Choking on Poverty: Inequality and Environmental Suffering

In the summer of 1978, a trucking company illegally dumped 31,000 gallons of used transformer oil along hundreds of miles of roads in Warren County, North Carolina. The location was no accident: This ...

In the summer of 1978, a trucking company illegally dumped 31,000 gallons of used transformer oil along hundreds of miles of roads in Warren County, North Carolina. The location was no accident: This was the poorest county in the state, and the majority of its residents were black. Adding insult to injury, the state decided to place a hazardous-waste landfill in the area that would store the used oil and also serve as a repository for toxins from other counties. Rather than accept their fate, locals filed a lawsuit charging racial discrimination and were arrested for staging protests and sit-ins. Borrowing language and strategies from the civil rights struggle, they helped shape an emerging social movement for “environmental justice.”

The popular environmental movement of the 1960s and 70s—perhaps best embodied in Earth Day—advocated for the preservation of natural areas and for increased federal regulations to protect air and water. But for decades, many minorities and poor people believed that the movement did not address their concerns. Their views were supported by an explosive 1987 report issued by the United Church of Christ (Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States), which found that race was the most significant predictor of living close to a hazardous waste facility. The higher the concentration of minorities in a particular zip code, the greater the number of hazardous waste facilities it contained.

Although social scientists have spent over a century documenting the social consequences of entrenched poverty and segregation, it was not until Robert Bullard’s pioneering research in the 1980s that they began to focus their attention on the environmental costs borne by the truly disadvantaged. Poor and minority communities, we now know, are disproportionately targeted as sites for hazardous waste facilities, are most vulnerable to the effects of “natural” disasters, and are consigned to endure higher rates of asthma and other environment-induced illnesses than their wealthier and whiter counterparts. The nature of the relationship between socioeconomic status and environmental risk, however, remains the subject of intense debate. While some studies—often commissioned by industry—purport to find no connection between disease incidence and proximity to locally unwanted land uses (such as an analysis of mortality rates in “Cancer Alley” commissioned by Shell1), the debate is largely centered on the problem of distinguishing between correlation and causation. A poor neighborhood may well have higher rates of asthma than the surrounding areas. But how can we actually demonstrate that the increased rate is traceable to nearby smokestacks and not to other factors, such as diet or exercise? In some cases, the question of whether poverty or pollution came first echoes the chicken and egg dilemma.

How are the middle and upper classes implicated in the production of environmental inequality?

Grassroots environmental justice (EJ) movements emanating from polluted communities like Niagara Falls’ Love Canal and Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” have achieved some notable political victories. But economic interests usually trump social justice when corporations, lawyers, pundits, and politicians calculate the human cost of environmental problems and solutions. While EJ proponents argue that capitalism’s profit imperative is inherently antithetical to their cause, the movement also seems to be held back by a lack of advocacy organizations that wield the clout of the Sierra Club or Greenpeace. This begs the question: how are the middle and upper classes implicated in the production of environmental inequality? Or, to ask it differently, why does mainstream environmentalism disregard the plight of impoverished South Bronx residents who suffer high rates of asthma due to their proximity to congested expressways, or of indigenous Alaskans who are forced to relocate because global warming is melting the permafrost that glues their land together? In turn, why do so many victims of environmental suffering never mobilize against their own injustice?

Social analysts have not adequately addressed these questions. As Doug McAdam and Hilary Schaffer Boudet point out,2 social-movement researchers tend to study only successful instances of mobilization. Furthermore, EJ scholars’ exclusive focus on poor people leaves us with a superficial understanding of the relations of power that maintain environmental inequality. Finally, while EJ scholars commonly pay lip service to the connection between equality and sustainability, they seldom engage with the latter in a meaningful or constructive way—thus leaving the impasse between EJ and environmentalism unresolved.3

Three recent books take the study of environmental inequality in exciting and innovative directions, helping explain why EJ remains elusive and probing its relationship to popular environmentalism. In Flammable, Javier Auyero and Débora Swistun turn the typical environmental justice story on its head by exploring why sick residents of a contaminated Argentine shantytown did not
lobby against the industries responsible for their suffering. In The Slums of Aspen, Lisa Park and David Pellow examine the other side of environmental inequality by focusing their attention on how elites maintain “environmental privilege.” And in Bird on Fire, Andrew Ross considers how the struggles for sustainability and social justice in Phoenix are one and the same through interviews with an unusually vast array of actors—from artists, trade unionists, tribal activists, and urban farmers to state legislators, real estate brokers, and land developers.

