By sparking a national dialogue about inequality, Occupy Wall Street is highlighting the link between economic and environmental justice.
It would seem that progressives have finally found in the Occupy movement the kind of populist momentum for which they have long hungered. Health Care for America Now, Green for All, MoveOn.org, and a number of unions have come out in support of Occupy Wall Street, fashioning different narratives that would tie their organizations’ various missions to the values espoused by the protesters.
No sector of the progressive movement has yearned for this change more than the environmental movement, whose claims to populist underpinnings have long been met with skepticism. The arrival of populism on the left and the attention that is now being paid to institutionalized inequality align well with the heightened priority that environmentalists in and out of Washington are now placing on environmental justice issues.
Environmental justice is premised on a simple notion: that everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background, is entitled to a healthy environment. In the United States, the majority of hazardous waste sites, power plants, and truck depots are sited in low-income neighborhoods, where the land is cheap and the communities’ political capital is weak. As a result, these communities are subject to heightened frequencies of chronic illnesses, including asthma and obesity, that most often preclude long-term economic mobility. Environmentalists, seeing these historical inequities that have come with traditional, market-based patterns of infrastructure distribution, advocate for land-use solutions that account for externalities in the host communities and ensure equality of opportunity across class lines.
Though there is still much more to be done, the environmental justice movement has made strides. Environmental justice assessments, through which the federal government evaluates particular policies’ impacts on equal access to clean air, clean water, and green space, are now commonplace. At the same time, there is a growing understanding that access to ecological services and natural resources is directly related to the populist notions of economic mobility and opportunity.