Environmentalism is a social justice issue. This has been common knowledge for a long time and it makes intuitive sense: it is just when all living things can breathe clean air, drink clean water and live without threat of natural disaster or toxic waste. Pollution is inherently an unjust situation which hurts everyone. But it’s also a disproportionately unjust situation for low-income communities.
Around the world, there is a direct correlation between low income and exposure to pollution. Air pollution is disproportionally high in developing countries, where up to 98% of cities have air unfit for human health. Among the hardest hit are India and China, which were deemed the deadliest countries in the world for air pollution in 2017. Both are populous countries with rapidly industrializing urban centers, where vehicular traffic has a detrimental impact on air quality.
In addition to vehicles, significant pollution is caused by industry emissions from power plants, factories and oil refineries. In the United States, these pollutants are mainly located in low-income areas. This isn’t accidental: it happens when industries, seeking to cut costs in the set-up of facilities, buy out cheap land in poor neighborhoods. The subsequent burden of pollution and toxic chemicals then falls disproportionately on low-income people. It’s important to note that other identities, especially race, frequently factor into this trend. In the United States, the risk of adverse health effects from pollution is significantly higher for racial minorities. According to the EPA, 71% of African Americans live in countries which violate federal air pollution standards, compared to 58% of whites. Hispanics are also up to 165 times more likely to live in high-risk counties than non-Hispanic whites.
Environmental racism– or the predominant placement of environmental hazards in communities of color– has become an increased talking point in the last few decades. But the issue continues to extend globally, and has worsened in the digital age. Many countries, including the US and the United Kingdom, now send their electrical equipment waste to Africa and Asia for disposal – often illegally. It’s estimated that 75-80% of e-waste ends up being shipped to lower-income countries, where lack of regulation leads to improper disposal and increased exposure toe-waste toxins.
Regular exposure to pollutants, both chemical and electronic, takes a well-documented toll on the human body. Air pollution from chemical plants, factory and vehicle emissions have been linked to increased rates of chronic illness, cardiovascular disease and respiratory infections; while toxins from e-waste affect organ function, fertility, behavior, and cell changes, including cancer. Because lower-income communities are affected most by pollutants, they also suffer the resulting health effects to a disproportionate degree.
If unchanged, industrial pollution and waste will continue to devalue the lives and safety of low-income people around the world. There is hope for an environmentally just future, but widespread support is necessary before true change can take place. While the choice whether or not to agree with global environmental goals ultimately rests with world leaders, public opinion is a powerful persuasive tool.
We should take advantage of democracy wherever possible to voice the need for environmental equity. Voting for environmentally-conscious leaders and writing letters to policymakers are both viable techniques, as is being intentional about where our money goes.
On one hand, we can choose to boycott polluting corporations and purchase instead from eco-friendly alternatives, thereby cutting funds for pollution in low-income communities. On the other hand, we can donate money or volunteer time to environmental justice organizations. We can also vocalize support for initiatives that improve global waste management and prevent the overburdening of developing countries with toxic waste.
Even on a basic level, efforts to reduce your personal carbon footprint have demonstrate ripple effects. In urban centers, this might mean opting for public transportation instead of driving your own car. As a consumer, this might look like researching the environmental impact of companies before you decide to purchase from them.
Anyone can contribute to environmental justice in some capacity. We should do so as an act of basic responsibility. After all, it is only just that everyone on this beautiful planet can live free of toxic waste.