These books advance the case that neoliberal economic policies are exacerbating environmental inequality. In an era marked by the global dominance of free markets and by conflict between rich and poor nations over who ought to pay the costs of climate change, these case studies provide a chilling vision of an emerging “eco-apartheid” that may well redefine international relations.

The archetypal case study of environmental inequality goes something like this: (1) poor people’s restricted neighborhood choice and polluting firms’ desire to site facilities where land is cheap and where zoning and environmental laws are lax collude to create a situation in which residents are exposed to environmental hazards; (2) residents become aware of heightened local disease incidence; (3) through collective practices of citizen science that some call “popular epidemiology,” locals gather evidence of environmental stressors and illness patterns; and (4) locals mobilize against polluting firms and appeal to state actors through the framework of environmental justice.

The problem with this sequence is that it seldom happens. Every day, millions of impoverished people silently suffer in the bowels of industrial wastelands. Yet most analysts ignore immobilization. When inaction is considered, such as Robert Bullard’s lament of the South’s numerous impassive “Black Love Canals,”4 it is typically explained as resulting from the political and economic impotence of marginalized groups: they knew they were poisoned and who was to blame, but were unable to do anything about it.

Auyero and Swistun found that many locals were confused about, or ignorant of, the contamination in their environment and in their bodies. Toxicity and suffering, the authors argue, must be interpreted.

In Flammable, a dark yet moving ethnographic account of the eponymous slum embedded in a large petrochemical compound on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Javier Auyero and Débora Swistun offer a sophisticated alternative explanation of why marginalized residents may fail to mobilize against environmental suffering. They begin by critiquing scholars of environmental inequality for erroneously conflating the objective presence of environmental hazards and the subjective awareness of toxic danger. Flammable’s nearby river was so polluted that it ran black, a hazardous-waste incinerator and an unmonitored landfill bordered the community, heavy concentrations of lead were found in the ground, and fruits and vegetables could no longer grow. Meanwhile, many residents endured rashes, convulsions, bloody noses, headaches, cognitive disorders, and birth defects. However, Auyero and Swistun found that many locals were confused about, or ignorant of, the contamination in their environment and in their bodies. Toxicity and suffering, the authors argue, must be interpreted; and Flammable’s residents largely perceived their polluted reality through the “categories of the dominant” on account of an orchestrated “labor of confusion” carried out by economic, legal, state, and civil actors.

The core player here is Shell, which performs contradictory roles in the community as both polluter and patriarch. Because Shell is one of the only employers around, and because it provides affordable social services (such as a health clinic), many residents are thankful for the oil company’s presence. They accept Shell’s social-responsibility rhetoric as well as its blame-the-victim argument that contamination comes not from industry but from unhygienic slum dwellers. Further, because Shell commissions many of the tests for environmental contamination and employs the doctors at the clinic that monitor residents’ health, much of the information about toxicity that permeates locals’ consciousness is framed from the industry’s perspective. Such corporate paternalism in the face of government retrenchment, and the attendant pacification of a population that suffers at the hands of the very industry that (barely) feeds it, plays out again and again in the derelict slums spreading across the Global South, from Rio to Mumbai.

Flammable, Argentina. Courtesy Javier Auyero

Flammable, Argentina. Courtesy Javier Auyero

On the other side of the spectrum, zealous journalists and greedy lawyers routinely overstate the clarity of the connection between toxicity and suffering in Flammable and the ease with which locals could win a lawsuit against Shell. Vacillating between these two extremes are state actors, whose orientation towards residents’ environmental suffering alternates between apathy/denial and concern/affirmation depending on the election cycle. Amidst all of these conflicting messages, it is little wonder that the “categories of the dominated” are confused and mistaken.

Flammable’s most novel contribution to understanding immobilization is its analysis of the subjective experience of time. Although long-term residents can recall when the nearby beach was pristine and when small farms and gardens occupied present-day sludge ponds and garbage piles, environmental degradation was not suddenly imposed upon Flammable. Contamination incubated so slowly that many residents unconsciously habituated to it, and normalized it, as they attended to more pressing problems like making ends meet. This thesis, that “uninterrupted routines and interactions work smoothly as blinders to increasing environmental hazards,” seems a useful starting point for building a general theory of why abrupt environmental catastrophes like oil spills spark recriminations while gradual problems like global warming lead to apathy.

