Environmental justice

Back in the 19th century, economists were condemned as “dismal scientists” due to their support of equality (or freedom) for slaves. The economists argued not from justice (sorry!) but efficiency, i.e., that slavery was inefficient because it subjugated people to the will of others rather than to their own free will — and productivity.

This story is not romantic, but it illustrates how economists might “think different” on some issues, even as they come to similar conclusions.

No risk here, neighbors. Carry on!

When it comes to environmental justice (EJ), the questions are (a) “how to define EJ?” and (b) “how to deliver it?”

On (a), I would say that citizens to a particular political jurisdiction receive EJ if they are treated (or face risks) equal to others, i.e., equal risks from air, water and land pollution.

Consider a few examples to flesh out this definition:

  • Does EJ mean they are protected from harming themselves? No — assuming that they do not need special knowledge or technology to understand risks.
  • Does EJ mean that people who buy a house near an airport, pig farm or fracking operation should be protected from risks due to those activities? No, since those risks pre-exist their purchase.
  • Does EJ mean they should be protected from new risks from new or expanded operations? Yes, absolutely.
  • Does EJ mean that citizens in a different political jurisdiction have the same rights or protections? No (for good reasons) due to the realities of nation-states. No (for bad reasons) because rich states may prioritize differently than poor states or (more likely) because rich states can afford more protections.

In terms of (b), the main idea is “internalizing externalities,” i.e., using prices or regulations to reduce or prevent pollution (the threat to EJ). For economists since Pigou (1920), this prescription has been commonsense. But it’s also commonsense to pretty much anyone familiar with “don’t shit where you sleep,” which is why the problem is usually people shitting where other people sleep.

And that brings us to rights.

EJ is basically about rights — the right to not be forced to deal with air, land, light, sound, water, or other pollutions.

We have the right to not be assaulted by someone wielding a weapon, as that causes bodily harm. We do not have the right to not be assaulted by someone wielding words, as there is no agreed way to assess mental or physical harm.

My one-handed conclusion is that EJ requires the definition and enforcement of our right to be free from the pollution of others.

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Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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