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Inequality and the Environment

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James Boyce: In places where the income gap is greatest, the environment is more degraded for everyone.

James Boyce: In places where the income gap is greatest, the environment is more degraded for everyone.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. We’re continuing our discussion with James Boyce, who now joins us from Amherst, Massachusetts.

James is director of the Program on Development, Peace Building, and the Environment at the PERI institute, and he’s author of a new book, Economics, the Environment and Our Common Wealth.

Thanks for joining us again, James.


JAY: So in the first interview, we talked about the issue of the environment as a social justice issue, not just a thing of defending nature, you can say, for its own sake. But dig into that a little bit more. How does inequality feed environmental degradation?

BOYCE: Sure. Well, if you think about why we get variations in the extent of environmental problems around the country and around the world, one of the relationships that we can often see is that where there are wider inequalities of wealth, inequalities in the distribution of power, we’re likely to get more environmental degradation. And the reason for that is connected to what we were talking about earlier. The people who benefit from environmentally degrading activities tend to be those who are more wealthy and more powerful, and the people who bear the costs tend to be those who are less wealthy and less powerful. So where the disparities between people are greater, the ability of those who benefit to impose these environmental costs on others is greater as well and we tend to get more environmental degradation.

Let me give you two examples of this, Paul. The first has to do with comparing industrial air pollution in the United States across the hundreds of metropolitan areas in our country. Some colleagues here at PERI and myself did a study which came out last year called Is Environmental Justice Good for White Folks?, in which we looked at disparities in impacts of air pollution by race and by income across the cities of the United States. And we found that in the cities where you have bigger disparities, where the gaps between the pollution exposures of people of color and white folks is larger, you also tend to get much more pollution. In fact, you tend to get so much more pollution, Paul, that the white folks in those places actually have dirtier air than white folks have in places where the disparities aren’t as great. So even though it may look like, well, they’re benefiting because they’re in the cleaner parts of town, in fact the air quality in their metro area as a whole is so much worse that they’re breathing dirtier air than in cities where there’s a more equal distribution of environmental burdens. So the conclusion that we come to is that yes, environmental justice is in fact good for white folks as well as for people of color. It’s good for more affluent people, as well as for low-income people as well.

The second piece of evidence that I’ll share with you, Paul, is a few years ago I did a study with another group of colleagues in which we looked at environmental conditions across the 50 states, and we tried to get a handle on why environmental quality’s better in some states and worse in other states. And what we found again was the degree of environmental degradation, pollution, resource depletion, had a lot to do with the extent of inequalities of wealth and power. Where income inequalities were greater, where educational inequalities were greater, where the fairness of fiscal policy in terms of both the tax system and access to services like Medicaid was better, you tended to find differences in environmental degradation. More equal distributions of wealth and power as proxied by these measures were associated with better environmental policies.

So I think the two are really connected. They’re joined at the hip, Paul. These aren’t separate struggles. It’s not like over here there’s an environmental struggle that should be waged by elite people interested in protecting nature for its own sake and over here are social justice struggles waged by people trying to increase their access to the American dream. These things are joined together, Paul. They’re part of the same struggle. And the way forward in terms of environmental progress in the United States, it seems to me, is to connect them up rather than leave them in separate boxes.

JAY: And it seems to me one of the things, difficulties in connecting them up is: so many of the proposed solutions seem so overly complicated, you know, whether it’s on climate change—cap and trade, all the various market-based solutions, one way or the other are very difficult to fathom. And, frankly, there’s a lot of evidence they don’t work anyway and the financialization of these issues is really just another way for the same elites to make money, whereas, you know, a straightforward proposition—you know, coal plants are putting out too much carbon, well, then regulate them out of existence, whether it’s over time or not. But, I mean, people—you know, one can get your head around that and connect these dots in terms of social justice and environment if it wasn’t seeming so complicated.

BOYCE: Yeah. Well, I think the basic principles that ought to inform environmental policies, starting from the ethical foundation that we all have an equal right to a clean and safe environment, are really pretty straightforward, Paul, and they’re principles on which the majority of the people, I think, already agree if you ask them about it.

