Environmental Justice Part 1 (Book Review)

Posted February 24, 2008

Book Review: David Naguib Pellow’s Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago.

Pellow’s Garbage Wars examines the history of the environmental struggles over the means and locations of the disposal of solid waste in Chicago and discusses the problems of “environmental racism.”

Waste problems began with the formation of cities. From the period of Classical Antiquity, in cities, such as Rome, Cairo, and Athens, non-elite minorities who were economically and politically marginalized not only had a duty to clean up garbage but also tended to live in quarters where the garbage was eventually dumped.

By the 1880s in Chicago, one of the first capitalist industrial cities in the United States, waste materials were routinely piled up in immigrant and poor neighborhoods.

Challenges of environmental activists and community residents have transformed the technology of waste disposal over the time. For example, when they resisted “landfills” for their disgusting smell and unsightliness, the “waste-burning incinerator” was introduced. When poisonous toxic gases produced by the incinerators harmed those operating them and nearby residents, protests arose against the incinerators and a new technology, the so-called “sanitary landfill,” was introduced: waste materials were covered with dirt and then a community was built over them.

However, most environmental activism focused on a single issue, such as smoke pollution and waste dumps, and lacked a holistic view needed to solve waste disposal problems, such as how to reduce the total volume of waste.

Moreover, almost all incineration facilities were built in the communities of minorities. Poor and many black residential areas were built over sanitary landfills that subsequently leaked toxic gases and waste and harmed the residents. This phenomenon, namely “environmental racism,” created environmental injustice and contributed to social inequality.

Refuting the assumption that people of color, lower class workers, and the poor do not have environmental values, Pellow argues that they resisted environmental inequality and participated in many environmental struggles.

He also points out that while capitalists and environmentalists have little in common in response to environmental issues, workers share the environmental values with environmentalists in the sense that they desire cleaner local ecosystems and working conditions.

In capitalistic production processes, corporations and capitalists invest capital and want natural resources to be used continuously to generate profits. In the process, they produce waste and pollution on the one hand, and unsafe working conditions on the other hand.

Environmentalists, in order to protect the environment and conserve natural resources, try to slow down the “treadmill process,” while workers are engaged in the process as residents and as employees and are exposed the most to environmental hazards.

The problem is that mainstream environmentalism too often neglects workers’ safe working-condition issues and workers are thus left out of the debate over the environment. Seeking decent-paying jobs, workers are engaged in jobs that may pollute the external environment. Moreover, unskilled workers have to accept any available jobs regardless of environmental conditions. Meanwhile, capitalists pit economic growth against environmental protection and make common cause with workers who support economic growth for their survival.

How, then, can environmentalism and working-class struggles be linked together?

Many have paid attention to emergence of new kinds of environmentalism of socially marginalized groups that fight for safer working conditions and better resource management for both their survival and ecosystem – a theme that will be subsequently discussed in the next article entitled “Environmental Justice Part 2.”