.”  This pattern continued until several people were killed, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, poet, author, television personality, and environmental activist.

Hold Them Accountable

In response, a transnational coalition of Ogoni people and American legal advocacy agencies sued Shell, starting in the 1990s, for complicity in these atrocities.  Here’s the kicker: they cited a two centuries old law, the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which allows aliens to sue in federal district courts for “…a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”  A decade and a half later, the case seemed to stall, when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the charges, asserting in a majority opinion that, despite the clear violation of human rights law, and despite the seriousness of the claims, corporations could not be considered “juridical persons (PDF)” when it became time to hold them accountable for their actions. 

However, on October 16th, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on appeal.  At the heart of it, this case raises the question of whether corporations can have the rights of citizens without their corresponding responsibilities.  Obviously, the most optimistic outcome, and one which we will find out next year after the case is concluded, is that the SCOTUS finds that corporations are, in fact, liable for human rights violations – that at least would indicate some conceptual consistency among the conservative branch.  If, however, they find that Shell is not liable, as non-juridical persons under international law, it may expose the hypocrisy and emptiness at the core of the idea of corporate rights.

It Can Be Done

Chipko Women

A lot of the news on environmental management and conservation tends to be pretty grim.  For those concerned about climate change, for example, continued political, corporate, and industrial resistance to the call for increased regulation is disheartening and frustrating.

But, there are examples of successful environmental movements.  One of those is the Chipko (lit: “tree hugger”) movement of India.  Very briefly, the 1970s and 1980s in India were characterized by state-sponsored development projects – that is, governmental sponsorship of infrastructure and extractive practices in the interest of economic growth.  In Uttar Pradesh, this meant rampant deforestation, legitimated by the Indian Forestry Department, for the production of commercial timber – used in paper, railway construction, sports goods, and so on.

Forests and the Environment

As most people are aware, deforestation carries with it, multiple environmental impacts.  First, and most obvious, is that forests are an important source of biodiversity, both by virtue of the diversity in flora species that make up a forest, and by virtue of their function as habitats.  According to UNEP, forests comprise 50% of terrestrial biodiversity.  Second, forest loss can contribute to other, attendant problems, such as land degradation: as trees are removed, soil becomes vulnerable to erosion, flooding, and landslides.  Third, as well recognized by the UNFCCC, forests can act as ‘carbon sinks,’ storing carbon dioxide, and preventing greater atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases.

Forests and Socioeconomic Inequity in Uttar Pradesh

But adding insult to injury, the quest for “national development” via deforestation and timber industries was socioeconomically inequitable.  The forests had served as a source of subsistence and silviculture for traditional communities living in the area.  Not only were they not incorporated into the aprovechamiento of benefits garnered by capitalist timber production, they lost access to traditional livelihoods when local agriculture,food production, and environmental security were overridden in the interest of commercial timber, as seen here (PDF).

Gendered Resistance

But the residents of Uttar Pradesh were not helpless.  In an uplifting display of bravery and solidarity, local residents – primarily women – confronted timber interests using nonviolence.  They intervened between corporate-state interests and environmental degradation, literally inserting themselves between logging companies and the trees.  Hence the name Chipko – they hugged the trees.

From an environmental perspective, the end result was heartening.  There was a 15 year ban on commercial cutting in some areas; a moratorium on clear-felling in others, such as in the Western Ghats.  From a socioeconomic perspective as well, the movement was encouraging.  By sheer virtue of the fact that women were some of the primary drivers of Chipko, the movement emphasized the agency of women, and centered them as important actors in the politics of social resistance.   Further, as can be surmised, this also meant the privileging of local production in the shadow of inequitable and unsustainable capitalist expansion.  So, it can be done.  The fact that women, of a marginalized and disempowered traditional society, can confront unsustainable resource extraction – even when supported by government interests – should encourage us all to at as good environmental stewards.  Even if it’s difficult.

“Spiritual Feelings” Aren’t Worth A Million Dollars, Sorry

San Francisco Peaks

What the hell?  This is a case that highlights the inherent problems in basing a socioeconomic system primarily on increasing market access and unceasing capitalist growth.

Take this case: the Snowbowl Ski Resort in Arizona wants to expand the size of its ski resort.  It has a $12 million dollar plan to create fake snow in the San Francisco Peaks – north of Flagstaff – using recycled sewage and waste water.  However, the Peaks are also sacred land for (among others) the Hopi, Navajo, and Havasupai Nations.  In a suit brought by various Native American Nations against the Snowbowl, a 3-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals explicitly recognized that the Peaks “are sacred to at least thirteen formally recognized Indian tribes, and that this religious significance is of centuries’ duration” (pdf). 

To be sure, there are environmental implications in using wastewater as snow.  Chemicals from pharmaceuticals, cleaning products, and pesticides can be persistent organic pollutants (POPs).  They tend to be long-lived, accumulate in living organisms, and some – such as atrazine – are endocrine disruptors.  But the panel specifically mentioned the religious implications of using poop water on the sacred ground of all these Nations, noting that this would violate their religious freedom.

However, in an appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court re-heard the case en banc, and in an 8-3 decision, reversed this claim.  This time, they found that the proposed development would do little more than damage “spiritual feelings,” and “give one religious sect a veto” over public lands.  Good news for the developer, who noted that “A healthy business economy is good for everybody. That’s just an economic reality.”

So there you have it.  Economic development and “progress” trump the religious freedom and rights of Nations.  Maybe it’s their own bad luck to have a religion based around the adoration of nature and the outdoors, considering that these are prime spots for real estate.  Even though balancing developmental needs and environmental claims can be really difficult, I’m not sure we’re served by having a system that posits recreation is more important, and has more legal standing than centuries old beliefs.  Well, it seems that the Native American Nations have an ancient and marvelous culture.

For me to poop on.

(Sign this petition, and take it to the White House).