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Reflection Essay

Before this class, the concept of environmental justice was an obscure topic that I failed to give much consideration too.  I was aware of some issues associated with it and could see their relevance when they were brought to my attention but, more often than not, I placed them at the end of the long list of problems that the world is facing.   The complexities of the subject became diluted amongst more mainstream matters causing me to fail to see environmental justice as an equally important problem that deserves as much independent attention as other environmental issues.  Ironically, I have come to realize that environmental justice is in essence battling against the same discrimination and misrepresentation as the people that it is trying to protect.

In his book Environmental Justice: Concepts, Evidence and Politics, Gordon Walker introduces a number of justice theories that disadvantage people face during the unfair exposure to environmental harms.  One of these issues is distributive justice which he defines as justice “in terms of the distribution or sharing out of goods (resources) and bads (harm and risk).”  Instances of distributive injustice have been seen in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina where people of low socio-economic class were discriminated against in state funded rebuilding programs.  Another example occurred in Cochabamba, Bolivia, a city where water privatization unfairly allocated water and the profits that it produced to wealthy households leaving residents in poor neighborhoods with a severe shortage.  When one steps back and compares the lobby for environmental justice to other environmental problems many similar distributive justice issues that affect these underprivileged people are observed.

Today, the conventional environmental problems widely discussed in political debates and among the general public have become extremely polarizing topics.  Because issues like climate change, energy conservation, and defending the natural environment resonate throughout the majority of the population they receive the bulk of the attention in governmental actions and media coverage.  When examined from a broad perspective, the environmental justice field is experiencing the same fundamental distributive justice problems encountered by the people of the Lower Ninth Ward and Bolivia.

Like it was witnessed in the state funded rebuilding programs in post-Katrina New Orleans, governmental funding is allotted to the environmental issues that the public deems most important.  Media outlets that are concerned more about profits than providing legitimate news coverage are in a sense privatizing the environmental challenges that will generate the largest amount of people to tune in.  Getting lost behind these mainstream topics that are receiving sufficient resources to make an actual change for the better is the equally important but less established environmental justice notion.

Fortunately, this class has taught me that the fight for equal representation waged by people being exposed to unfair environmental hazards can be won and success stories like the one seen in the Vietnamese community of Versailles after hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans provide me with a sense of optimism for environmental justice.  The relentless grassroots battle that eventually lead to residents in Versailles prevailing over the more powerful governmental actions can act as a template to combat uneven resource distribution that is given to environmental problems that are currently receiving the majority of attention.  It is clear to me now that environmental justice deserves equal consideration and should as prominent to mainstream America as every other environmental issue. For the environmental justice movement to overcome the disparities it is encountering it should perhaps to turn to and learn from the people which it was initially intended to defend.

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