‘Environmental Justice’

The Van Jones backstory.

So Van Jones now takes his place as the Lani Guinier of the Obama administration, undone by his radical views. Like Guinier, the ousted “green jobs” czar will doubtless employ his political martyrdom to transform himself from a minor celebrity of the left into a major celebrity of the left, with a lucrative book contract and Chomsky-level speaking fees on the college lecture circuit. But the Jones case illustrates the confluence of the environmental and civil rights movements in a way that exposes the senescence of both.

I first started hearing about Jones a few years ago from far-left environmentalists–typically Greenpeacers–on college campuses. From their effusiveness I thought Jones must be something new and different. But minimal research revealed Jones to be merely a flamboyant purveyor of the usual green clichés, such as how we can produce “green jobs” in the ghetto if only we massively subsidize uncompetitive technologies. The only thing new and different about him was his skin color, which is precisely what made him so attractive to the overwhelmingly upper-middle class white environmental movement. Jones found it easy to graft civil rights grievances to environmental paranoia in a seamless way that would do Jesse Jackson proud. For this he quickly became, as the Washington Post described him, “a towering figure in the environmental movement.”

In charging that “white polluters and white environmentalists” were “steering poison into the people-of-color communities” because they lacked a “racial justice frame,” Jones was hitting environmentalism at its weakest spot. Environmentalism has always suffered from the stigma of being predominantly a wealthy, elitist movement. The average dues-paying member of an environmental organization, surveys have found, enjoys a household income more than twice the national median, and the membership of most organizations is overwhelmingly white.

At the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, most civil rights leaders had no use for environmentalism, and many voiced strong opposition to its emergence. Richard Hatcher, the black mayor of Gary, Indiana, remarked: “The nation’s concern for the environment has done what George Wallace was unable to do–distract the nation from the human problems of black and brown Americans.” Whitney Young of the National Urban League was equally distressed: “The war on pollution is one that should be waged after the war on poverty is won. Common sense calls for reasonable national priorities and not for inventing new causes whose main appeal seems to be in their potential for copping out and ignoring the most dangerous and pressing of our problems.” The August 3, 1970, issue of Time quoted someone it identified only as a “black militant” in Chicago: “Ecology? I don’t give a good goddamn about ecology!” Not surprisingly, environmental organizations are extremely sensitive to this problem, and go out of their way to emphasize diversity, practicing their own version of affirmative action to boost minorities in their membership and on their professional staffs.

It was perhaps inevitable that the civil rights movement and the environmental movement would eventually merge under the banner of “environmental justice.” Some leaders among the new wave of environmental activism that arose in the late 1960s modeled themselves explicitly on the civil rights movement. The Sierra Club’s Fred Eissler declared in 1969: “What we need is an environmental rights movement along with a civil rights movement.” But it has brought out the worst instincts of both movements, combining frivolous charges of racism with unfounded environmental scares. For much of the civil rights movement, it is always the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma; for much of the environmental movement, the Cuyahoga River is always burning. Christopher Foreman of the Brookings Institution, author of the best dispassionate study of the issue, The Promise and Peril of Environmental Justice (2000), notes that “the flexible locution ‘environmental justice’ is inherently provocative and was intended to be so.” Indeed, it is not unusual to hear industrial siting decisions near minority communities labeled “genocide.”

It is not clear which of the two movements has been degraded the most by this unlikely marriage. The environmental justice mongers like Jones have trivialized and marginalized an idea that has some merit if applied sensibly. The distributional effects of environmental regulations are a legitimate concern; land use regulations that are variously described as “exclusionary zoning” and “redlining” are valid examples of abusive regulation that disproportionately constricts the choices and opportunities of low-income households. But the dominant spirit of environmental justice is radical egalitarianism, and this is what comes to the fore in Van Jones’s embrace of the cause–another handy means to smash capitalism.

The nub of environmental justice is whether classic LULUs (locally undesirable land uses, i.e., landfills, chemicals plants and refineries, toxic waste dumps, and so forth) are sited disproportionately and deliberately near minorities, and whether this possibility is taken into account in the permit review process for siting new facilities. As common sense would suggest, in many cases poor neighborhoods grew up around existing refineries and chemical plants because the land was cheap. But even in cases of the siting of new facilities near poor neighborhoods (again, because land there is cheap), it needs to be kept in mind that stringent new source regulations are designed to ensure zero health risk to surrounding residents. Brookings’s Foreman observes: “Once contrary findings and thoughtful criticisms are taken adequately into account, even a reasonably generous reading of the foundational empirical research alleging environmental inequity along racial lines must leave room for profound skepticism regarding the reported results.”

Indeed, there is scant evidence of “disparate” environmental harm to minorities and the poor. Data on environmental health is only broken out by race in one government data series, the Centers for Disease Control’s National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. The CDC tracks levels of over 125 chemicals and heavy metals in human blood and urine. In some cases, such as blood lead and phthalates, blacks and Hispanics have higher levels than whites; in other cases, such as cadmium and some polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), blacks and Hispanics have lower levels than whites. (In a few cases, such as cesium, the level detected in whites is twice as high as in blacks or Hispanics.) In still other cases, such as mercury, there is little difference between races.

In sum, at the general level there is no evidence in the CDC data that racial minorities experience higher exposure to environmental chemicals than whites on a national scale. And there is considerable uncertainty about the source of chemical exposure where differences do exist. The CDC notes: “It is unknown whether differences between ages or races/ethnicities represent differences in exposure, body-size relationships, or metabolism.”

The CDC does make special note of a study that found higher levels of some environmental chemicals correlated with low incomes. But a correlation with income is a very different matter than race. Low income correlates with poor health outcomes on a broad range of risk measures beyond environmental exposures. Christopher Foreman comments:

Environmental justice proponents generally eschew personal behavior (and necessary changes in it) as a primary variable in the health of low-income and minority communities. .??.??. Telling neighborhood residents that an unfamiliar and unwanted company is fouling the local air or water, and perhaps threatening their children, sets the stage for effective community protest even when the actual health risks at stake are negligible. But reminding residents that they consume too many calories, or the wrong kinds of food, is likely to appear intrusive, insensitive, or simply beside the point.

Still, stoking the passions of the civil rights and environmental community is a twofer that is irresistible to liberals. In 1993 President Clinton issued an executive order requiring that “each federal agency shall make achieving environmental justice part of its mission,” setting in motion lots of interagency working groups to coo over the matter and issue “guidelines.” In 2003 the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights entered the fray with a tendentious report that repeated all of the usual clichés and ignored the rigorous evidence against the idea of racism in industrial siting decisions. Although almost all environmental attention these days centers on climate change and energy, it is a safe bet that the Obama administration is going to crank up the environmental justice bandwagon again. Don’t be surprised if private citizen Van Jones is in the vanguard.

Steven F. Hayward, the F.K. Weyerhaeuser fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of the annual Index of Leading Environmental Indicators and The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter-Revolution, 1980-1989.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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