Environmental Injustice

In the last decade, we have entered into a new culture of demonising environmental monsters – climate change, plastic pollution and environmental degradation to name a few. This is no doubt something to be celebrated; for centuries anthropogenic economic activities have precipitated detrimental environmental impacts without the same level of acute self-awareness as today. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, ignorance – whether intentional or unintentional has been one of the greatest environmental challenges; in fact it was not until the Great Smogs of London in 1952, which caused hundreds of fatal cases of pneumonia and other respiratory disease related deaths, that London’s first Clean Air Act (1956) was put in place.

These environmental issues are ‘wicked’ problems, as dubbed by Rittel and Webber in 1973 – these are problems which have such vast environmental, economic and social complexity, with inextricable interdependencies such that it does not have a determinable solution or stopping point. These are not just ‘environmental monsters’ due to their environmental effects, but because they are interwoven in a delicate web of socio-economic factors. The scramble for resources is a critical example. One of the main tensions at the forefront of the global oil and gas crisis is the geopolitical tensions between the Western superpowers, such as the USA, and the middle East, with added impetus from the concern of resource insecurity. Rising global demand due to increased consumption and growing global populations comes with insidious challenges, almost irreconcilable with the environmental toll of mass production. They are socially polarising, widely contested issues – the fabric of society has been, to an extent, cauterized by deepened political divides; climate change activism is characterised by the phenomenon of environmental hypochondria and challenged by skeptism and complacency. London: paralysed by its own army of climate change activists in the recent Extinction Rebellion protests; for some a powerful vehicle for change, for others a futile incursion of ‘Liberal Hippy politics.’ Where there is union, there is simultaneously division. Lost within a media storm, lies an interesting civil rights issue – the pinnacle of division: environmental racism, or environmental injustice.

An article in Forbes, which was published in June of last year was headlined ‘China emits more carbon dioxide than the U.S and the E.U combined’, according to data from the 2017 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, emitting over 9 billion metric tonnes that year compared to the E. U’s 3.4 billion metric tonnes, and the USA’s 5.1 billion metric tonnes. Of course, this isolated statistic does not underscore the problem of environmental injustice, however when put into the context of assigning responsibility for environmental degradation; mandating in the UN and implementing legislation on the regulation of global CO2 issues, with it comes a tsunami of ethical considerations.

It is tempting, as if the case with many media platforms, to demonise China for their large contribution to the greenhouse gas emissions and dissipate a large proportion of the blame onto them, but it is important to consider the phenomenon of secondary industries colonising the East. A large majority of plastic goods we consume in the western world have been manufactured in China or Asia Pacific, and as an emerging and developing country, its flourishing manufacturing industry is what has allowed its economy to expand. However, because manufacturing has moved away from the West, we have in essence exported many of our carbon emissions to China and Asia Pacific. It is almost impossible to hold accountability, which makes it so difficult to legislate without being environmentally unjust.  The danger of over-regulating carbon emissions in China is the restricting their main artery of primary income. China is much more populous than the UK and is in the process of industrialising and developing into an advanced country. Of course, our awareness of the environmental implications of industrialisation are much more acute in the 21st century, but it must be noted that during the Western Industrial Revolution, there were no environmental regulations put in place to undercut the process of development until the mid 20th century. However, this begs the question – are LIDCs and EDCs not afforded the same chance? One of the main drivers in the sky-rocketing of eastern carbon emissions is the push of the Eastern middle class to live more ‘westernised’ lives, and have the same access to electricity and technology, vehicle ownership and consumer goods as those in the West. And who are we to deny this? The UK is not an innocent player; we are far from peripheral to the offending circle of nations. Rather provocatively, perhaps, one may argue that our development was borne from hundreds of years of global colonisation and an era of factories sending plumes of smoke and chemicals into the atmosphere. It is of the upmost importance that we respect the desire for economic expansion of developing countries in a way that is environmentally responsible, and most importantly, sustainable.

It is a division which has become intrinsically perpetuated by the very nature of discussing it. The language used in the media, in scientific journals, in the political sphere is punctuated with geographic dichotomies – the ‘East’ and the ‘West’, ‘them’ and ‘us’, a linguistic representation at the epicentre of the dilemma. It is an issue perhaps exacerbated by the rapid political discourse occurring on social networks, by the brevity of the Twitter’s 240-character limit which breeds extremism. It is not just our natural ecosystems which are under threat, but perhaps the very structure of democracy which forms the cement binding many of our nations. It is an almost Shakespearian bleakness that Spanish journalist Moisés Naím describes when he talks of democracies ‘suffering a type of ‘political autoimmune disease’ as part of each society wages war on the rest of the social body.’ Polarization has always existed, despite the vision of peace and global partnership projected by the UN, it is perhaps a utopian impossibility to expect that all the world’s nations can work together in mechanical unison, like a well-oiled machine. However, as political polarisation expands through the process of globalisation, we are facing yet another obstacle to defeating our global environmental monsters.