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Environmental Justice: Creating Equality, Reclaiming Democracy (review)

From: Ethics & the Environment
Volume 9, Number 1, Spring 2004
pp. 140-144 | 10.1353/een.2004.0006

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Ethics & the Environment 9.1 (2004) 140-144

Environmental Justice: Creating Equality, Reclaiming Democracy, by Kristin Shrader-Frechette. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 2002. Pp. 269 including index. ISBN: 0-19-515203-4.

At the very last page of her book Kristin Shrader-Frechette writes: "We fail to recognize that unless we are the agents of democracy and social reform, there will be neither democracy nor social reform." This is such a short sentence, and yet it is so important. Shrader-Frechette writes this book in order for us the readers to be moved both philosophically and politically speaking. It is a Socratic way of shocking the student, and causing her to reflect upon the way she has conceived things, the way she has interpreted the world. This is not an easy book to read—it is more like watching a violent film: it tells us about greediness, cruelty, misery, cynicism, and the like. But just like watching a good film, after reading the book one cannot remain indifferent.

This book, then, is not a typical neutral piece of philosophy or social science. Shrader-Frechette has an agenda on her mind, and she claims that not only is it wrong not to do something to stop environmental injustice, but in fact people have a duty to be active, politically speaking (see especially pp. 195-7). Indeed, it is about time environmental philosophers realize that they have a social obligation not to remain unconcerned. Their first weapon is their philosophical tools, which they should employ to reveal and criticize what is going on. In this case, for example, Shrader-Frechette not only describes many cases of environmental injustice, but she also eloquently analyzes the arguments that are used by those opposing policies that are meant to rectify environmental disadvantages. Her position is unequivocal: environmental injustice is wrong because it is immoral, and because it discriminates against people, often the more vulnerable. Environmental injustice is defended by arguments which are philosophically flawed and morally repugnant. However, there are growing cases of environmental injustice because there are strong interests behind them, and because the more powerful can exploit the vulnerability of those marginalized by society. The reader can hear the echo of the French novelist Emile Zola's famous article, apropos of the Dreyfus affair: "J'accuse."

What is 'environmental justice'? Often goods (e.g., cheaper electricity or faster cars) are manufactured with an environmental cost (pollution). Obviously, one relevant question is whether we need these goods. Let us assume that society decides we do. Sometimes this production ends up in severe injustice. Sometimes only the rich enjoy the benefits (e.g., faster cars) while the entire population pays the cost (more air pollution, more noise). Sometimes it is the case that society in general enjoys the benefits (e.g., cheaper electricity). Nevertheless, only a small group bears the cost.

Why is the cost so unevenly distributed? First, pollution and hazardous waste must be treated by professionals so it is transferred to, and concentrated in several locations to be treated. This exposes the populations that live there to very high levels of pollution. These people, then, face risks to their health and well-being, which other people do not have to face.

Furthermore, when this happens house prices in the area usually fall, and these people are trapped there: so sharp is the fall in house pricing in their area that they cannot move to another, cleaner, or safer place, because whatever price they will get for their houses won't allow them to buy a decent house in cleaner areas. Once the process has started, even more pollution is attracted to this place. This is partly due to market forces: buying burial space for hazardous waste becomes very cheap in these locations, and therefore more and more firms use these locations for the burial of hazardous waste. However, there is a second reason for this: it seems that the authorities and committees that decide where to send the waste to, are formed by middle class people who are less likely to live in those locations. It is an empirical fact, shown, for example by Robert Bullard and David Harvey, that...

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