Chapter 1 Theoretical Background

The growing body of environmental literature strives to investigate how minorities differently experience pollution as compared to the white population. The literature has focused primarily on air pollution and industrial facilities releases in America, the areas with the most consistently accessible data. Many authors have focused on point source pollution, measuring how individuals experience pollution as a binary: the presence or absence of a polluting facility in the geographic unit of analysis (Szasz and Meuser, 1997). An alternate measure of pollution exposure is the count of polluting facilities within increasingly large buffer zones. These measures, limited by available data, fail to account for the variance in what chemicals, and how much of them, facilities emit. Alternate approaches have included data on transportation emissions and levels of NO2 and PM2.5 measured by air quality monitors.

The conclusions of environmental justice literature are not unanimous. Many studies conclude that minorities do experience a disproportionate toxicity or pollution burden (Gilbert and Chakraborty, 2011; Fisher, Kelly and Romm, 2006; Kravitz-Wirtz et al., 2016), others find that economic class accounts for most of the difference in experienced toxicity (Anderton et al., 1994), yet others find no significant differences at all (Hunter et al., 2003; Downey, 2007). The incredibly heterogeneous results have led to some dissent, with some arguing that all the field has achieved is to show that “in some specific areas, some ostensibly identifiable groups may, in some instances, live closer to some selected environmental hazards” (Bowen, 2002, emphasis added).

These discordant results are likely rooted in the past availability of data in environmental justice research and the field’s relationship with advocacy. Environmental justice research is unique in that research and advocacy have gone hand in hand, leading to research guided by the needs of communities. This has led to an unusually focused body of work, evaluating specific communities for the presence of specific toxins at specific times (Sadd et al., 1999; US GAO, 1893; Moghadam and Kayahan, 2017; Gilbert and Chakraborty, 2011). Though some work has had a broader net, few authors have broached national data (Ringquist, 1997; Hunter et al., 2003) and even fewer have used data spanning significant time (Kravitz-Wirtz et al., 2016). Due to the definitions of pollution used, uncertainty in pollution data, and differing geographic units of analysis, work spanning broader time periods and geographic regions is necessary to show the existence of environmental inequality on a national scale and begin to understand the processes that lead to environmental inequality.

Despite differing conclusions from the collective body of research, how we define and think about environmental justice is evolving. Several theories of how environmental injustices are created have arisen. The main theories on the origin of environmental injustice are economic, sociopolitical, and discriminatory explanations. What follows is an overview of past environmental justice research and theory, computational background is included in Chapter 5.

1.1 Economic Explanations

Theories focusing on economic aspects of environmental inequality rely on individual and industrial rational choice as an explanation. In the case of facility point source pollution, companies must make economically rational decisions when siting facilities. Those decisions can be multifaceted: if the location has easy access to transportation, or is close to raw materials, but a primary concern is cost of land. Given companies prefer siting polluting facilities on cheap land, and minority communities are frequently near cheap land (Anderton et al., 1994), it’s rational that there would be more facility siting in minority areas.

In the same vein, it would be economically rational for those with the means to escape newly sited pollution to do so (Hunter et al., 2003). Under this theory, cheaper land is more likely to be near minority communities, facilities will be sited there, and those who can afford to escape do so, devaluing the land further, and making it all the more attractive for facility siting. This would create a spiral that results in areas that act as wells for toxicity. Results have been mixed: several studies found that more facilities were sited in minority communities (Crowder and Downey, 2010), while others didn’t (Pais et al., 2013).

1.2 Sociopolitical Explanations

Sociopolitical explanations also rely upon siting decisions, but are more explicitly exploitative. Sociopolitical explanations theorize that companies choose to site in minority communities, as at risk communities will provide less resistance. At risk communities could be communities that show a lower voter turnout, have a large older population, are disproportionately renters, or are poorly politically represented. In theory, communities with lower organizing potential are more attractive for facility siting, as they pose a low risk of creating political or economic resistance to the proposed facility.

1.3 Racial Discrimination

Racial discrimination theories are divided in to overt and institutional racism theories. In discussion of these theories the language used tends to change, using the term ‘environmental racism’ rather than ‘environmental justice’.

The overt discrimination theory speculates that siting decisions are made to intentionally cause strife to minority communities or to protect wealthy white communities.

The institutional discrimination theory operates primarily on housing dynamics. Based on the knowledge that the number of minority individuals living near a sited facility has risen since first measured (Crowder et al., 2010), the theory states that minorities move towards polluting facilities due to reduced choice in the housing market. Reduced choice can arise in the choices realtors make in showing homes or the availability of mortgages. Local governments can compound problems with housing, as minority areas are more likely to be rezoned for industrial purposes by local government (Pais et al., 2013).

These three theories all point to the same outcome. Despite using different language and explanations, all represent different forms of institutional discrimination. Economic explanations rely on the segregation of minority communities created by redlining. Redlining destroyed investment in communities, prevented black families from investing in homes, and enforced segregated communities. Redlining created the geography and culture that enables economic and sociopolitical explanation, making it a consequence of previous overt discrimination.