Time also insidiously works against Flammable’s residents through their future orientations. Many are filled with hope, based on promises from lawyers and politicians, that they will soon be compensated with cash settlements or a new home in a better neighborhood. As locals wait for lawyers to litigate, for health officials to resume lead testing that will “prove” they are ill, and for politicians to designate the time and place of the alleged relocation, they become sicker. Waiting is a form of submission, as residents are forced to become mere onlookers as others make (or delay making) decisions about their lives.

 Auyero and Swistun conclude that any study of urban marginalization should pay attention to environmental injustice because toxic exposure is such an ever-present reality in most poor communities. However, they neglect to mention that our understanding of environmental inequality is circumscribed by the dearth of investigations of the flipside—the elites who profit from environmental inequality and who enjoy access to amenities that are often denied to the poor such as open space, organic food, clean air, and pristine water. It is precisely this neglected topic that Lisa Park and David Pellow take up in The Slums of Aspen.

Aspen is “environmental privilege at work,” a place where the affluent can play amidst majestic snow-capped mountains, lush pine forests, LEED platinum-certified luxury hotels and spas, and organic wine bars. Park and Pellow contend that Aspen elites believe they have earned the right to environmental privilege, and the authors unpack the dubious appeals to environmentalism that local residents make to support what Van Jones and other EJ advocates call eco-apartheid. Indeed, the most important and distinctive feature of the book is its sustained critique of the mainstream environmental movement’s apathy—occasionally bordering on hostility—toward social justice.

The elitist legacy of environmentalism is everywhere apparent in Aspen’s response to immigration. In 1999, the City Council unanimously passed a resolution petitioning the US Congress and the president to restrict the number of immigrants entering the US. While this move put the liberal mountain city in league with conservative municipalities along the Mexican border, Aspen’s rationale was purportedly distinct: immigrants tax the nation’s scarce resources and ecosystems. This ostensibly Malthusian argument about the need for “population stabilization” allows environmental elites in Aspen, the Sierra Club, and beyond to put a progressive and moral gloss on a nativist and racist agenda.

There are two core ironies of this discourse: first, Aspen and similar locales depend on immigrants to do the dirty, low-wage work that sustains environmental privilege and the service industry in general; and second, the privileged claim victim status—a sort of “reverse environmental racism”—by insisting that immigrant overcrowding threatens their quality of life. Nativist environmentalism rhetoric has been used to justify environmental privilege since the days that frontiersman and preservationists killed and displaced American Indians. By tracing this history, Park and Pellow offer a cogent and original explanation for why environmentalists—who tend to be white and wealthy—seldom forge an alliance with EJ advocates.

Park and Pellow consider rationales for so-called green capitalism (which they term “the Aspen Logic”) to be equally nefarious. Drawing on eco-Marxist arguments about the incompatibility of unrestrained economic growth and sustainability, the authors contend that the Aspen Logic is another means by which elites protect environmental privilege, because it “suggests that we can achieve ecological goals without confronting the brutality and violence that capitalism necessarily imposes on people and ecosystems.” As they see it, green capitalism maintains the status quo, which makes it neither ecological nor egalitarian, but simply “green racism.”

Aspen, the alleged epicenter of environmentalism and progressive politics, turns out to be a fantasyland of conspicuous consumption and revanchist nativism.

The power of Park and Pellow’s book lies in the jarring ethnographic juxtaposition of the lifestyles of Aspen’s wealthy white homeowners and its itinerant Latino workforce. We move between the “Rodeo Drive of the Rockies”—with its stunning vistas, designer boutiques, hybrid SUVs, plastic surgeons, and $475,000 golf club memberships—and “down valley,” with its decrepit and overcrowded mobile homes perched on a floodplain, Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, and public buses that shuttle workers 60 miles uphill each morning. The authors’ thick description of the physical and social distance between elites and immigrants, along with their analysis of the nativist discourse and racial profiling that reinforce that distance, bring the abstract notion of eco-apartheid into focus and provide clues for how it is produced. We can readily imagine Aspen as a proxy for the developed world, and “down valley” as a surrogate for developing nations.

