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Updated: Jun 8, 2023

Environmental degradation is linked to social power structures such as race, class and gender. Lines based on race, class and gender are used as sperational boundaries between people to determine against whom environmental bads can be committed without consequence. To know what environmental inequality is depends on the definition of the environment. The environment is defined as all the places we, humans “live, work, play and pray” (lecture, 2/4/20). The inclusivity of this definition avoids the exclusion of any communities and people when determining environmental injustice. The homogenous makeup of the environmental justice movement is perpetuated through the master narrative. Environmental degradation works with the master narrative to push the engrainment of social power structures such as those that discriminate based on race, class and gender in efforts to continuously exclude certain groups and erase the work communities have done to promote environmental justice because they do not fit the perpetuated stereotype of white and rich.

The master narrative that tells the intersectional story of people and the environment is one of a singular experience. It is not a perspective that includes and validates the diversity of the United States. Limerick says this narrative has “all the flexibility and variation of a conveyor belt; it gives very little room to variations in groups and individuals or in places or times” (Limerick, 2000 as cited in Finney, 56). The master narrative induces one of Pellow’s driving forces of environmental injustice, the homogenous mainstream environmental movement which does not include slaves except when speaking about the white experience of nature (lecture, 1/23/20). The idea perpetuated through the master narrative was that slaves did not experience nature on their own but, only through being a slave they experienced aspects of nature such as “working the land under the threat of the whip and the sun” (Finney, 56). Individuals that society labeled as less than others were only seen for the work they could do for others. Succinctly put, “blacks are neither the ‘traditional cultures’ who were living in ‘sacred reverence’ with nature, nor the primary exploiters of the land” (Schama, 1995 as cited in Finney, 57). Blacks were not accepted by society by either narrative. They may be subhuman or superhuman but here they are neither, only a concept.

The master narrative in terms of the environment influences the institutions where we live, work, play, and pray. However, as examined, these narratives can be “‘limitations of the official story’ [which] reduce place-based differences and by implication, peoples’ distinct experiences, to ‘the residual’ and the marginal” (Agnew and Smith, 2002 as cited in Finney, 57). Rachel Carson also asks this question. She acutely demands “who has decided – who has the right to decide – for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it is also a sterile world graced by the curving wing of a bird in flight?” What may be interpreted through the lens of environmental injustice, to use Carson’s verbiage is “that the supreme value is a world without [nonwhites/nonmen]” (Carson, 1962, as cited in Mcgregor, 29). But from where did these discriminatory statues start? What leads to environmental inequality; “which came first[?] Do chemical companies and waste incinerators get sited in poor communities because they are poor and powerless, or are these communities poor and powerless because they are stuck in degraded environments” (Mcgregor, 161). If it does not fit into the master narrative, it is simply not viewed as something that matters. With the changing definition of what the environment includes, the demographics against which damage is done begin to include not just the pristine untouchable forest but also the houses in low income areas.

The history of keeping African Americans and other nonwhite populations out of certain worlds in the US is extensive. One of these worlds is the outdoors. One method to further segregate individuals and their right to access the outdoors is to remove their humanity. There are many examples of the comparison that exists in society between black people and animals, especially of the ape species. In 2010, Vogue’s first cover to include a black person depicted LeBron James in a chilling imitation of the menacing gorilla in King Kong showing all his teeth and holding a white woman in one arm. Speculations had been offset by the assurances of what is said to be unintentional. However, when Finney came to speak at Loyola Marymount University, she offered the benefit of the doubt but then further speculates with “but notice that they even matched the color of her dress” from the King Kong poster of 1918 (Finney lecture, 2020). Another example of outright racial discrimation to keep those with darker skin deprived of access is that of Ota Benga. Samuel Philips Verner was said to have “discovered” him as if he was a new species and not that of the human species (Finney, 41). He was eventually sold to the Bronx Zoo and “housed in the primate exhibit, which proudly promoted Ota Benga as the evolutionary “missing link”” (Finney, 41). This only further exemplified the “close affinity between African savages and their primate brethren,’ which further justified the need to retain and protect white purity” (Baker, 1998 as cited in Finney, 41). As Carson puts it, “It is...an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged” (Carson, 1967 as cited in Mcgregor, 30). It does not matter if it is the capitalist system denying any danger from pesticides to increase mass production even at the risk of health or the event of grand racial humiliation by putting a human being in a glass cage at whom observers can point and stare akin to the experiences of a gorilla in captivity.

