Environmental Racism as a Systemic Tendency of Capitalism

The disproportionate impacts of pollution and other forms of environmental degradation on people of color is not the result of scheming racists in power, so much as a structural tendency built into the dynamics of the marketplace. 

Environmental justice–the movement that seeks to fight against ecological problems that fall along lines of class and race–is a relatively new movement in the realm of environmentalism.  This appears to be mostly due to the persistent hegemony of conservation-based movements, which mostly consist of old White liberals who see the idea of environmentalism as a strict delineation between humans and nature.  Environmental justice movements, on the other hand, seek to fight against ecological externalities that directly and disproportionately affect working class and people of color communities–and increasingly advocate for the complete overthrow of modern systems of power.

The Structural Drive to Exploit

What’s fundamentally important to understand is that more often than not, environmental racism is an objective function of capitalism.  The term “objective” here does not refer to some kind of absolute Truth, but rather to the fact that there is no subjective, individual actor behind environmental racism and the impoverishing effects of capitalism–on the other hand, it is a consequence of the historical development of market structures, and the dynamics that emerge from the structure of capitalism and the unequal distribution of wealth and the means of production.

The structural disadvantage that poor communities have with regards to dealing with environmental externalities lies in capital’s structural drive to maximize profits.  The companies that have the most profits in any given sector can use their economic advantage to place themselves in an even better position relative to other companies, by investing in new technologies, expanding production and increasing market share, etc.  They are then able to accumulate even more profits, which allows them to further solidify their place in the market, and so on.  On the other hand, companies that do not increase their rate of capital accumulation risk going bankrupt, seeing their stock prices fall (if they are publicly traded), or getting acquired by larger companies, more profitable companies.

In the ecological context, this pressure to maximize profits means that companies that can successfully externalize the damage they do to the environment (i.e. dumping waste products into a nearby river) are at an advantage in the marketplace relative to firms that may seek to take the moral high ground and properly deal with waste streams.  The extra profits polluting firms accumulate means that they can potentially out-maneuver clean firms, and if the profit differential is large enough then clean firms might even be systematically bankrupted or bought out by dirty firms.  This means that on the macroscopic scale, capitalism creates a downward pressure on the ability of organizations to engage in ecologically sustainable practices.

Parallels with the Sub-Prime Mortgage Crisis

Another excellent example to illustrate the structural creation of exploitation by capitalism is the situation that lead up to the global financial crisis of 2008.  In this clip (4:55-7:34) from a talk by the communist philosopher Slavoj Zizek sponsored by the Dutch public broadcasting company, a young woman explains how her small, family-owned bank was affected by the sub-prime mortgage crisis.  During the run-up to 2008, while the bigger banks were giving out loans to low-income people (and then selling off those loans to unwitting investors and institutions), her bank refused to deal with such unethical practices.  However, the bank banks which were engaged in sub-prime lending were making far larger profits than the family-owned bank–prompting the majority share-holders to question the leadership of the young woman and her family, and eventually selling the bank off to people who would engage in sub-prime lending.  As the woman succinctly puts it at the end:

It’s incredibly difficult to operate ethically in the pressure that’s been created over the past 10 years or so to make massive amounts of money.  You’re trying to do it…and then you just get sold.

Of course, it shouldn’t be controversial to carry this observation further, and say that the drive to “make massive amounts of money” is not a recent tendency, but has in fact been at the very core of capitalist logic for the past 500 years.  But the young family banker does identify a key point: that while there may be individual actors who are guided by moral instincts, the dynamics of the system means that these instincts are more or less irrelevant.  There is an objective, structural drive for different firms and different industries to externalize as many costs as possible–and put in the environmental context, there is a structural drive to pollute and not have to pay the costs of environmental degradation that results from a company’s activities.

Marginalized Populations: Capital’s Path of Least Resistance

The question, then, is that if the company doesn’t bear the costs of environmental degradation, who does?

