Environmental justice is the recognition that negative impacts on our environment disproportionately burden high-poverty and minority communities much more than affluent communities.
History has shown, it is large corporations, taking advantage of tax credits and other profit motives, that are the greatest abusers of our environment. Of course, the owners of these corporations don’t live near their polluting plants or waste sites. It is the lower socioeconomic status communities, out of economic necessity, that live near the industrial plants. The problem is that low income communities do not have access to the political clout necessary to affect favorable change. If we go back some 40 years, it is interesting that it was the effort of the United Automobile Workers of America and other similar organizations that first made the case of environmental justice.
I was fascinated by Pope Francis’ visit to the United States this past week, watching or reading all of his speeches while he was here. You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate the Pope’s message on environmental justice. It is hard to argue legitimately against his point that we must choose environmental justice over a “selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity that leads both to the misuse of available natural resources to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged.” He goes on to say that, “The poor are cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded, and suffer unjustly from the consequences of abuse of the environment. These phenomena are part of today’s widespread and quietly growing culture of waste.” Clearly, you don’t need to be the Pope, who has witnessed unspeakable poverty, to understand his message. We are all guilty of the “culture of waste.” As a way of affirming joint ownership, the Pope further stated that, "Man is not authorized to abuse it [the environment], nor is he authorized to destroy it." In essence, it is yours and it is mine, as we live in communion within it. "Any harm done to the environment ... is harm to humanity," said Pope Francis. For me, I appreciated the Pope elevating the discussion on environmental justice to the world stage.
Here at home, I can’t help but think about environmental justice and the old San Diego community of Barrio Logan. What must it been like before the Coronado Bridge was catapulting traffic across to the high-end island, causing related pollutants to rain down on the neighborhood below, or before the 18-wheelers sat idling for hours in the community side streets waiting to unload at 10th street Pier, pumping out diesel smoke into the neighborhood. The working class community of Barrio Logan is the classic case of environmental injustice. Education through City College and advocacy through organizations like the Environmental Health Coalitions are critical for this community and others to move the needle in a positive way.
- Dr. Anthony E. Beebe, President San Diego City College