The hybridity of environmental justice provides an opportunity for changing the rules of the game

To attempt to fully comprehend the injustices unfolding from global warming, one needs to deeply consider the far-reaching impacts across geographical and temporal scales of climate change.

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The fact that the poorest among us will suffer the most from the negative impacts of the so-called modern progress and economic growth that will be played out in the catastrophic impacts of global warming comes as no surprise to anyone. In fact, most of us feel that there is not much that can be done about it as that is always how it has been. Just because that is the way it has been for some time has made the climate crisis for the poorest, in a way, ‘invisible’ to many of us, –the globally ‘better off’ people. We can stop seeing something that has always been there before our eyes.

It is generally accepted that the only way for the poor to escape their dire conditions is to become wealthy, to join the ranks of the ‘better off’. In the meantime, all the ‘better off’ people are trying to get wealthier to secure better chances for themselves and their children. In this manner, we all continue to propagate and remain trapped in the capitalist, growth cycle, which has led us to the global environmental crisis we are in now. It is, therefore, necessary now more than ever before, to fundamentally change the rules of the game and the environmental justice movement can potentially be the gamechanger to effect the radical transformations we need.

The hybridity of the environmental justice movement, perhaps more than any other, provides us multiple frames to analyse and find recourse for the many injustices that range from the environmental to the social and humanitarian that is unfolding gradually due to global warming. Environmental justice is becoming a global force for social change and democratization as it articulates a vision for global justice, human rights and sustainability. The environmental justice frameworks offer insight into the unjust and inequitable impacts of climate change to marginalised poor communities and nations.

The lived experience and cycle of suffering of impoverished and historically marginalised peoples often lie just beyond the gaze of the privileged, in the periphery or the penumbra[1]. It is argued that the poor, even though they are in majority throughout the world, are faced with the twofold challenges of invisibility and the amnesia of the privileged, who firstly cannot ‘see’ their plight and, secondly, even if they see their plight, they forget it very soon. Environmental justice, through its recent engagement with intersectionality and its bringing together of the environmental and civil rights movements, provides multiple frames that make it possible to ‘see’, comprehend and analyse the many layers, complexities and differential scales that have made poor people ‘invisible’ within nations and between nations.

It is a tragic irony that, although democracies and democratic processes, which are based on the ‘rule of the majority’, are fought for and celebrated by nations throughout the world; in reality, the global human majority of this planet continue to remain marginalised and poor, while the minority groups of the privileged and powerful continue to rule and make decisions for all. An Oxfam briefing paper (2016, p. 2) reports that, “[s]ince the turn of the century, the poorest half of the world’s population has received just 1% of the total increase in global wealth, while half of that increase has gone to the top 1%.”

The environmental justice movement was brought about by a coalition and hybridism of environmental and civil rights movements that had never been seen before. Most scholars would point to the landmark 1982 protests in Warren County, USA, as the first time that environmental justice concerns made it to the forefront of the national American stage and from there to a wider western audience[2]. In that historic event, civil rights activists, black political leaders and environmentalists came together in what was then an unlikely coalition to protest the dumping of highly contaminated soil in a largely African American poor area.

Environmental justice was, at first, mostly concerned with the inequitable distribution of environmental risks, which was what the Warren County issue was about. Prior to that, race-based movements, as well as those led by other minority groups and the poor, had voiced their exposure to high environmental risks, but environmental activist groups, who were mainly from white, middle class communities, had not joined in with them. The early mainstream environmental movement in the USA was not overly concerned with social inequalities or the impacts of environmental pollution on marginalised human populations. It was mainly concerned with the loss of nature and biodiversity. Retrospectively, today, one can see that it was an understandable merger as it is a commonplace knowledge now that negative environmental conditions are another indicator of social and economic inequities[3]. It is evident that unequal distribution of the environmental benefits as well as its negative impacts resulted from the continued reinforcement of deeply embedded historic, cultural and economic hierarchies, which were manifested by the privileged, wealthy people lacking empathy for those who were ‘other’. These elitists‘ entitled attitudes based on race, colour, gender, ethnicity, caste and class have become institutionalised and systemic through the history of colonisation, capitalism and resource exploitation. At the same time, these hierarchies are not only maintained by the Global North, but they also play out within the Global South among people of the same nation where ruling groups repress and marginalise minorities.

People of developing and less developed countries like Nepal face the increasing impacts of climate change caused by emission of greenhouse gases.

