“Environmental justice” is often used to benchmark corporate social responsibility.
“People of color and low-income populations are disproportionately impacted by pollution,” argues Leslie Fields, Sierra Club director of environmental justice. Industrial facilities are a byproduct of consumption, and most people living near “hazardous waste facilities” are minorities, activists claim.
Mitt Romney “bought and sold companies, and sometimes people lost their jobs,” presidential candidate John McCain declares.
“Every time a child dies as a result of floods in Bangladesh, an airline executive should be dragged out of his office and drowned,” for causing global warming, rants UK firebrand George Monbiot. Government leaders “should go to jail” for failing to act more quickly to prevent planetary climate cataclysm, Canadian eco-zealot David Suzuki declaims.
These assertions range from simplistic to outrageous to straight out of Lewis Carroll.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”
“The questions is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” Humpty Dumpty replied, “who is to be master. That’s all.”
Indeed, those who define the debate often determine public policies – and dictate who is to be master: those who must live with the consequences of their personal choices – or those who must live with policies imposed by others. That reality underscores why terminology and debate terms must be founded on full and fair assessment of risks and benefits, especially to the poor and powerless, rather than on what advances political agendas.
A few years back, mostly black residents of Convent, Louisiana welcomed the construction of a modern plastics factory that would have brought 2,000 construction jobs and 165 permanent positions that paid double the wages of working in sugar cane fields, plus health benefits and a stronger tax base. The local NAACP also supported the facility.
But Sierra Club activists claimed Shintech, Inc’s factory might increase allegedly high cancer rates, in violation of environmental justice principles. The factory was built elsewhere, in a mostly white community, and Convent remained poor.
Allegations of high cancer rates turned out to be false. In fact, cancer rates might well have declined, because workers with medical benefits would have discovered the disease in time to get treatment. But activist notions of “environmental justice” had prevailed. They were the masters, and Convent’s residents never had a choice. By the time the truth came out, the activists were lambasting other facilities.
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