One of the blurbs on the book jacket calls The Slums of Aspen “Two barrels of leftist buckshot, aimed at America’s ruling class.” And so it is, to a fault. While we are presented with sympathetic portraits and long block quotes of well-intentioned immigrants struggling to stay afloat in Aspen, elites are examined at a distance and reduced to caricature. There are passing references to “people fresh from their plastic surgeon’s office stroll[ing] the promenades wearing clothes from high-end boutiques,” and flippant statements like “the Aspen Logic suggests that in order to be a true environmentalist, one must be a millionaire or billionaire.” By relying on hackneyed polemics more than careful research to develop the idea of environmental privilege, Park and Pellow fall short of their stated goal to provide a firsthand account of the people and practices that sustain environmental inequality. Unfortunately, this is a trap that many EJ scholars fall into: in their zeal to help the cause, they simply condemn corporate and political elites rather than try to understand them. This makes it easier for their opponents to dismiss their findings, and helps keep their work out of serious policy debates.

Park and Pellow close their book with an impassioned plea to put social justice at the center of environmental sustainability, and to recognize that both are impossible under laissez-faire capitalism. Aspen itself is a symbol of this contradiction—the alleged epicenter of environmentalism and progressive politics turns out to be a fantasyland of conspicuous consumption and revanchist nativism. If Aspen offers so few lessons for sustainability, what could we possibly learn from cities that make little or no pretense to environmentalism? The answer, according to Andrew Ross’s Bird on Fire, is actually quite a lot.

Given that over half the world’s population now lives in urban areas, many environmentalists believe that the battle for sustainability will be won or lost in cities. In the absence of an international agreement to mitigate carbon emissions, dozens of global cities have come together as the C40 to create their own climate action plans, which include everything from limiting suburban sprawl and retrofitting old buildings to implementing municipal compost collection and setting up bicycle-sharing programs. To survey the prospects for urban sustainability, however, Ross bypasses ecotopias like Portland and instead alights in the sprawling, low-density, automobile-dependent, and water-squandering urban growth machine of Phoenix. His rationale: “If Phoenix could become sustainable, then it could be done anywhere.”

Phoenix, Arizona. Wikipedia Commons. Photo: Melikamp

Phoenix, Arizona. Wikipedia Commons. Photo: Melikamp

Ross’s book is as sprawling as the city itself, covering a dizzying array of influential local actors and institutions, the meteoric rise of Phoenix and the history of American westward expansion, as well as recent and long-ago battles over land development and water rights. At every turn, he draws parallels between local, national, and global events. The result is an exhaustive overview of core environmental dilemmas and debates that reaches far beyond the case under investigation (e.g., the rise of climate science denial); although there are times when the connection between the many historical interludes and the matter at hand is more allegorical than practical.

Ross’s core message, which serves a clarion call for social scientists to contribute their perspective to environmental debates, is twofold: first, solving the climate crisis is as much a sociopolitical challenge as a technological problem; second, sustainability initiatives that do not address durable inequalities are “likely to end up reinforcing existing patterns of eco-apartheid.” In a world of finite resources, maintaining the status quo could bring a dystopic Blade Runner future where those without means may be abandoned outside the walls of “eco-enclaves.” Phoenix, where impoverished minorities choke in inner-city brownfields while affluent whites smugly install solar roofs and replace their lawns with desert gardens in the suburbs, is a harbinger of that future.

Despite Phoenix’s abysmal environmental track record, flowers of hope bloom in the desert; and the Great Recession has created some serendipitous opportunities for experiments in greener and more equitable living.

One of the unique contributions of Bird on Fire is that it frames the Southwest’s lax land-use laws, housing developers’ unapologetic and speculative horizontal expansion into the desert, and residents’ gluttonous consumption of finite natural goods as material and cultural remnants of the Wild West era. The region rejects limits to growth not only because pollution, sprawl, and consumption are profitable (for the time being) and convenient, but also because such “green” initiatives are interpreted as an affront to locals’ identity and libertarian values (most notably, their worship of private property rights). At the same time, Arizonans’ vehement aversion to sharing their land and resources with immigrants is in part a legacy of the region’s central role in the nineteenth-century American myth of Manifest Destiny, whereby Anglo-Saxons considered the annexation of Mexican and Indian lands to be divine providence.

