Addressing Issues of Environmental Justice

Edwardo Rhodes

Edwardo Rhodes
Photo by Melissa Maki

Over the last two decades, research has established that minority communities face a higher chance of being exposed to hazardous waste than the majority of the population.  Yet addressing the complexity of such issues has proven to be a difficult challenge. 

Edwardo Rhodes, professor of public and environmental affairs and vice chancellor for the Office of Academic Support and Diversity at Indiana University, offered a fresh perspective to questions of environmental justice in a talk at the University of Virginia last week.  Rhodes’ lecture “Environmental Justice in America: A New Paradigm” is the first in a series of lectures on Class, Race, and the Environment.

Rhodes calls for a shift in thinking regarding the development of environmental justice policy, both within the U.S. and globally.  He notes that unlike policy discussions on criminal justice, health or education, issues of race and socioeconomic status have historically been left out of environmental policy considerations.  In addition, minorities are not well-represented in influential positions at national environmental agencies or non-governmental organizations.

“We should stay away from making environmental justice exclusively a race question...”  Rhodes cautions. “Race and income are so closely tied together, we tend to forget—this is an economic issue not a moral one.”  Interestingly, older sites for hazardous waste disposal in the U.S. tend to be located near urban, minority communities, while new sites are more often located in poor, rural, and predominantly white areas. 

The Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”  Rhodes emphasizes the phrase “fair treatment” and observes that no particular group should bear a disproportionate amount of negative environmental consequences.  In terms of “meaningful involvement,” Rhodes comments that though the public may be negatively impacted by environmental regulations, they have been given virtually no opportunity to participate in or impact the decision-making process.

To remedy this, Rhodes suggests that knowledge sharing is key—and that state and local initiatives and non-governmental action groups could be helpful in educating and involving the public as well as spurring legislation that specifically targets environmental justice concerns.  Rhodes emphasizes the significance of addressing these problems soon. “I would argue that environmental justice may be the next great world policy issue.”

The Class, Race, and the Environment lecture sponsors: Environmental Thought and Practice Program; Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies; Institute for Practical Ethics; Law School; Department of Politics; Department of Science, Technology, and Society; and Department of Environmental Sciences