Just like there is a systemic tendency for firms to externalize costs, so too is there a systemic tendency for poor, marginalized populations to be forced to bear these costs.  From a firm’s point of view, externalizing costs isn’t necessarily a frictionless process–they can easily get push-back from local populations, government regulators, and other entities that aren’t bound by the rules and dynamics of the marketplace.  The profit-maximizing process must account for this potential friction, and find ways or avenues by which this friction is reduced or eliminated entirely.

Poor populations, by definition, lack economic resources; and this economic marginalization almost always translates into political marginalization, since it requires a not insignificant amount of time, energy, and resources to engage with and have power with modern political institutions.  Thus, from the firm’s point of view, such regions offer the path of least resistance in terms of finding ways to externalize environmental externalities.  A working-class community of color will (typically) be able to resist far, far less than a wealthy White community, and thus the former will find themselves dealing with polluted water supplies and toxins in their neighborhood air far more often than the latter.

This tendency can also be seen in recent empirical studies. A recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report found that in California, Blacks and Latin@s are disproportionately affected by pollution.  And given the analysis above, this shouldn’t be surprising–as of 2010, Blacks and Latin@s have a median income around 50% less than Whites, and are more than twice as likely to be under the poverty line than Whites.

Again, it should be emphasized that the racial disparities behind environmental externalities aren’t so much the result of some Rich White Man sitting in a skyscraper, cackling as he decides to invest in a coal plant in the middle of a predominantly Black community; rather, it is the result of historic economic marginalization, and the lack of resources that communities of color have to organize and resist environmental exploitation.

The need to focus on the class disparities, as well as racial disparities, is confirmed by looking at another good case study: that of China.  This article from The Guardian points out that protests by middle class urbanites in China are far more likely to have an effect on industrial projects than protests by poor rural folks:

The middle class protest against PX in Dalian this week was, in many ways, a re-run of a similarly successful demonstration against the same compound in Xiamen four years ago. In both cities, average annual incomes are now well above the $6,000 level at which citizens in developed countries started demanding more political rights and cleaner environments. PX may not be a deadly poison, but it is now a proven irritant for these influential white collar workers.

Meanwhile in the countryside, chemical plants dealing with far deadlier toxins – such as cyanide, mercury, cadmium, sodium dichromate and yellow phosporus – will continue to stir up local unease, spark violence and generate the occasional headline, but their cases are unlikely to gain anything like the same political traction.

Even in “communist” countries like China, economic disparities–which themselves are the result of uneven development by capitalist institutions–are an excellent indicator of which populations are likely to bear the brunt of ecological degradation.

The Need for Revolutionary Redistribution of Wealth and Power

In response to all this, it may be tempting for liberal and progressive-minded folks to advocate for reforms, and call for stronger regulations and more environmentally-minded politicians.  But such a call would ignore the entirety of this analysis.  If the reason why certain communities are disproportionately impacted by degradation is because they lack economic resources, then the only real solution is to redistribute wealth, and the ownership of wealth-generating assets.  This is because, as the analysis above implies, wealth is power, and disparities in wealth equates to disparities in power–and the ability of powerful (wealthy) people to exploit weak (poor) people.  This is most directly argued in the classical Marxist analysis of how capitalists exploit powerless workers, but it also has a clear application to the realm of environmental justice.

The implication, then, is that it is not enough to focus on trying to pass reforms and legislation; if the root cause of exploitation is economic disparity, then the only real solution is to attack this problem head on.  Rather than trying to emphasize all organizational efforts on making policy and campaigning for politicians, labor should be put into the building of strong, community-based organizations and institutions that empower them independently of political organizations, political parties, and for-profit institutions.  Groups like the Black Panthers recognized this, and (despite their eventual collapse) put the bulk of their organizing efforts into the creation of free health clinics, transportation services, community schools, breakfast programs, and so on–and all for the rationale of strengthening communities and building power for the revolutionary overthrow of class society.  

This isn’t to say that reformist and legislative methods cannot be useful–just that they are insufficient for stable, long-term efforts to battle environmental racism and other systems of exploitation.  As Lucy Parsons, the revolutionary anarcho-communist and feminist said:

Never be deceived that the rich will allow you to vote away their wealth.   

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