Overview - Environmental Justice

Scientists have long argued that the Earth's natural resources are finite, and have only so much carrying capacity. Though advances in energy efficiency, pollution control and food production have made great strides in recent decades, there is a limit to how much growth any particular ecosystem, can sustain without collapse. The consequences for not respecting those limits can be quite severe and there is no guarantee that the resulting economic and social damage will be born primarily by those most responsible. Nor is there any guarantee that the consequences of the waste from such activity will be born primarily by those who created it.

Despite shrill protests to the contrary from some special interests, concern is growing that the brunt of global environmental damage is disproportionately falling on the less fortunate. Many community based organizations, the so called "Environmental Justice Movement", and international agencies worldwide, supported by a growing body of refereed scientific literature, are contending that poor and minority populations are burdened with more than their share of toxic waste, pesticide runoff, and other hazardous byproducts of our modern economic life. They are also more likely to be caught in the crossfire of regional conflicts that are more often than not related to conflicts fueled at least partially by natural resource access.

Typically, the poor have fewer choices as to where they live and under what conditions. They are less likely to have the capital base for the kind of lobbying, political influence and legal representation available to wealthier communities. Overseas, poor countries are less likely to have stable governments that guarantee human rights to their populace, and more likely to have power inequities that allow the few with wealth to negotiate with First World companies and/or governments for joint unrestricted access to natural resources on their soil, at the expense of the indigenous people who live and work in those regions, and the proceeds from those markets rarely reach these indigenous populations.

In some Third World countries as much as 90 percent of the land and/or wealth are held by less than 5 to 8 percent of the populace. Taken together, these factors lead to a higher incidence of pollution, toxic waste sites, public health risks and natural resource devastation in poor regions than in wealthy ones. In the Third World they also lead to a higher incidence of regional conflicts, which all too often are fueled by easy access to weaponry that First World nations are only too eager to sell to both sides, even though of necessity, the cash for those sales is often acquired by illicit means. The larger majority of these conflicts, particularly in Africa and South America are over natural resources bound for First World markets.

Many with ties to First World special interests have tried, sometimes quite vociferously, to argue that this is not happening—particularly those with financial or ideological ties to free market value systems who resent any and all restraints on such markets. It has also been argued by these interests that their free markets alone can lift these regions from poverty. However, it is those same free markets without the mitigating effects of First World legal protections that are in fact causing much of it. Corporations can save millions by doing business in Third World areas where they are not required to adhere to the strict environmental protections that maintain First World air and water quality and ecosystem protections, and they are only too happy to capitalize on this. The consequences are born by those in the region who have little or no voice.

If there is a foundational moral principle embraced by the entire human race, across all creeds and religious traditions, it is the golden rule. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength”, said Jesus, “and love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39). There are those today who would have us believe that disproportional environmental burdens are either unreal or unimportant. Some even try to defend this belief as Biblical and moral. Few of these people have ever been on the receiving end of such values, and fewer still have ever been exposed to communities that are, much less wrestled in their own hearts with any sense of concern for them. If they ever found themselves at the bottom of this pecking order it’s unlikely that they would consent to being there, and if that day ever arrives we can expect radical revisions to their ideas of morality and responsible “stewardship”!

To those who see the world through God’s eyes there is no justice in this. Until environmental costs and blessings are shared by all, environmental injustice will be a reality that no health-and-wealth or free-market gospel will ever explain away.


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