Environmental Justice and the Structure of Human Rights JAKARTA
In a very basic way, Environmental Justice is about the intersection of human rights, infrastructure and how people–rich and poor, living in rich or developing countries–equitably and sustainably access the resources and things they need to survive and prosper. Robert Bullard, an environmental sociologist and Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, is passionate about the human side of Environmental Justice and “unequal” environmental protection.
“Environmental Justice embraces the principle that people and communities are entitled to equal protection of our environment, health, employment, education, housing, transportation and civil rights laws….Environmental Justice brings it all together under one tent.”
The Environmental Justice movement has grown both in public awareness, attitudes and action since the signing of Executive Order 12898 in 1994. Progress has been made, but is it a success? President Clinton’s order was 20 years ago, and the question remains whether EJ today is more than a finger in the dyke in the face of forces such as the House of Representatives members who would like to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, or countries and companies bent on the privatization of water. Many programs to improve communities focus on small issues like bike paths, parks and sidewalks, but we still plan to send hundreds of coal export trains through low income communities and site landfills in them.
A major question facing people who live on the “other side of the tracks” — places where landfills, water treatment plants, chemical plants and refineries tend to be located — is if the Environmental Justice movement is real and effective. The results are mixed, because as Bullard says, “there is always the other side of the tracks” for the elderly, the poor, the disabled, the homeless and those without access to cars or to transit systems. Poor communities wind up with a “disproportionate share of the bad stuff and a shortage of libraries, sidewalks, parks and greenspace.”
Sustainable communities mean lower transportation costs, reduced air pollution and stormwater runoff, decreased infrastructure costs, less time spent in cars and preservation of historic properties and sensitive lands. However, these benefits are difficult to enact at the systemic level and are always at risk of budgetary cuts.
For example, a recent Congressional budget measure proposes to end all funding for the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a program that unifies three federal departments (EPA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation) and funding resources around sustainable community development projects including transportation, affordable housing, and community development. All forward progress of this initiative would halt due to a Congress focused on the short-term.