When the Senate confirmed former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt on February 17, 2017, many feared the worst. During his tenure in Oklahoma politics, Pruitt sued the EPA thirteen times, “attacking many of the provisions, such as those around clean air and water, that the EPA is tasked with regulating” (Pierre-Louis, www.popsci.com). On February 16, 2017, President Trump signed legislation into effect that would abolish the Department of Interior’s “Stream Protection Rule,” and in so doing, gave industry permission to dump byproduct into our nation’s rivers and streams. Pollution affects everyone but the effects are often worse for the oppressed and marginalized, specifically the poor. This case study will examine how Standpoint Theory could be applied to environmental regulations and why many marginalized groups most often receive less than a quality standard of environmental safety and regulations.
On a worldwide scale, the wealthiest 5% of the world consume more than the rest of the globe. How much more? “20% of the world’s people in the highest-income countries account for 86% of total private consumption expenditures—the poorest 20% a minuscule 1.3%” (Shah, www.globalissues.org). Not all humans have the same impact on the environment, yet those that have the most impact rarely have to live with the consequences of their rabid consumption. In other words, “the world’s resources are allocated to meet a few people’s wants, not everyone’s needs” (Shah, www.globalissues.org). The United States of America is a large part of the problem. “While the United States has far fewer people than India, the average American consumes about 30 times as much as the average citizen of India and 100 times as much as the average person in the world’s poorest countries” (Miller and Spoolman, 2015). Your average John Smith in America has a greater impact on the environment than that of any citizen in an underdeveloped country. But how does this all play out on American soil?
Environmental Health News contributor Cheryl Katz wrote in an article for Environmental Health News, that “communities of color and those with low education and high poverty and unemployment may face greater health risks even if their air quality meets federal health standards.” (Katz, www.environmentalhealthnews.com). She continues “tiny particles of air pollution contain more hazardous ingredients in non-white and low-income communities than in affluent white ones.” Cities like Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis (pictured below) and Fresno share high concentrations of poor minorities and unhealthful levels of fine particles.
Historical discrimination and the high cost of housing have produced low-income and minority neighborhoods are huddled around truck routes, industrial sites, ports and other air pollutant hotspots. Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles, which is 90% Hispanic, is surrounded by freeways used for shipping, four rail yards that emit diesel exhaust as well as several chrome-platers and auto body shops. The impact is felt across the poverty spectrum, including those not considered minorities. For example, Liberty-Clairton, just south of Pittsburgh is remarkable because it holds the top spot on the EPA chart for the nation’s worst fine particle pollution outside of California. It is also home to a US Steel plant, Clairton Coke Works. The median family income was $31,539 according to the 2000 Census with 15% of the city residents living below the poverty level. (United States Census 2000)
Western Pennsylvania director of the environmental group Clean Water Action, Tom Hoffman said childhood asthma is rampant in Clairton – but a lot of families in the town don’t have health insurance. “In some homes”, he said, “the whole family shares a single inhaler.” according to Katz.
Rachel Morello-Frosch, a UC-Berkeley associate professor who studies the health risks of air pollution, added that the demographic differences raise important policy questions. She continued to say regulatory agencies may want to assess how they can encourage emissions reductions from sources that are having localized impacts.
In West Virginia mining country, the waste of the coal industry has made many of their water sources useless for decades. This is due to a common practice of “pumping chemical-laden wastewater directly into the ground, where it can leach into the water table and turn what had been drinkable well water into a poisonous cocktail of chemicals” (Dizard, www.aljazeera.com). In 2014 a chemical spill in Elk River left more than 300,000 people without water for weeks. Appalachian Mountain Advocates reports that “More than 40 percent of West Virginia’s rivers are too polluted to pass simple water-quality safety thresholds. They are too polluted to be safely used for drinking water or recreation, or to support healthy aquatic life.” West Virginia is the nation’s second poorest state and in McDowell county, the poorest county in the state, “nearly 47 percent of personal income in the county is from Social Security, disability insurance, food stamps and other federal programs” (Gabriel, www.nytimes.com). On February 16, 2017, President Trump signed legislation “undoing the Interior Department’s ‘Stream Protection Rule’…The regulations, which would cost the coal sector at least $81 million per year, according to government estimates, were designed to protect America’s streams and waterways from pollution produced during mining” (Wolfgang, www.washingtontimes.com) . The regulations might come with a hefty price tag but clean water is priceless.
When considering Standpoint theory asks that we consider issues from others’ perspectives, specifically of those who are most marginalized in society. Marginalized groups in the United States of America include but are not limited to: minorities, women, and those living below the poverty line. This approach to inquiry is important because the “causes of the conditions of the lives of the oppressed cannot be detected by only observing those lives. Instead, one must critically examine how the Supreme Court, Pentagon, transnational corporations, and welfare, health, and educational systems ‘think’ in order to understand why women, racial minorities, and the poor in the USA have only the limited life choices that are available to them” (Harding, 2003). Though even in this, policy makers rarely act alone. They lean on research from the scientific community to inform their decisions. However some argue that “the disempowerment of the researched in the research process (as well as outside of it) tends to nourish distorted accounts of their beliefs and behaviors. Left to their own devices, researchers, like the rest of us, will tend to impose on what they observe and how they interpret in the conceptual frameworks valued in their cultures and disciplines, which all too often are valued by the already powerful groups in the larger society” (Harding, 2003).
