New book exposes relationship between environmental degradation and inequality of wealth and power
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
Now joining us from Amherst, Massachusetts, is James Boyce. He’s the director of the Program on Development, Peace Building, and the Environment at the PERI institute. He’s also a professor of economics at Amherst.
Stay in the loop
Never miss the news and analysis you care about.
Thanks very much for joining us, James.
JAMES BOYCE, PROF. ECONOMICS, UMASS AMHERST: Nice to be back, Paul.
JAY: So, James, you’ve written a new book titled Economics, the Environment and Our Common Wealth. Before we dig into some of the issues in the book, what was your kind of overriding objective in producing the book?
BOYCE: Well, what I wanted to do was bring out the fact that when we worry about environmental degradation, when we worry about pollution and depletion of natural resources, we should be thinking not only about the relationship between humans and the natural world, but also the relationships among human beings, because, basically, when we find problems of environmental degradation, we find problems where some people are benefiting at the expense of other people. If nobody was being harmed, it wouldn’t be a problem, at least not from the standpoint of economics.
So what I wanted to do in the book, Paul, was lift up the notion that these environmental problems are also social and economic and political problems and point to the implications of starting from an ethical standpoint that every human being on the face of the earth, present and future generations, we all have an equal right to a clean and safe environment, and think through what it would mean to actually organize our environmental policies around that fundamental principle.
JAY: So the thing is that, if I get it correctly, we’re—to a large extent here, the reason there’s such environmental degradation and the reason there’s such, I guess, opposition to dealing with issues like climate change—but it also includes issue of toxic poisoning of our environment—is that there’s interests there, there’s people that make money out of it, and that ethical concerns or the issue of human rights is not very paramount to those people.
BOYCE: Yeah, that’s right, Paul. I mean, these things don’t just happen by accident; they happen following various patterns, right? And we have to ask, whenever we see a problem of environmental degradation, who benefits from activities that are causing the problem (if nobody benefited, it wouldn’t be happening), who gets harmed, and why is it that the beneficiaries, the winners, are able to impose these harms on other people. And that really is the starting point for the book.
JAY: So what should be done? In this sense: it seems that—I guess there’s short term and long term. There has been some victory, you could say, reforms in mitigating some environmental degradation. But are we facing issues that are so profound, so deep, that in fact there needs to be a bigger social transformation before they can be dealt with?
BOYCE: Well, I think we need to build on the victories we’ve achieved in the past, which are not inconsequential or minor, and move forward. But it’s clear that we do need some big changes down the road. We’ve still got big problems to address.
I think what we need to build on are not only the victories of the environmental movement which brought us the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act and so on, but also the victories of the civil rights movement, of the voter rights movements, and so on which have helped to empower the people who tend to be on the losing end of environmental problems, the people who tend to be victimized most. Pollution, resource depletion, these don’t affect everybody equally, Paul. Some people get hit harder than others, and it tends to be low-income communities and people of color who get hit the hardest here in the United States. It tends to be low-income people around the world who get hit the hardest.
And so if we want to address environmental problems, we also have to think about how to improve the ability of those who have the most to gain from addressing these problems to make their voices heard and to make their health and well-being and their children’s well-being a central issue in the protection of the environment.
JAY: So what would you like to see? And concretely, what do you think needs to be done, given the current state of politics and such?
BOYCE: Well, I think we need to lift up the basic democratic and human rights principles that underlie environmental protection. We’re not just interested in protecting the environment and nature for its own sake. It’s not just about polar bears or spotted owls. It’s about real people here and now, and it’s about the well-being of future generations. And we need to think about those people when we’re thinking about protecting the environment. We need to think about kids whose life opportunities are being affected by the pollution to which they’re being exposed as infants and as small children. Air pollution, water pollution, these are human issues, human rights issues, and we need to be thinking about that and thinking about our commitment as a society to making sure that every child has an opportunity to live to their full potential and to have a productive and healthy and happy life. And I think if we broaden out our concerns with the environment to include our concerns with people, we can broaden the constituencies for doing something about the really serious environmental problems that we face today.
JAY: Because, like, I’m in Baltimore. In places—you know, some of the very poor areas of East Baltimore, West Baltimore, it’s very hard for people to relate to, for example, climate change, which seems rather abstract when you’re facing such, you know, difficulties getting through the day or very immediate issues of pollution. Like, there’s a guy in East Baltimore that does a toxic tour, when they take you around east Baltimore, the amount of toxic dumps right next to where people are living, yet they sit there year after year.
BOYCE: Yeah, that’s right. These are immediate environmental problems, and we ought to be paying attention to them. And there’s no conflict between doing that and paying attention to climate change. After all, burning of fossil fuels, which is the main culprit in climate change, also releases lots of other nasty pollutants that impact local communities. And it is the kinds of communities you’re talking about in Baltimore, in metropolitan areas across the country, that tend to be impacted worst by those emissions of pollutants from refineries, power plants, etc. It’s also the case that as the climate changes, the people who are most vulnerable to those climate changes are low-income people who don’t have the resources to adapt, don’t have the air conditioners, don’t have the ability to live in the leafy suburbs, don’t have the ability to even get out of town when a hurricane like Katrina hits.
So I think that dealing with the environment is really a social justice issue, Paul, and I think, to move forward, that’s how we need to increasingly frame it. We need to recognize that piece of the picture.
JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, James.
And we’re going to continue talking about some other chapters of James’ books in some other segments. So thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.
James K. Boyce is a Professor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the Director of the Program on Development, Peacebuilding, and the Environment at PERI – The Political Economy Research Institute.