The past does inform the future through the present. However, the past does not predict the future. Finney asks an important question by saying, “how does memory, both collective and individual, shape African American environmental attitudes and perceptions” (Finney, 52)? Memories often give us information about acting in the future. The history of the African American population in America “has been shaped by these two historical moments (slavery and Jim Crow), and they continue to inform African American environmental participation today” (Finney, 52). The social power structure of race has been prominently dominated specifically in American history has “contextualized the particular black experience of black and whites, and their relationship to each other…” (Finney, 52). Opting out of checking a box that helps society categorize your life experience and determines how others should treat you is a valid and desired choice by many though, not so realistic. However, “the choice not to self-identify as black...does not dissolve the often constraining social realities that are created by the fact that others may insist on ascribing such an identity to one and consequently may treat one accordingly” (Shelby, 2005 as cited in Finney, 53). Because human nature is more closely resembling that of cyborgs by way of our need to calculate and categorize other humans, lines are more explicitly drawn between people.

It’s as if there is a glass of water and at the bottom of the glass lies a large crystal displacing some of the water. A spoon stirs the water but the crystal is too large to dissolve unlike salt and causes a disturbance in the water. Finally, the crystal is removed, letting the water return to its past tranquil state before the disturbance of trying to make the crystal, which is too large and dense, dissolve. The crystal is placed next to the glass. They are viewed together however, separate but (not) equal. American society tries to excavate one from the other but American history and therefore, America today cannot be examined with the presence of one and absence of the other. Finney sophisticatedly states that “while arguably [the black experience is] indispensable to understanding American national identity, these narratives do not always possess equal power to shape...institutions...affect[ing] the attitudes, beliefs, and subsequent interactions of all individuals in general and black communities in particular” (Finney, 54). Like the glass of water and the crystal, they are not equal in size or impression on those who observe the two objects. One can drink the water and refill it, accepting the substance into one’s body akin to accepting the Euro-American experience without question into one’s mind. The crystal is eye catching and can be examined similarly to the way African Americans have been examined for their evolutionary relationship(missing link), their physical aptitude in terms of slave trading and culture for example in terms of black hair.

Race and class have always been explicitly fought when demanding environmental justice. However, the contrary is true for gender. Recently the term environmental inequality was built to encompass all the factors other than race that can impede an environmental experience such as “class, gender, dis/ability, age, immigration status as well as the interconnections between these factors” (Mcgregor, 161). Often only seen as valuable for our reproduction ability, women are entangled with the notion that children are the center of our lives; that nothing else could motivate us. A classic example discussed in Gender and the Environment is Love Canal. Lois Gibbs spearheaded the movement protesting the toxicity of the land by the way of ill management from the previous dweller. Love canal fought for human rights. Instead, the media saw it as an outburst calling her a ‘“hysterical housewife”’ (Mcgregor, 162). Society reduces a woman's motivation to care about the environment to two building blocks: “gender and motherhood” (Mcgregor, 162). The explicit lines that have been drawn between communities based on appropriated categories further increases the “racialized dimensions of transcorporeality [that] necessitate particular burdens on their bodies” (Mcgregor, 166). The intersectionality between all people, momentarily ignoring the explicit categories to which each individual is assigned, informs how and where we live, work, play and pray. The “racialized and gendered burdens have reproductive consequences that lay bare the brutalities of the current economic and environmental system, overlaid with histories of domination and violence” (Mcgregor, 166). Gender is a factor of discrimination because women are tied to the duty of motherhood. Motherhood is expected of women; therefore, when she wants something other than children her personhood is invalidated. Due to transcorporeality that connects women so explicitly to the earth, to the point where the earth is represented as a woman, rules are made for what a woman can do and who a woman can be because of the reflection found in what ‘mankind’ can do to the earth.

Environmental justice is a discipline based on the intersectionality of human beings and their environment. There are many factors contributing to its manifestation. Environmental degradation is produced by the warped environmentalist vision including a certain aesthetic that excludes many environments and people. The manifestation of environmental justice is too grandiose to be fought alone because it is all of us. The environment is not only those green forests and deep blue oceans but also all those places where we live, work, play and pray.

Works Cited

Finney, Carolyn. Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African

Americans to the Great Outdoors (2014). The University of North Carolina Press.

MacGregor, Sherilyn. Routledge Handbook of Gender and Environment (2019). Routledge

International Handbooks




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