08 September 2005

The Caste System of Environmental Disaster

In Race To The Bottom, Lisa Featherstone makes a strong case for the Katrina disaster as proof of environmental inequality. It's worth a read for those of you who may be wondering why all the people we see on the news in the form of bloated corpses, wailing wives, and rooftop rescues are dark in pigment. In a metro area of approximately 800,000-1 million people, over 35% are African-American (over 60% in the inner city). For decades New Orleans seems to have been a model of integration in a way that much of the south has not been. Every aspect of NO culture has been infused with African-American energy and spirit. And yet these are the people whose neighborhoods are built on toxic Superfund dumps, whose homes are closest to Cancer Alley, and whose lack of ready transportation is not accounted for in the standard evacuation plans.

What is frightening to consider is that this kind of environmental segregation is not new, nor is it uncommon. Black farmers do not get the relief that white farmers do when the government subsidizes losses. Poor neighborhoods are the last to be evacuated in any emergency, regardless of distance or convenience. Earlier in this blog, in a prime example of environmental injustice, I discussed a situation in So. Cal where the property owners at the top of the hill wanted an ordinance in place which would chop down all the eucalyptus trees on the properties at the bottom of the hill because they "blocked the view." Those trees are the only vegetation holding the soil from complete erosion and, thus, preventing the cliff-top homes from tumbling down. No points for guessing who won that battle anyway-- the rich folk who wanted their unobstructed view. In a Machiavellian maneuver, one major city chose to give permit for a dump transfer station to be built in the middle of a poor, mostly black neighborhood already ragged and riddled by deterioration. The permit required the company to clean up and restructure the city block it was mowing down and provide public green space. How public green space can make up for the smell of rotting refuse wafting from next door because your government doesn't give a damn about your quality of life?

Given any 10 miles of coastline, it is guaranteed that the high ground will go to those who have and the low to those who have not. Given any 30 miles of riverbed, the upstream will belong to the rich and the downstream to the poor. When cities "revitalize" their neighborhoods, it is always with a higher price tag and tax assessment levied so that the poor end up forced to move out.

The "other side of the tracks" still exists in some form in every community. What Katrina has done on a large scale is expose this inequity. If anything good can come of a disaster, I hope that it will be a wake-up call to the we in which use the environment to act out our prejudices. For more information on environmental justice, visit The Environmental Justice Resource Center of Clark University.

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