The first principle is that we all ought to have comparable environmental quality. It’s unconscionable that we would have situations where some subgroups of the population—low-income people, people of color—are burdened with worse environmental quality for reasons that are no fault of their own. Everybody—if we’re going to clean up the environment, we ought to clean it up as much for them as for the wealthier white people who are living out in the suburbs. That’s principle number one. We all deserve the same level of environmental protection.

Principle number two, Paul—and this is where you get into these issues of finance and so on—is that insofar as we are going to allow uses of the environment that reduce environmental quality—for example pollution, for example emissions of carbon dioxide that contribute to global warming, for example depletion of nonrenewable natural resources—then we ought to think about who ought to get paid for the use of our environment within the limits that we set to protect and safeguard the well-being of future generations.

And if we start with the principle that the environment belongs to all of us in equal and common measure, then it seems to me the answer to that question, who are the rightful owners of the environment and who should be paid for the uses of the environment that we’re willing to allow, the answer to that question should be: we all should get paid, everybody should get paid in equal amounts. It shouldn’t be the case that payments to use the environment result in windfall profits for corporations, and it shouldn’t be the case that payments to use the environment go straight into government coffers as tax revenue. The money ought to be shared and shared equally among the people. And that’s a principle that I don’t think is really that difficult for folks to grasp.

So, number one, protect the environment equally for all. And number two, when people can use the environment in ways that generate pollution or reduce the availability of natural resources—and let’s face it, Paul, some of these uses are going to continue for a long time—then they ought to pay for it. It shouldn’t be free. And the people who get the money ought to be all of us.

JAY: Well, in terms of whether it goes to people individually or goes into government coffers, I mean, in Baltimore, in theory, if it went into Baltimore coffers, it could be used to help revive the public school system. That wouldn’t be so bad.

BOYCE: No, I’m not saying none of it should go to government coffers, Paul, because clearly we do need public investments, including investments in things that improve the environment. But the basic principle is that the environment doesn’t belong to the government; it belongs to all of us. And we the people are the ones who deserve, I think, the majority of the revenue that’s gained from allowing people to use that environment. And if we decide that we want some of that to go to the government to provide public goods, to provide schools, to provide transportations, etc., we can decide that. But we need to agree at the beginning who actually are the rightful owners of the environment, and I think it’s you and me.

JAY: But when it comes to dealing with this as a social justice issue, if we’re talking concretely, we’re talking about, you know, carbon emissions from energy production, energy use, sometimes it’s toxic emission from industrial process, I mean, doesn’t—there needs to be just—you know, government does need at some point to say, stop it, ’cause this is where I’m making my point before. You know, like, if you’re talking about connecting ordinary people with this as a social justice issue, meaning that they will fight for it, it’s hard to fight for some complicated financial mechanism. If it’s bad, stop it.

BOYCE: Well, Paul, this isn’t an either-or thing, because of course you need to have regulations, right? And sometimes you can and should just say, stop it. But we’re not going to stop generating energy in this country. It’s not going to happen. We’re going to be generating energy. We need energy. Gradually, hopefully, we’ll switch from doing it in really nasty and polluting ways, like through coal-fired power plants, to cleaner and more sustainable ways, like wind and solar. But that’s going to be a transition, right? So you need regulations for sure to limit the damage that’s being done. No question about it. But you’re not going to stop the damage altogether, right, Paul?

And so the question is you not only need to limit the damage, but then you’ve got to say, what about the damage that we’re allowing? What about the activities that we’re allowing to proceed within those regulations? Should those be free? Should the deal be, you can only emit so much pollution, after that it’s illegal, but before that it’s totally free? I don’t think so. I think polluters ought to pay. If we allow them to pollute, that shouldn’t be giving them freedom to pollute; that should be allowing them to pay in order to have the rights we create to use our environment.

So I don’t see this as an either-or question, Paul. It’s not regulation on the one hand versus financial incentives on the other. It’s both. We need both of these things.

JAY: Okay. Thanks for joining us, James.

We’re going to continue, in future segments, talking about James’ books.

And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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