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Research Environmental Discrimination and Environmental Justice


In recent years, environmental discrimination becomes an inevitable evil affected all geographical regions. In the real world, people strive for the national interest as they subjectively perceive it. The relationship between the objective and subjective versions of the concept is inevitably problematic. Is there an objective national interest that exists for a country whether or not citizens and leaders correctly perceive it, or is the national interest comprised of whatever the nation-state, through its ever-evolving values and political process, determines it to be at any one time? Among policy-makers, the level of attention given to the concept of the national interest by the major powers has fluctuated with the degree of concern over their clarity of thinking in foreign policy.

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Environmental discrimination

Environmental discrimination means pollution and degradation of wildlife. “ By correlating geographical indicators of this incidence, such as the location of dumps or the level of air pollution, with the socio-economic characteristics of surrounding communities, researchers draw conclusions about the extent of environmental discrimination” (Orme and Orme 109). Use of the word “discrimination” signifies more than the physical properties of Earth. It denotes a political construct comparable in kind to, but different in scale from, the nation-state. No institutional reality currently reflects this; that is the problem identified in the preface (Shapiro 42). But the absence of the institutional reality does not preclude the introduction of the political construct—indeed, it necessitates it. The definition is, inevitably, anthropocentric insofar as it focuses on the survival and viability of humanity and improvement of the human condition. Yet, without according an “interest” to an inanimate object such as the planet, it concomitantly incorporates both a human interest in and responsibility for, planetary stewardship. Obversely, the planet can be accepted as having a claim on humanity for that stewardship. The planet has been affected already by human behavior. The global temperature, for example, has risen significantly since the Industrial Revolution. While a term such as “major anthropogenic change” begs the question of what is an absolute or accurate quantification of effect, it is judged here that the changes to the planet to date have not yet caused unacceptable damage. Yet the prospect exists in the future of major anthropogenic change which could result in such damage (Quinn et al 12).

Environmental discrimination in American society

In the USA, much of society has long believed wetlands to be insect and disease-infested, barriers to movement, and deterrents to development. The redeeming features of wetlands are perceived to be their role as refuges from persecution or attack and their regulatory effects on runoff, acting like sponges to soak up floodwaters and then to release this water over the dry season. Wetlands have been viewed as wastelands and, generally speaking, too many a farmer or developer, a good wetland is a drained wetland. Wetland researchers, however, have recognized the multiple functions served by wetlands. They provide habitats for fish, wildlife, and migratory birds. Wetlands near population centers offer recreational opportunities (Quinn et al 12). Their peat is a source of fuel and industrial raw materials. Wetlands are a major source of methane, which, as a greenhouse gas, has potential effects on global warming. Since the last century, many wetlands in the United States and northern regions have undergone degradation or conversion to other forms of land use. The conversion for agricultural, silvicultural, pastoral, or urban usage is preceded by a transformation in wetland hydrology. Wetland restoration, therefore, calls for a reversal of such artificial hydrologic behavior. Restoration does not end with hydrology alone—other wetland attributes must be considered. The engineering work required to change the water storage and flow in a wetland may take up to 10 years, as does the alteration of topography that accompanies these hydrologic changes. Sedimentation and vegetation change may take up to 100 years to attain a new equilibrium. Chemical and physical changes of the sediments and accumulation of peat will take on the order of 100 to 1000 years, depending on climate and the biogeochemical environment. In addition, the hydrology of many wetlands is influenced by conditions upstream of, or surrounding, the wetlands. Even after the internal morphology, hydrology, and ecology are restored to a wetland, it may still be affected by stream inflow and/or lateral runoff from adjacent slopes, both of which could have been irreversibly changed by human activities (Robson and Schneider 16).

The conversion of native vegetation to cropland, pasture, and urban areas has had direct impacts on animal populations in the region. There are, however, interesting scenarios that point to critical ecological links, which, with careful planning, have partially restored vital breeding niches. The greater sandhill crane, a listed sensitive species, uses a migratory path through the Central Valley and Klamath-Cascade regions on its way to breeding farther north. With many of the staging areas under cultivation, the importance of managing the landscape with “wild hay” adjacent to wetlands has been recognized as critical to the foraging habits of the crane and other birds (Mckibben 11). Studies initiated in 1986 in the Ash Creek Wildlife Area of northern California have shown that populations of crane, and of other species such as the song sparrow, have increased significantly with the practice of “late haying.” This practice, which delays hay cutting to permit fledgling success, increases nesting, brood-rearing and foraging time while reducing alert time (Orme and Orme 109).

