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The impact of consumerism on the environmental quality and social stratification

The first concerns the literature on environmental justice EJ studies and its lack of incorporation of social scientific theories and concepts concerning racism. This is surprising, given EJ studies' strong interest in challenging a form of racism - environmental racism.

This, in turn, allows for a critique of theories of racism for their lack of attention to the ways in which society-environment relations structure racist practices and discourses, and a critique of scholars who have understated the continuing impact of racism on communities of color. The second point concerns the degree to which modernization has led to an improvement in the environmental impacts associated with market economies and their production systems.

Drawing on ecological modernization, risk society, and the treadmill of production theories, I argue that, as with popular and scholarly views on racism, many scholars have overstated the level of progress society has made on this front. I also argue that this is largely because - via practices such as environmental racism and globalization - many of the worst dimensions of the market economy's externalities are out of sight and out of mind due largely to spatial and residential segregation and international hazardous waste exportsmaking it possible to either ignore or dismiss claims to the contrary.

Introduction On one morning in 1987, on the far Southeast Side of Chicago, several African American community activists, along with their Anglo allies from an environmental organization, engaged in an act of civil disobedience against a hazardous waste incinerator operator located in the neighborhood.

They coordinated a "lock down," wherein they chained themselves to vehicles placed in the path of trucks bringing in hazardous waste materials for incineration. In defiance of the company and state law, the coalition of activists held their ground for several hours. They were opposing just one of dozens of polluting operations in this community of mostly poor or working class people of color. By the end of the day, the coalition turned away 57 waste trucks, a notable accomplishment and a disturbing indicator of how much waste was being shipped into and burned in this community.

Hazel Johnson, founder of the environmental justice organization People for Community Recovery, recounted this story on several occasions and was always proud of the fact that she and her group led the demonstration. Indeed, this was a remarkable mobilization and impressive act of the impact of consumerism on the environmental quality and social stratification from within a small, desperately poor community.

People for Community Recovery was born out of a conflict over health and environmental justice that had both deep local roots and an international reach. This organization faced insensitivity from elected officials and government agencies whose charge was to protect the environment and public health.

In this particular struggle, local activists succeeded by building a support base at home and from outside their community to raise the stakes for the transnational corporation operating the incinerator, who now faced formidable opposition and a public relations catastrophe if they continued on their original course. This struggle was also a response to ecologically harmful economic development projects that are deeply racialized.

Communities of color in the U. This phenomenon is usually referred to as environmental racism or environmental inequality.

Typically scholars view the roots of the problem in terms of economic efficiencies, political expediency, or as examples of the violation of civil rights through institutional racism Been, 1993; Bullard, 1993, 1994, and 2000. But I would like to argue that the struggle for environmental justice represents two trends that are generally not linked together: I explore two questions in this paper: And 2 Are environmental conditions improving in the U.

Environmental justice studies Environmental Justice Studies is the interdisciplinary body of literature that has developed since the early 1970s, by a growing group of scholars in the U.

  • Back on Chicago's Southside neighborhoods where Hazel Johnson and People for Community Recovery are based, pollution levels have not receded;
  • Environment and Behaviour, 32 2 , 250-269;
  • Biodiversity and Conservation, 18 2009 , 3219-3233;
  • But the exploitation of human beings and the natural environment are linked;
  • Ecological modernization around the world;
  • This phenomenon is usually referred to as environmental racism or environmental inequality.

Hundreds - perhaps thousands - of studies have concluded that ethnic minorities, indigenous persons, people of color, and low-income communities confront a higher burden of environmental exposure from air, water, and soil pollution associated with industrialization, militarization, and consumer practices. Known variously as environmental racism, environmental inequality, or environmental injustice, this phenomenon has captured a great deal of scholarly attention in recent years Bullard, 1993, 1994, 2000; Gedicks, 2001; Hurley, 1995.

Although environmental justice EJ studies are focused primarily on a form of racial inequality, this literature surprisingly makes little use of existing and well-established theories of racism or racial inequality. This is unfortunate because there are many productive links to be made between these areas of inquiry, the most interesting of which occurs when we reconsider theories of racism in relation to environmental impacts on communities of color.

Ecology, race, and modernization One of the current debates in studies of race and racism concerns the centrality of race in the context of modernity and the question of racial progress.

Stephan Lewandowsky

Hence, racism lies "outside" the mainstream American experience and set of values Schlesinger, 1992; Wilson, 1978, 1987. When whites or any person or persons, for that matter make the claim that we live in a "color blind" society, despite the obvious stark racial inequalities that persist, they are articulating what Bonilla-Silva 2001, 2003 terms the discourse of the "new racism".

