Worldwide, the urban poor tend to live in neglected neighborhoods, enduring pollution, waste dumping, and ill health, but lacking the political influence to effect improvements. Indeed, since the time of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s, the urban poor, particularly racial and ethnic minorities, have had neither the resources to avoid, nor the power to control, noxious hazards in the workplace or in their homes. These are the people who have borne the greatest ecological costs of two centuries of continuous material growth. Today, the consumer lifestyle of the world's wealthy elite imposes an unprecedented burden of pollution, ecological disintegrity, and global climate change on the world. The costs of this burden are paid most heavily by the most vulnerable members of the human family: the poor and people of color.
Indeed, some see an intensifying pattern of "eco-apartheid" throughout the world. Extreme examples of city-level environmental distress are found both in the industrial cities of the former socialist and communist economies and in middle- and low-income megacities in the developing world. Certainly, the urban environmental hazards causing the most ill health are those found in the impoverished homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces located principally in the poorer countries of the Southern Hemisphere.
The problem, however, is hardly confined to second and third world cities. Even in the United States, the geographic distribution of air pollution, contaminated waters and fish, toxic waste sites, and landfills, correlates strongly with the distribution of both racial minorities and poverty. People have therefore begun to speak passionately of the need to ensure environmental justice for environmentally beleaguered communities. Some analysts emphasize that the correlation between chronic exposure to ecological hazards and race is much stronger than that between exposure and income poverty. A National Wildlife Federation review of sixty-four studies of environmental inequity found sixty-three cases of disparity by race or income but race proved to be the more important factor. Similarly, the Argonne National Laboratory found that of U.S. population, 33 percent of whites, 50 percent of African-Americans, and 60 percent of Hispanics live in the 136 counties in which two or more air pollutants exceed standards.
To make matters worse, the evidence is clear that even in these enlightened modern times, rich neighborhoods are often better served by environmental law and regulatory agencies than are less advantaged ones. It seems that if a community is poor or inhabited largely by racial minorities, it will likely receive less protection than a community that is affluent or white. In his article "Decision Making," Robert Bullard has argued that:
. . . the current environmental protection paradigm has institutionalized unequal enforcement, traded human health for profit, placed the burden of proof on the "victims" rather than on the pollution industry, legitimated human exposure to harmful substances, promoted "risky" technologies such as incinerators, exploited the vulnerability of economically and politically disenfranchised communities, subsidized ecological destruction, created an industry around risk assessment, delayed cleanup actions, and failed to develop pollution prevention as the overarching and dominant strategy. (p. 3)
It seems that in the United States economic privilege and power not only insulate the wealthy from the worst effects of ecological degradation, but also confer additional protection under the law.
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