Last Tuesday, the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia kicked off the 2019 rendition of the Phil Lind Initiative — the theme this year being “America and the Climate Crisis.” I had the pleasure of seeing Robert Bullard lead off this year’s speaker series with a talk on the politics of place. Bullard is currently a Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas. Described as the ‘father of environmental justice’, his research has covered issues of environmental racism, community reinvestment, and the just distribution of public services such as transportation and emergency response.
Environmental injustice in the United States
Bullard’s main argument for the evening was that in the United States, not every community is created equal. Demographically, place can be considered the best social indicators of wealth and well-being. A zip code can often predict the average prosperity of a household; the zip codes with the worst environmental and infrastructural conditions also house the poorest households in the United States. Furthermore, the Americans with the highest rates of disease, as well as those who are uninsured medically, tend to live in these zip codes.
The exploitation of land is correlated with the exploitation of people. Most areas in America where land is being exploited are home to extraction and resource industries, thus are some of the country’s most polluted areas as well. These are the only areas that the poorest families can afford to live in, and since they have little social mobility, they are constantly being exploited as they try to make a living.
Unsurprisingly, minorities suffer the most from environmental inequalities. According to the Distressed Communities Index, black and Latino households have been disproportionately concentrated in zip codes with the worst economic well-being in recent years. They are 63 percent more likely to live near refineries, mines, and other sources of dirty power, and they also breathe air that is 38 percent more polluted. In fact, a black individual that makes $50,000 annually is still more likely to live in a more polluted area than a white person that makes $10,000 a year. The most polluted American communities are located in the deep south, where the largest number of minorities live. Bullard laments that the US government has allocated minimal effort to supporting these communities, considering the deep south will be hit hardest as climate change worsens.
Discrimination also prevents minorities from receiving proper disaster relief, as government aid—in practice—prioritizes white households over other households. In the aftermath of a hurricane, communities with large white demographics actually gain wealth while communities with large minority populations lose wealth. In essence, the imbalance of clean communities and proper disaster relief is not an economic problem, but a political problem.
Looking to the future
Bullard ended his talk with anecdotes from his experience researching different jurisdictions of American public policy such as transportation, infrastructure, and food security. He noted that when analyzing any of these policy areas, one would find similar inequalities just like the ones related to place and environment.
When asked if he is hopeful that American communities could be reformed to be more equal, Bullard answered that even though he finds the Trump administration troubling, he is optimistic that the next generation of leaders, such as the newest representatives sworn into Congress, will be able to deliver positive change.
For me, the key takeaway from Bullard’s talk relates to a growing trend in the discussion of sustainable policies — when environmentally-friendly policies are implemented, they should not just be exclusive to affluent communities. I personally think this is a problem that public policy schools should be addressing more frequently in their programs. They frequently incorporate the study of environmental policies, but rarely discuss how their positive effects often only impact a small portion of a given population.
The Phil Lind Initiative is an annual speaker series led by the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. Funded by Rogers Vice-Chair Philip Lind, the series focuses on a new policy theme each year, and invites academics and professionals across interdisciplinary fields. To find out more, visit https://lindinitiative.ubc.ca/.
Sean Wu is a Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs student at UBC. With a professional background in digital marketing and academic background in international relations, he looks to create insightful content that will effectively explain complex policy issues to a general audience.
All photos courtesy of the UBC School of Public Policy and Global Affairs.