There are many related terms that others have used to describe this phenomenon, including "post-racialism" Winant, 2001and "colorblind racism" Omi; Winant, 1994. In their classic book, Racial Formation in the United States, Omi and Winant 1994 introduce the concept of "racial projects" and Winant 2001 later extends this idea to the global scale. Racial projects are the intersection between racial ideologies and racist practices. Racism is a fact of life in the modern world.

This is a framework that is easily applied to EJ studies because of the prevalent practice of relegating people of color to harmful environmental spaces that is supported by an ideology of free markets.

Many leading social scientists argue then that racism is primarily a material and structural practice that, although central to modernity, has changed in the U. While racism remains observable as a material or structural force of inequality, what seems to have changed most in recent years is the softening of the language and discourse around racial difference and equality. As under the old regime i.

Yet, as prevalent as racism may be in this model, these scholars - like those advocating the "post racialism" viewpoint - acknowledge that race relations have changed, and, to some extent, improved. In other words, there has been progress since, at the very least, racism has become less crude, more sophisticated and modernized.

In addition to being overly ambitious in the claim that we have achieved a higher plane of racial progress, this literature also reveals the limitations of theories of racism because they rarely extend the idea of "material" Bonilla-Silva, 2001, 2003 domination or the "totality" and "systemic" nature Feagin, 2000; Feagin; Vera; Batur, 2001 of racism to the kind of physical control that environmental racism exacts on populations, a physical control that is made possible by the mobilization of natural resources.

Racism is, unfortunately, only subtle and invisible in certain places and contexts.

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For many of the world's people of color, it is indeed quite readily apparent in workplaces, schools, housing markets, and the media. Environmental racism, for example, can be a totalizing form of control over one's surroundings, body, health, and life. There is little that is subtle about this because it is not just about hierarchy and privilege versus disadvantage, but about the "violence" of racism. Considering the continuing stark patterns of residential and occupational segregation by race in the U.

The community that Hazel Johnson calls home, for example, is not just a low-income, housing project, isolated from the rest of the city of Chicago: Residents are exposed to hundreds of thousands of pounds of air pollution emitted from scores of factories, landfills, and automobiles in the area on a daily basis.

Disease rates in the community are as startling as the poverty and political powerlessness that engulfs it. This is violence, hidden only by the strong hand of residential segregation. Environmental studies and modernization Here I consider two broad schools of thought with respect to modernization and the relationship among capitalism, the environment, and society.

The first is exemplified by the growing group of scholars writing on and advocating the idea of Ecological Modernization - the view that states and industries are improving their environmental performance with remarkable results that benefit the natural and social worlds Mol, 1995, 1996; Mol; Sonnenfeld, 2000. The second school of thought is characterized by scholars who view modernization as a process that has created grave environmental and social problems around the globe.

Effects of Consumerism

Within this second school, I group together and consider the work of scholars of environmental justice studies, scholars advancing the Treadmill of Production model, and researchers employing the "risk society" thesis. Ecological modernization The core hypothesis of ecological modernization theory is that the design, performance and evaluation of production processes have been increasingly based on ecological criteria, rather than simply being rooted in a narrow economic calculus.

Leading ecological modernization theorist Arthur Mol acknowledges that modernity appears to be predicated on environmental destruction, but only insofar as this is a 'design fault' that requires a basic correction.

So, in a problematic logical maneuver, ecological modernization scholars like Mol maintain that both the cause of and solution to the environmental crisis lies within the structure of modernity itself Seippel, 2002. Mol and others maintain that economic development and rising environmental standards "go hand in hand. The root of the problem is an insatiable need for capital investment in order to generate goods for sale on the market, income for workers, and legitimacy for nation-states.

In other words, capitalism is a system that is ideologically wedded to infinite economic growth, and there are dramatic socio-ecological consequences. With regard to the ecosystem, such a market-based framework requires increasing extraction of materials and energy from natural systems. The Treadmill relies on automation and other forms of technology that are more natural resource and chemical intensive, and that displace and disempower labor.

The result, then, is greater pollution and increased social inequalities. Thus, contrary to the ecological modernization model, the Treadmill argues that social and environmental change will likely only result from major disruptions to this system, rather than from moderate reforms and adjustments Gould; Schnaiberg; Weinberg, 1996.

The risk society A related theoretical framework is Ulrich Beck's "risk society" thesis 1992, 1995.

