Morgan Franklin, @morganmfranklin
February 6, 2013

Week Four: Law, Policy, and Regulation

Rough week so far? If you’re looking for a pick me up, what about having a movie night? Boy do we have just the film for you! It’s called “The Island President” and its about a man on a mission to save his country and it’s people. The story goes that the Maldives, a country made up of islands, is at severe risk of sinking into the ocean. As sea levels increase, it’s president works around the clock to prevent the nation from becoming the modern day Atlantis. I know right, where do they come up with this stuff?! At one point he even stages an underwater governing session to bring more attention to his country’s cause. Filled with suspense and racked with emotion, its sure to keep you laughing, crying and riveted until the very end. If it weren’t for the outlandish circumstances, the movie’s documentary style could convince you that it’s a real story. Except- IT IS a real story. So much for the pick me up.

What now? This movie has won all kinds of awards, and yet while people leave the theater thinking about how unfortunate the situation is for the Maldives, they also might leave being more concerned about what they’re having for dinner than what policy reforms should occur to insure justice. This issue ties into a major concept Professor Harris-Perry discussed this week in class, that being the difficulty in translating a feeling of vulnerability to communities not directly affected by environmental issues in order to generate a sense of urgency. As she discussed in her lecture, a critical issue in doing environmental justice work is determining how to assess risk.

How we gather and assess information about environmental concerns

This fits into a larger framework of cost-benefit analyses and the ways in which potential environmental policy is evaluated. As examined in this week’s reading, Environmental Justice: Law, Policy and Regulation, the Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA) approach to environmental regulation has existed since the Reagan Administration and it’s efficacy is debated. Though some seek to reform the model, others seek to replace it (if you have our reading for this week, I suggest reviewing pages 153-155). This is the case due to individuals’ tendency to engage in temporal and special discounting of benefits in addition to our less than perfect methods for assigning value to environmental protection. How much is clean air worth in two hundred years? One would imagine clear air has more value to the citizen born in 2313 than the corporate officers monetarily benefiting from air pollution today. How do we assign steadfast values to entities which appear to be relative? How do we reduce the relativity?

This discussion of risk determination and the transference of vulnerability lead the class to take a look at Superfund sites. These sites are the outcome of a federal program enacted to clean up the nation’s uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. Superfund pays for cleanup when no party can be held responsible. Now for the interesting part.

Neutral laws don't always lead to neutral outcomes

Do you remember our discussion about inequality and the possibility of disparate impact without necessarily having insidious intent? Well, the numbers around Superfund sites are the kinds of figures that environmental justice activists love using to illustrate negative outcomes. Just to name a few, for federal laws protecting against air, water, and waste pollution, penalties in majority white communities were 45% higher than in minority communities. Abandoned hazardous waste sites in minority areas take 20% longer to be placed on the national priority action list than those in white areas. At minority sites the EPA chooses containment instead of permanent treatment 7% more and orders clean up 22% more often than containment. And using one of our favorite fractions, three out of five African-Americans live in communities with abandoned toxic-waste sites. Talk about your bad news bears.

So obviously these are statistically proven examples of injustice that deserve to be addressed. But how do we move forward? After presenting us with these obscene Superfund data points, Prof. asked us to think about the legal strategies that could potentially be employed by activists to insure greater justice. Then, as per usual, she challenged us to delve deeper into the issue. Why do the legal strategies matter and why should we think of the legal system as an appropriate avenue for change? The answer, she reminded us, lies in our nationally imbedded fundamental concern for the protection of minority rights.

What is the efficacy of legal strategies for the environmental justice movement?

How do we do this? An example brought up by a fellow classmate involved the progressive allocation of LULUs (Locally Undesirable Land Use) to distribute them with greater equality among neighborhoods. But does that actually constitute a victory considering that the undesirable land usages still exist?

This point takes me to one of my largest takeaways from the course thus far. What the goal is and how we measure success are important to our understanding of greater environmental justice. While reading this week’s text, I came upon an article discussing a set of activists demanding that environmental justice be considered a human right. As I began reading, I thought that it was a radical proposition for the expansion of environmental justice and was excited to see such a bold call for action.

Upon further examination however, I discovered that though there is such a call, there is actually pushback from unexpected sources, such as environmental activists, who predict a potential devaluation of non-human related environmental entities. These activists reject human-centered utilitarianism as a selfish way of viewing environmentalism (I suggest reading pages 318-320). Though I was frustrated that it wasn’t as simple as I previously thought, I realized that perhaps that was the point of having us evaluate differing viewpoints.

So what about you? What do you think are prerequisites for EJ wins? Be sure to let us know, and thanks for joining us this week in class.

The “This Week in Class” blog series is written by Morgan Franklin, AJC Head Research Fellow and a student in Professor Harris-Perry’s class. You can download the full class syllabus, and then join Morgan every week as she invites to think about the class lecture and join the discussion.


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