Despite Phoenix’s abysmal environmental track record, flowers of hope bloom in the desert; and the Great Recession has created some serendipitous opportunities for experiments in greener and more equitable living. For instance, Ross finds urban homesteaders growing their own food and recycling graywater in the vacant lots and empty homes left by the housing bubble’s burst. One chapter puts a new twist on the typical gentrification story by documenting how members of a flourishing artist community advocated for sustainability as they sought to impose Jane Jacobs’ vision of a compact, mixed-use, dense, walkable community onto a half-vacant downtown that speculators hoped to develop through several mega-projects. The most striking case, and the one that Ross concludes is a model of “green democracy,” is the Gila River Indians’ successful reclamation of water rights, which spared the region from further development and enabled the community to grow its own food. This blow against eco-apartheid serves as a compelling example of how sustainability and social justice can be mutually reinforcing.

While the links between social justice and sustainability are apparent in the Gila River water-rights case, there are moments in Bird on Fire where the connection between the two is more tenuous. For example, Ross frames affordable housing and amnesty for undocumented immigrants as environmental issues without detailing how lowering rents and granting legal status to Mexican day laborers would foster sustainability. Such spurious linkages muddy the theoretical and practical relationship between sustainability and equality and leave Ross open to charges of political pandering. The upshot of the book, however, is demonstrated forcefully: “Business as usual,” and even “green capitalism,” will aggravate environmental inequality. There is no viable reformist path.

Climate change is one of the defining crises of our time, and eco-apartheid may be one of its many horrific outcomes. While rich nations have contributed the most to global warming, poor countries disproportionately suffer from its effects. For those who must make a living off the land and who have little choice but to reside in rudimentary dwellings located in exposed areas, small environmental changes can be devastating.

As “sustainability” becomes a buzzword in the halls of Capitol Hill and the suites of Fortune 500 companies, environmental scholars must insist that we answer the question: sustainability for whom?

Climate change is already forcing millions of people, almost all of them living in the least developed countries, to migrate to new areas in order to secure a livelihood. In light of this, the three books reviewed here seem prescient. The contrast between pristine Aspen and gritty “down valley,” and between Phoenix’s gated “green” northern suburbs and its southside industrial wastelands, mirrors the growing environmental divide between rich and poor nations. As the G8 countries move toward a service economy and enact more stringent environmental policies, many polluting industries simply move to poor countries rather than disappear. Flammable serves as a vivid illustration of the environmental suffering that the developing world increasingly endures to prop up the environmental privilege of developed countries. And the “nativist environmentalism” of elites in Aspen and Phoenix echoes the lifeboat ethics lurking behind the anti-immigration policies of many wealthy nations, which threaten to close the door on an impending tide of “climate refugees” whose plight is a product of Western lifestyles. (It seems doubtful that environmentalists will rush to their aid with a spotted owl–style campaign.)

Taken together, these books demonstrate the ways in which environmental problems and solutions have uneven social impacts. As “sustainability” becomes a buzzword in the halls of Capitol Hill and the suites of Fortune 500 companies, environmental scholars must insist that we answer the question: sustainability for whom? Lest they get dismissed as ideologues, though, those who study environmental inequality should acknowledge the difficulty of precisely mapping the causal link between socioeconomic status, geography, and environmental risk and take steps—such as teaming up with natural scientists—to augment laypeople’s popular epidemiology.

We desperately need more research on why so many people are indifferent to environmental injustice. Answering this question entails studying more than poor people’s movements. After all, in the international debate over who should shoulder the burden of mitigating greenhouse gases, the carbon footprint of a middling American or European looks more like that of a privileged jet-setting Aspenite than of the average resident of the Global South. icon

  1. S. P. Tsal, K. M. Cardarelli, and A. E. Fraser, “Mortality Patterns Among Residents in Louisiana’s Industrial Corridor, USA, 1970–1999,” Occupational and Environmental Medicine 61: 295–304 (2004).
  2. Doug McAdam and Hilary Schaffer Boudet, Putting Social Movements in Their Place: Explaining Opposition to Energy Projects in the United States, 2000–2005 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
  3. For an important exception, see Environmental Justice and Environmentalism: The Social Justice Challenge to the Environmental Movement, edited by Ronald Sandler and Phaedra C. Pezzullo (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).
  4. Robert D. Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Inequality (Boulder, CO: Westview Press).
Featured image: Aspen, Colorado. Photo © 2005 Matthew Trump