  1. Puckett referred to the fact that the United States is the only developed country in the world that has failed to ratify the Basel Convention, a United Nations environmental treaty which has adopted a global ban on the export of hazardous wastes from the worlds most developed countries to developing countries.
  2. Economic Individualism and Government Spending. Sociological theory and the environment.
  3. Typically, we think of racism as "a system of oppression of...
  4. Ecological Economics, 32 2000 , 431-443.

He argues that "new hazards" associated with the risk society: Are unlimited in time and space Are socially unlimited in scope - potentially everyone is at risk May be minimized, but not eliminated Are irreversible Have diverse sources, so that traditional methods of assigning responsibility do not work. Beck calls this "organized nonliability" Are on such a scale or may be literally incalculable in ways that exceed the capacities of state or private organizations to provide insurance against them or compensation The risk society thesis puts forward the position that modernity is a fundamentally anti-ecological endeavor that is doomed to failure.

The "design fault" that Mol views as easily correctable, is, for Beck, the core of the problem and the death knell of society. The politics of a risk society thus has the potential to challenge the fundamental premises on which industrial society is constructed because it views modernity itself, and our most the impact of consumerism on the environmental quality and social stratification notions of civilization, progress, and development as the root of the problem.

In this regard, the risk society thesis shares common ground with the treadmill of production model. These two theories also emphasize the role of ecological hazards in modern society, with the difference being that the treadmill emphasizes social inequality as the root of the problem much more than risk society, which sees greater "democratization" of risks as the outcome and potential reason to motivate change.

Life in the modern world: We have to, of course, begin with the intensely anti-environmental stance of the current White House administration, since 2001. In that time we have seen a major series of attacks on environmental regulations or their general lack of enforcementthe refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol on global climate change, the continued refusal to ratify the Basel Convention - which regulates the international trade in hazardous wastes, the extension of special exemptions from hazardous waste regulations to the Pentagon - the leading polluter in the U.

Thus the outlook is not positive. But more globally, every living thing on the earth has been exposed to some level of human-made toxic substances. Lead, strontium-90, pesticides, and persistent organic pollutants POPs pervade our environment and reside in our bodies. This is a relatively new phenomenon, occurring largely during and after World War II, as the production and use of hazardous substances increased exponentially in warfare, agriculture, and a range of industries transportation, housing, etc.

Thus to be modern is to live in a toxic world. The numerous industries that generate hazardous wastes are not marginal, incidental, or aberrant; they are "the backbone of any industrial country, providing not only employment, but substantially contributing to the general welfare" Hilz, 1992, p. And, as other nations move into the category of "industrialized" states, "[. All of this behavior has real consequences of course.

The impact of consumerism on the environmental quality and social stratification

The United Nations' Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005 reported in no uncertain terms that the global environmental crisis is dire and worsening by the year. Toxic materials exposure can cause genetic defects, reproductive disorders, cancers, neurological damage, and the destruction of immune systems. In February 2004 scientists with the USEPA estimated that one-in-six pregnant women has enough mercury in her blood to pose a risk of brain damage to her developing child.

This new estimate is double that of a previous calculation, which claimed that about eight percent of U. The evidence of risk and disease associated with industrialization abounds. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers PBDEs are a little known class of neurotoxic chemicals embedded in computers, televisions, cars, furniture and other common products used by global North consumers every day, and increasingly by consumers in the South.

PBDEs are ubiquitous not only because they are contained in so many consumer products but also because they leak into the environment during production, use, and disposal. As a result, they are found in household dust, indoor and outdoor air, watersheds, and the body tissues of dozens of species of animals around the world, including humans. Women's breast milk in the U. Despite the relatively more powerful environmental and labor movement community in Europe, these nations continue to pollute at an alarming volume.

One in five persons employed in EU nations is exposed to carcinogenic agents on the job. Cancer, asthma, and neuropsychiatric disorders are some of the illness associated with the 100,000 chemicals and biological agents marketed in the European Union, according to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work Environment News Service, 2003.

Shaping Tomorrows World

Given the high level of toxicity of everyday life in the global North, if one is not planning on reducing toxic inputs into production which generally seems to be the casethen it makes sense to seek outlets for dumping some of the most hazardous of substances elsewhere; hence the problem of waste export to global south nations, which may allow us to embrace the idea of ecological modernization because the more visible dimensions of pollution are now "out of sight, out of mind," which also incidentally occurs as a result of domestic environmental racism.

According to a United Nations sponsored study released in 2002, citizens in the U. Affluence among nations is highly correlated with environmental harm Hilz 1992, p.