Monday, March 28, 2011

Power Plays in Environmental Justice

How do dimensions of power affect the outcomes of environmental justice cases? In Chronicles from the Environmental Justice Frontline, authors Roberts and Toffolon-Weiss make the point that environmental protest movements prove successful only when the powerful stakeholders in a conflict disagree1. This idea supports the neo-pluralist ‘grand majority’ theory that businesses have a privileged position “affecting significant economic interests over which the public can exercise only limited influence.”2 I would argue, however, that this only partially explains the policy outcome that took place in the Louisiana Energy Services (LES) consortium’s failed attempt to build a uranium enrichment facility between two rural black communities in Clairborne Parish, LA in 1994. Pressure from environmental protests played an important role in fragmenting the producer-government coalition of power, causing delays in decision-making that eventually killed the project.

According to neo-pluralist theory, businesses not only “exercise power through their ability to mobilize resources in the political arena,” but also contain structural power due to their importance in the capitalist economy3. LES certainly had insider status while lobbying Louisiana Senator Johnston, Chairman of the Energy Committee, for privatization of enriched uranium supply. In addition, the town’s leaders were businessmen on the Industrial Development Board who recruited LES for development of the facility. Furthermore, Louisiana policy is so growth-oriented that new factories are granted a ten-year exemption on property tax payments4. Yet despite all of the powerful interests in favor of development, environmental racism concerns brought out by protest pressure, along with economic deterioration of the proposal over time, shifted the position of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission against permitting the facility.

Another dimension of power at play in the LES case involves the neo-Marxist theory that the ruling elite define issues in ways that produce a systematic bias in favor of capitalist accumulation2. Roberts and Toffolon-Weiss point out that a paradox repeatedly arises where “environmental justice rulings can hurt the communities they seek to protect by undermining job creation efforts.”5 The ideology that only economic growth is a priority in community governance is pervasive in our capitalist society. The fact that many people in Clairborne Parish wrote letters in favor of the LES facility because of the potential for job creation shows that political institutions have succeeded in shaping citizen preferences to reflect the interests of capital.2 However, a small group of dedicated citizens in Clairborne Parish, with the help and resources of the NAACP and Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, were able to delay and eventually overcome the powerful elite’s bias toward development. The power narrative for environmental justice cases was forever altered by the LES case, despite the authors’ downplaying its importance.

~Mark Bremer, Green Explored Contributor

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[1] Roberts, J. Timmons, & Melissa Toffolon-Weiss. 2001. Chronicles from the Environmental Justice Frontline. New York: Cambridge University Press. (p.87)

[2] Carter, Neil. 2007. The Politics of the Environment: Ideas, Activism, Policy. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press. (p.185)

[3] Carter, Neil. 2007. The Politics of the Environment: Ideas, Activism, Policy. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press. (p.184)

[4] Roberts, J. Timmons, & Melissa Toffolon-Weiss. 2001. Chronicles from the Environmental Justice Frontline. New York: Cambridge University Press. (p.69)

[5] Roberts, J. Timmons, & Melissa Toffolon-Weiss. 2001. Chronicles from the Environmental Justice Frontline. New York: Cambridge University Press. (p.92)

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