Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Environmental racism

I encountered the idea of environmental racism in my ethics course yesterday. It is something that I had never given thought to before.

In the article I read, urban Americans claimed that African-American housing projects tend to be located near to chemical plants, landfill sights and waste treatment centres, among other examples.  They claim that as a result, birth defects and ailments such as cancer are noticeably higher in these areas.

My question is: Did the government say; hmm where to put toxic plant? Aah yes, in the African American housing project.

Or was it a case of, where to build a low income housing project? In a place where no one else wants to live, that's where

Often the excuse is used that work is provided for the community in these areas at the plants and waste treatment centres. This is a dubious argument if I ever heard one, people don't have to live next door to their place of work. I would rather travel to my work place than live next door to a chemical plant.

I have a feeling that in the US situation, racism may have played an implicit part in the decisions made, but overall such situations are replicated the world over, and the people who suffer are those who are poor. Poor people cannot pick and choose where they shall live, and so tend to live in less desirable environments where rent is low. In the US, African-Americans often fall within this category.

However, in South Africa I have little doubt that in some cases, direct racism played a part in deciding where potentially harmful developments would be placed. It is no secret that the Apartheid governments did not have black, coloured, and Indian people's best interests at heart. And often, when informal settlements sprung up, the only choice of location would have been near to  sites emitting harmful toxins.

I have no stats or no evidence to prove this, I am only wondering in how many cases it is true that previously disadvantaged communities in South Africa are surrounded by potentially harmful emissions. 

There are so many other problems causing bad health in these areas that I have a feeling that ailments due to emissions may go unnoticed. People in these communities have to worry about food, water, education, decent housing, decent medical care, and basic survival, before they can worry about the state of their environment.

And what can be done? Are companies in these areas doing enough to prevent toxic emissions? In cases where they cannot be prevented, is it feasible to move these communities to a healthier site? Is anyone standing up for these issues or is there just too much else to worry about?

South Africa is always such an extreme case, and I would be most interested in knowing what the people in these communities think about potentially harmful living conditions.


Grossman, K. 2003 (1991). Environmental Racism. In The Evironmental ethics and policy book. Pierce, C and Van de Veer, D. Wadsworth: USA. p550-55

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