Earth month, April, provides an opportunity for everyone to reflect on how we treat our largest shared resource: the Earth itself. Use of this resource often brings to mind drilling in wildlife areas or deforestation in any number of places worldwide. However, I would like to draw attention to the environmental dangers we face in urban areas: dangerous environmental practices that tend not to come to light because they are overshadowed by major environmental disasters and because these dangers affect only those people least able to help themselves.
Many poverty-stricken communities are subject to environmental dangers with no ability to remedy them. The problems these communities face are seemingly unlimited, from the building of low-income housing developments on former toxic waste dumps, as in Love Canal, New York, to the systematic destruction of local parks and recreational areas in order to develop industry. The reasons impoverished communities often have no voice in these decisions are two-fold: (1) a lack of historical recognition of impoverished communities in the law, and (2) disorganization in the communities themselves.
In addressing the first point it is important to note that many of the environmental and community dangers across the country arising from commercial and industrial development are legal.
The overrepresentation of economic interests and the very limited representation of impoverished communities has led local, state, and federal legislatures to adopt policies that negatively affect the quality of life for those in the impoverished areas. Luke Cole’s article Empowerment as the Key to Environmental Protection: The Need for Environmental Poverty Law points to the disproportionate effects of “toxic production and disposal, garbage dumps, air pollution, lead poisoning, pesticides, occupational hazards, noise pollution, and rat bites” on poor communities relative to economically strong communities, communities that have the resources to represent themselves both in courts and to legislatures. 19 Ecology L.Q. 619 (1992). That’s not to say poor communities have not won cases and swayed lawmakers, but, in truth, the few wins they have had were not strategic and led to little change in the way poor communities are treated in the law.
This historical, legal blind-eye to the suffering of the impoverished has deepened the disorganization within poor communities. If a community has systemically been ignored and subjected to injustice there seems no reason to rally as a community to fight against the environmental injustices they suffer: why should a community fight when every opponent has the law behind them? However, it is only in overcoming the lack of community organization that the environmental problems facing these communities can be overcome. This is the basic tenet behind all grassroots movements: in numbers, even those without economic resources have a voice in organizing our cities, states, and nation as a whole. Communities that have been able to organize behind an idea—e.g., eliminating environmental dangers—have been effective in appealing to legislatures.
This is where the idea of environmental poverty lawyering is most effective. As a lawyer, one has the ability to advocate for not only a person but also a group; as advocates, lawyers are powerful tools for a community in need. Often members of a community know the problems that need to be addressed, but feel ineffective at getting anyone to recognize those problems, even other members of the community. The lawyer ceases to be a tool for responding to environmental and legal wrongs where they arise, but instead becomes a tool for organizing and empowering the community to seek preventive measures from lawmakers. This can happen through a number of means: increasing community education on the relevant issues, connecting communities with those similarly situated, and assisting the community in taking control of the resources it does have.
Environmental poverty law seeks to enable groups in the fight against systemic wrongs rather than engaging in the traditional legal approach of redressing individual wrongs. Through this public-minded work the legal community gets the opportunity to aid those who have suffered large-scale injustice; also, the benefit of these efforts positively affect more that just those in impoverished communities. As power is returned to those communities, they successfully limit the environmental hazards they had once been subjected to, and subsequently limit the areas nationwide that allow questionable environmental practices. The goal of environmental poverty lawyering is to allow impoverished communities across the country a voice for their concerns in the legal framework, and in turn provide a voice for an oft-ignored segment of environmental justice.
April is Earth Month with Earth Day falling on the 22nd, and the Environmental Law Society invites everyone to be environmentally conscious this month as we strive to save our most important resource.
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