If Not In My Backyard, Then Where?

There’s a phenomenon I regularly see playing out in small, wealthy communities across the United States. It usually goes something like this: Company Xyz announces plans to commence operations somewhere near that community. Citizens promptly start holding a series of meetings to oppose it on the grounds that the company’s activities may be environmentally harmful, and they want to protect their environment. If they are successful, the company backs down and goes somewhere else. Boom. Problem solved.

Except, where does that company go?

We do a lot of dirty things, us human beings. Many of the things that I am taking for granted right this very moment are the result of dirty industrial processes. My computer includes components from all over the world, including a number of things processed in very dirty conditions. This computer undoubtedly caused pollution somewhere in the world; there’s a reason it was inexpensive for me. The company that built it saved money on environmental protections and kindly passed those savings down to me. The stack of paper in my wastebasket, bills and bank notices and everything else, is bleached bone white with industrial processes that damage waterways all over the world. This desk, the pencils rolling around in the drawer, even the jewelry I am wearing. All are dirty, to some extent.

Some of the things we do are inescapably dirty. We can make them cleaner; we can recycle, reduce, and reuse. We can force companies to control waste products more effectively, we can promote the development of cleaner industrial processes. We can ask that companies be more environmentally conscious. But, fundamentally, we are dirty. The car outside my window is dirty. The electricity that runs my fridge is dirty. I have a very low ‘environmental footprint’ and I try to be aware of ways I can reduce pollution not just directly but also indirectly, but it’s inescapable. Humans in developed countries really are filthy creatures.

The necessity for dirty things means that there are companies who do them for us. Who take care of it for us. And they need to operate somewhere. Most of that time, that ‘somewhere’ is a poor community, often with a high population of people of colour. It is indigenous land. It is an ‘unwanted’ place, except, of course, for the people who live there, who want it very much. Many US states actually work very hard to attract these companies because they bring in substantial revenues and if you see the internal documents highlighting ‘good’ places to do business, they align very closely with the maps of class and race demographics; look, for example, at the coal industry in Appalachia. There’s a reason mines are located where they are and it’s not just about the coal deposits, it’s also about the people who live around them. Look at the distribution of oil drilling off the coast of the US, and who lives where the wells are.

There is a term for the tendency of environmental pollution to end up in nonwhite communities: Environmental racism. I’d argue that environmental classism plays a role, as does environmental colonialism, to a certain extent. There’s a reason these communities (which often overlap!) are targeted for pollution. Because their residents can’t fight it. Either they need the revenues more than they need a clean environment, or they lack the clout of a wealthy community, that community that refused to allow trucks with nuclear waste to pass through, that town that rejected oil spill waste, that city that doesn’t let paper manufacturers set up inside city limits.

A few months ago, I watched the PBS documentary on the Triangle Fire. The documentary extensively covered the garment worker protest of 1909 that preceded the fire, and one of the points it made stuck with me. The protest started among the poorest garment workers, people who were willing to strike even though they knew they couldn’t afford it, and when it initially happened, it pretty much fizzled. It was a nonevent. The media didn’t pay attention. The strikers showed up day after day to picket, were beaten by police and Pinkertons, were living in desperate poverty, and yet, they kept striking.

The media started paying attention when some of the wealthiest women in the United States got involved and started walking the picket line. Then, suddenly, it was news. It wasn’t just immigrants living in poverty, it was some of the most powerful members of society. Their role in the strikes allowed them to continue, provided the momentum, resulted in the unionisation of a number of shops across New York. Without that, the strike would have gone nowhere.

I bring this up now because it has such obvious parallels with the way we handle industrial waste and pollution. Communities all over the United States are fighting unwanted industrial pollution right now. They are trying to get settlements for years of waste that led to illness, ruined lives, destroyed property. They are resisting attempts to build factories or dump waste. They are fighting for their lives, and they never show up on the news, unless they are wealthy communities with the backing of powerful people. When it’s a rich community, suddenly, it matters. When it’s a community with pristine wilderness bought and paid for with wealth, then it’s a matter of news interest, then it’s something that people want to talk about. When it’s a community that people remember visiting on vacation, then, suddenly, it’s above the fold.

‘Not in my backyard,’ wealthy people say.

Ok, then, where?