Human impacts on water supply and quality are a continuing issue in the region, especially in urban and agricultural areas. Common problems in urban areas include contamination of water in natural and concrete channels and nearshore waters with pathogenic viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Although constituent mass emissions and concentrations of effluents from municipal wastewater facilities offer a partial profile of water chemistry, errant constituents from uncontrolled sources complicate the picture of water quality. Studies of effluents discharged through controlled facilities into the Southern California Bight from 1971 to 1996 showed reductions in cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, zinc, nickel, selenium, and arsenic. Further, with irrigation, naturally occurring elements may concentrate in runoff and groundwater (Mank 4). In the western Central Valley, the water table in irrigated lands rises and concentrates salts and other elements such as selenium and boron in the crop root zone. To address this problem, more irrigation water was initially introduced, but this led to a further concentration of minerals in groundwater. Subsequent mitigation of the problem has included a monitoring program with target reduction goals using diversion drainage channels. Results for 1995–97 showed a 33–44% reduction in selenium, suggesting that with diligence and funding, such problems may be brought under control (“Land Degradation” 26).

The Mediterranean-type environment of Greater California is unique in North America for its summer drought and winter rains, and the distinctive ecological response to this seasonality imposed over 13° of latitude and a 4000-m elevational range. Despite the hazards of fire, flood, and drought associated with this climate regime, the region’s prolonged sunshine and warmth, together with its mineral, timber, and land resources, have long attracted human immigrants (Orme and Orme 112). For example, California’s population, most of whom live within the Mediterranean region, has risen rapidly from 93,000 in 1850, 1.5 million in 1900, and 10.5 million in 1950, to perhaps 35 million in 2000 (an uncertain figure because of the many undocumented immigrants). During the same period, the proportion of the urban population has grown from 8% in 1850 to nearly 95% in 2000. The greater Los Angeles area now contains 16 million people, the San Francisco Bay area 7 million, and the San Diego-Tijuana area astride the United States—Mexico border a further 4 million (Orme and Orme 114). The significance of this growth to the physical environment is the degradation of the region’s land, air, water, plant, and animal resources. Such impacts are greatest in and near urban and industrial areas, where much of the natural landscape has been obliterated or severely modified, where air and water pollution is widespread, and where the built landscape has introduced artificial hydrologies and habitats. To feed the population of this region and beyond, the expansion of agriculture over the past 150 years has similarly transformed most natural lowlands into farmland. Some 10% of the Mediterranean region is now irrigated. And support for this population, especially in the subhumid south, has necessitated vast transfers of water from the Sierra Nevada, northern California, and the Colorado River. Further, the recreational quest of urban people impacts coasts and mountains far beyond the cities. Concern for these areas and their resources has seen the creation of many federal and state parks, notably the Yosemite (1890), Sequoia (1890), and Redwood (1968) National Parks in California, and the Sierra Juarez and Sierra San Pedro Mártir National Parks in Baja California Norte. Similarly, ocean resources have been given some protection by marine sanctuaries around Monterey Bay and the Channel Islands. Nonetheless, this region’s persistent attraction to people over the past 150 years has come to threaten the very qualities that distinguish its Mediterranean environment (Orme and Orme 117).

Power and status relations

The dislodged and broken soil particles plug infiltration routes and become susceptible to erosion by overland flow. Without vegetation cover, overland flow encounters few obstacles to slow its velocity. Increases in the velocity of surface runoff produce geometric increases in erosive energy. A similar southwestern Wisconsin study in 1995, but comparing soil organic carbon in native prairie with organic carbon in an adjoining field, also showed major degradation of soil organic content with cultivation. In this case, rotations of corn, wheat, oat, and hay crops on a very low-gradient upland field since about the mid-nineteenth century accounted for approximately a 60% loss of organic carbon from the top 10–15 cm of the soil profile. When averaged over the top 20 cm, the organic carbon in the prairie ranged from 3% to 5% but was only 1.5–2.5% in the adjoining field. The depletion of organic content by oxidation and erosion reduced the porosity by about 10% below its original value for the prairie soil (Ehrhardt 569).

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Conversion of prairie and forest to agricultural cropland in the midcontinent of North America followed the conversion of the eastern woodlands by about a century. During the decade 1860–69, approximately 8 million hectares of U.S. forestlands were cleared for agricultural expansion, nearly half of this being in the midwestern states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. By the 1880s, agricultural clearing began to focus on the open prairies and plains rather than on the forested regions (Orme and Orme 112). Fueling the agricultural expansion into the midcontinent was the availability of rich farmlands to replace the badly eroded and nutrient-depleted soils of the eastern states. The consequences of nearly two centuries of accelerated soil erosion caused by agricultural land use are expressed today in the region’s truncated soil profiles. The severe erosion and sedimentation in the forest and prairie regions of midcontinental North America began with the initial land clearance for agriculture, but the most destructive period occurred during the latter half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries Wisconsin (Mank 7).