Some have argued for standpoint theory in policy making, though they may not have called it out by name. In his Resources 2020 lecture, Nobel laureate and American economist, Joseph Stiglitz said “Environmental degradation is everyone’s problem, but it’s especially a problem for the poor, and for obvious reasons. Their position is more precarious, so when things go wrong, whether it’s pollution in a neighborhood or rising sea levels swallowing a country, they are less able to respond effectively. In this sense, inequality ought to be a fundamental consideration when fashioning environmental policies.” Stiglitz is asking those making environmental policy decisions to stand in the place of those who are oppressed. Standpoint theory in the world.
Harding identified several aspects to the Standpoint Theory “The kinds of interactions they have in social relations and relation to the natural world – both enables and limits what they can know”.(Hesse-Biber, 2012) This in fact affects a marginalized group or community by not only misinforming them, but many times limiting the information in the way it is shared.
Because low-income and often low income minority housing is often located in more industrial neighborhoods, these families feel the effects of industrial pollution first. If residents could afford to live in other areas, they would likely already live elsewhere. Families that have depended on the coal industry in West Virginia also have limited finances and opportunities. The residents of McDowell county who had the means to leave, have left. Those that remain do not possess the resources to move a family across the country, let alone across the state. This lack of resources for both urban and rural poor dooms them to suffer the consequences of deregulation, such as polluted air and water. Policy makers are rarely impacted by the policies they champion. To truly know what the effects of legislation might be, Standpoint Theory suggests that we consider those most vulnerable. As previously discussed, Rachel Morello-Frosch implies that demographics should impact policy and Joseph Stiglitz said “inequality ought to be a fundamental consideration when fashioning environmental policies.” Clearly, some see the value in considering how decisions will affect those that are already at a disadvantage.
It is easy to become cynical in light of current events. One fears that decisions made by politicians are for the benefit of their golfing buddies rather than their constituents. Is this a question of empathy? Are they so far removed from the average (and below) average American that they cannot see the consequences of their decisions? The EPA considers many standpoints when referencing the impact of climate change: “All Americans, at some point in their lives, are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Some people are more affected by climate change than others because of factors like where they live; their age, health, income, and occupation; and how they go about their day-to-day lives. Understanding the threats that climate change poses to human health can help us work together to lower risks and be prepared.” There is very little consideration on the page that deals with pollution; in fact, there is a section entitled “What you can do” which puts prevention in our hands: a bit of a bait and switch, perhaps? While we are busy organizing recycling fairs and switching from plastic to glass, industries are free to dump any waste they choose into our air and water.
Standpoint Theory is important to apply to environmental policy decisions because those who are doing the most damage to the environment also have the most power to affect positive change. Money can fund research which can then generate new means of production, sustainable energy sources, sustainable agriculture, and more. Those who are in power and enjoy wealth have the luxury of advocating for the environment. This pendulum effect can be best described by the environmental Kuznets curve (EKC). The EKC “hypothesizes that the relationship between per capita income and the use of natural resources and/or the emission of wastes has an inverted U-shape” (Richmond, Dictionary of Energy). Essentially, consumption of resources and creation of waste is less in lower levels of income but increases as income levels increase until that income reaches a level that the use of resources and production of waste starts to decrease as the income level grows. It takes a lot of green to be green.
Dizard, Wilson. “Coal mining’s long legacy of water pollution in West Virginia.” Al Jazeera America. Al Jazeera, 13 Jan. 2014. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.
Gabriel, Trip. “50 Years Into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 20 Apr. 2014. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.
Harding, S. (2003) How Standpoint Methodology Informs Philosophy of Social Science, in The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of the Social Sciences (eds S. P. Turner and P. A. Roth), Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Oxford, UK.
Hesse-Biber, Sharlene Nagy. Handbook of Feminist Research: Theory and Praxis. Thousand Oaks: SAGE, 2012. Print.
Miller, G. Tyler, and Scott Spoolman. Sustaining the Earth. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2015. Print.
“Mountaintop Removal Mining Poisons One in Four Streams in Southern West Virginia.” Earth First! Newswire. 03 Aug. 2012. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.
Richmond, Amy. “environmental Kuznets curve.” Dictionary of Energy, edited by Cutler
Cleveland, and Christopher Morris, Elsevier Science & Technology, 2014. Credo Reference, http://search.credoreference.com.libproxy.umflint.edu/content/entry/este/environmental_kuznets_curve/0. Accessed 24 Feb 2017.
Pierre-Louis, Kendra. “The EPA has a new leader, and the outlook for science is not good.” www.popsci.com. Popular Science, 17 Feb. 2017. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.
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Stiglitz, Joseph. “Inequality and Environmental Policy.” Inequality and Environmental Policy | Resources for the Future. N.p., 22 Mar. 2013. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.
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“Unequal Exposures: People in Poor, Non-white Neighborhoods Breathe More Hazardous Particles.” Unequal Exposures: People in Poor, Non-white Neighborhoods Breathe More Hazardous Particles — Environmental Health News. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.
Wolfgang, Ben. “Trump nixes Obama regulations on coal industry.” The Washington Times. The Washington Times, 16 Feb. 2017. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.