Environmental justice under Trump

I have argued that “social justice” is a nonsensical term. Justice has always been understood in our tradition as justice for the individual, qua individual. When a person goes to court, either in a criminal or a civil case, our system strives to provide him with a result that is fair given what he has done or failed to do.

This is what we understand justice to be. Thus, when we say that justice should be blind, we mean, among other things, that it should be rendered without regard to a person’s social status and without regard to the demands of any social agenda.

“Social justice” says essentially the opposite. Thus, there is no room for a concept with that name. The thing signified by “social justice” should be called something else — like socialism.

“Environmental justice” isn’t nonsensical in the way “social justice” is. But if environmental policies are adjudged unjust not because they are unfair to individuals qua individuals, but because of their impact on groups, the concept becomes problematic.

The EPA has an Office of Environmental Justice. According to Roger Clegg, it targets environmental policies and practices that have a “disparate impact” on certain groups. As Clegg explains:

[T]his means that the government tells an agribusiness, for example, “This pesticide that you are using is making children sick in a nearby neighborhood. Now, we know that you don’t intend any racial discrimination, and we would be okay with children getting sick if the neighborhood were racially mixed, but the problem is that it is a heavily minority neighborhood. Therefore, you must stop.”

(Emphasis added)

This isn’t justice. If the business were deliberately targeting minority neighborhoods, that would be unjust because individuals would not be getting fair treatment. But when illegality depends on unintended racial outcomes, such that it’s okay if children get sick in a racially mixed neighborhood but not in a predominant African-American one, justice has been perverted.

We know, moreover, that when the EPA itself induces an environmental disaster, it will stiff the victims. Where’s the environmental justice in that?

I am happy to report, therefore, that the Trump administration has announced its intention to close the Office of Environmental Justice, and that the administration’s proposed budget starts the job by making cuts in the office’s budget and personnel. As a result, the long-time head of the office has announced his resignation.

The news isn’t nearly as good as it sounds, however. Clegg notes that administration has also said it still supports the idea of environmental justice and that this work will be done elsewhere at EPA. Indeed, the EPA announced yesterday that it is launching an environmental justice investigation against the Hawaii Department of Agriculture and Agribusiness Development Corporation.

The demise of the Office of Environmental Justice looks like a way to save money, not a policy reversal. The Trump administration apparently intends to deliver “environmental justice lite,” just as it is now backing “Obamacare lite.”

To borrow the words of Guy de Maupassant, in the Trump administration things are never as good or as bad as one thinks.

Responses