Environmental discrimination in terms of functionalism

Taking into account the functionalist perspective, it is possible to say that organization and increased pollution contribute to environmental discrimination the most. With urbanization, impermeable roofs, paved roads, and sidewalks replace permeable soil areas, resulting in increased runoff and reduced groundwater recharge To compensate for this loss of recharge, recharge wells that route runoff directly down to aquifers and recharge basins that trap runoff and provide time for infiltration into groundwater have been constructed. Although recharge basins and wells are beneficial in restoring potentially lost recharge to the underlying aquifers, they can be sources of contamination. Runoff diverted into recharge basins in Nassau and Suffolk counties, close to the City of New York, contained contaminants such as fertilizers, pesticides, deicing salts, organic debris, grease, road oil, rubber, asphaltic materials, hydrocarbons, animal feces, and food wastes. Many of these contaminants are not biodegradable and may continue to persist in groundwater at levels dangerous to health for long periods of time (Mank 7). Similarly, private wells, although not unique to urbanization, can be problematic in urban areas where high population densities tap into shallow aquifers. If not installed properly, these wells may serve as conduits for the flow and seepage of pollutants from surface water into groundwater. Effects of excessive withdrawal include declining groundwater levels and in some cases declining surface water levels and desiccation of wetlands. In coastal areas, overpumping may induce landward movement of the fresh-saltwater interface, causing saltwater intrusion of coastal freshwater wells. Saltwater intrusion has occurred in each of the 21 coastal states in the United States (Atkinson et al., 1986). This problem is primarily associated with high water demand from large population centers rather than agricultural activities, and it is clear that saltwater intrusion is a potential threat when areas proximal to the sea are developed Excessive withdrawals of groundwater can also cause ground subsidence, which has resulted in damage to building structures, highways, pipelines, and tunnels (Fetter, 1988). There are numerous cases of groundwater mining and associated land subsidence, notably in Houston, Baton Rouge, and Phoenix. Many parts of Mexico City have experienced extensive subsidence (as much as 7 m between 1880 and 1970) as groundwater has been extracted from sand and gravel aquifers in the ancient lake basin beneath the city (Robson and Schneider 16).

In a world that is responding increasingly to global forces yet is increasingly nationalistic at the same time, the question of legislative and enforcement authority at the global level is a delicate and sensitive one. Some propose greater powers for the United Nations on the grounds that the International community is not acting fast enough in the face of certain global problems. Others oppose this on several grounds: some on philosophical judgments of individual and national freedoms, some in the political judgment that the global institutions as presently composed are not sufficiently representative of the world’s people (Robson and Schneider 16). Today, land-use planning on federal lands frequently involves several highly emotional interest groups with disparate agendas, and government agency officials are caught in the crossfire. Environmentalists tend to view the Forest Service and BLM as captives of logging and ranching interests; ranchers and loggers, on the other hand, have always regarded the government agencies as unsympathetic to their concerns, and more interested in bureaucratic control than proper ecological management. Recently, environmentalists’ concerns have expanded yet again to encompass the possible threats posed by atmospheric and other global change, such as acid rain, greenhouse warming, and stratospheric ozone depletion.


In sum, environmental discrimination affects all regions and geographical places, so most environmental NGOs, and probably most individual environmentalists, are especially concerned about some specific subset of the total number of environmental issues. It remains useful, if undeniably oversimplified, to distinguish among conservationists, with an interest in sustainable development (paralleling Pinchot’s earlier emphasis on sustained yield and equal opportunity for all); preservationists, interested especially in biodiversity (in contrast to the early preservationists’ focus on aesthetically pleasing wild landscapes); and environmentalists, primarily concerned about pollution, and frequently also anti-technology. Concern over global climate change, as well as related changes such as in biogeochemical cycling, is increasing rapidly. It is clear that the magnitude of human-induced changes to the atmosphere and interacting systems will continue to increase for the foreseeable future. It is also clear that the potential impacts could be major. However, the complexity of Earth’s ocean-atmosphere-biosphere system and the diversity of chemicals that we are producing make it difficult to predict exactly what these impacts will be, and therefore, exactly what sort of policy should be enacted. The basic procedure for attempting to predict global change involves progressive modeling, with the aid of powerful computers; monitoring what is actually happening in the real world, with the aid of satellite remote sensing; and mapping the results in a Geographical Information System. This procedure has allowed climatologists to make great strides in comprehending our climate system, but it is unreasonable to expect that we will ever be able to predict future climate with absolute confidence.

Works Cited

Ehrhardt-Martinez, K. Social Determinants of Deforestation in Developing Countries: A Cross-National Study. Social Forces, 77 (1998), 568-687.

Land Degradation. UN Chronicle, 34 (1997), 26. Mank, B. Standing and Global Warming: Is Injury to All Injury to None? Environmental Law 35 (2005): 1-13

Mckibben, B. Changing the Climate: Why a New Approach to Global Warming Would Make for a Better Politics-And Planet. The American Prospect, 2005: 10-11.

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Orme, A.R., and A.J. Orme, Greater California. In: A.J. Conacher and M. Sala (Editors), Land degradation in Mediterranean environments of the world: Nature and extent, causes and solutions. 1998, 109–122.

Robson, M., Schneider, D. Environmental Health Issues in Rural Communities. Journal of Environmental Health, 63 (2001), 16.

Quinn, N.W.T., J.C. McGahan, and M.L. Delamore, Innovative strategies reduce selenium in grasslands drainage. California Agriculture, 52 (1998), 12–18.

Shapiro, K. Global Warming: Apocalypse Now? Commentary 122, 2006: 42.

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