Climate justice has been shaped by the discourse and movement for environmental justice. The environmental violence from climate change is a delayed destruction that is occurring very gradually, and it does not get the attention and top priority that immediate violent events do[4]. However, it is real violence with catastrophic risks for human lives and livelihoods. Environmental justice is concerned with how environmental risks come to be borne by poor, marginalised communities as a healthy environment is a basic right of all people, according to the Rio declaration[5]. Economic activities, together with physical location and social geography, generate the landscape of risk and that environmental equity originates from social, generational and procedural dissimilarities[6]. In current management approaches, it is a standard practice to analyse and plan for inequities in risk exposure, mitigation and compensation. It follows that, it is, therefore, imperative to consider, manage and compensate environmental risks, including planetary climate change risks, which are unevenly and inequitably spread across nations and peoples.

To attempt to fully comprehend the injustices unfolding from global warming, one needs to deeply consider the far-reaching impacts across geographical and temporal scales of climate change. The book, Slow Violence (Nixon, 2011), brings attention to what the author Nixon calls ‘temporal and spatial webs of violence’, which make poor people and places they inhabit invisible to the privileged in this age of neoliberal globalization[7]. Nixon explains how this occurs by using Indra Sinha’s fictional novel, Animal’s People, which is based on the real-life leakage of toxic gas in Bhopal, India, from a pesticide plant owned by the American company, Union Carbide, which killed between 5,000 and 15,000 people in 1984. In the years that followed, thousands more died or were afflicted with life-threatening disabilities. Sinha’s novel dramatically illustrates the risk relocation from a wealthy nation to a poorer one. It also elucidates how an array of distancing strategies were employed that were temporal, legalistic, geographical, scientific and euphemistic to distance the responsibility and relation to the corporate bastion as the disaster played out over a long-time frame and at a huge distance from the parent company.

There are parallels in the slow violence wrought by a pesticide plant to the slow moving, gradually unfolding, tragic and disastrous long-term impacts of climate change on poor people and poor nations that are removed in great distance by space and time and by the many layered complexities of being independent nations from those first world countries who are the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.

Climate injustice is evident in Nepal today, and in the larger Hindu Kush Himalayan region. In the last few years, Nepal’s mountains, hills and plains have been hit by erratic, extreme weather that climate change has brought. Global warming is leading to rapid retreat of glaciers in high altitudes. In the last few years, many villagers from the country’s mountain districts, have had to migrate due to extreme water shortage as a result of depleting spring sources and snow storages. One example is the village of Dhye in remote Upper Mustang which simply ran out of water due to glacial retreat (Devkota 2013).

Dhye village in Nepal, photo credit: New York Times, April 2020.

Unfortunately, with little help from the government, the villagers resettled on their own to another perilous location on the river bank, which is vulnerable to flooding[8]. Using the environmental justice lens, it is crucial that these lived experiences of people who are severely impacted by climate change should be made visible and brought to the fore for consideration. Otherwise, it is entirely possible that the suffering of those deeply impacted poor people and the responsibility of those with the responsibility of historical emission of greenhouse gases will remain lost and invisible in the geographical and temporal distances and multi-layered complexities.

NOTES

[1]              See Nixon (2011)

[2]        See Bullard (1990); Cutter (1995) Mohai et al. (2009)

[3]        Robert Bullard, an American sociologist, is often called the father of Environmental Justice, as he first brought attention to the fact that people of colour and other marginalised groups, such as recent immigrants to the USA and poor people, were the ones who lived in neighbourhoods where hazardous facilities were increasingly being sited and disproportionate levels of environmental pollutants were being dumped. Bullard (1990) found that communities of colour were deliberately being targeted for dumping environmental pollutants and this conscious targeting was due to historic and contemporary institutionalised racism

[4]        Nixon (2011)

[5]        UN (1992)

[6]        Cutter (1995)

[7]        Nixon (2011, pg. 46)

[8]        Devkota (2014)

References:

Bullard R., 1990. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality. Westview Press. Boulder, United States.

Cutter S., 1995. Race, Class and Environmental Justice. Progress in Human Geography. 19 (1), 111-122.

Devkota F., 2013. Climate Change and its’ Socio Cultural Impact in the Himalayan Region of Nepal. A Visual Documentation. Anthrovision. Vaneasa Online Journal 1.2., Accessed 1 June 2021.

Mohai, P., Pellow D., & Timmons R. J., 2009. Environmental Justice. Annual Review of Environment and Resources. 34, 405-30.

Nixon, R., 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press, United States.

United Nations 1992, Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/generalassembly/docs/globalcompact/A_CONF.151_26_Vol.I_Declaration.pdf, Accessed 1 June 2021.

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