Exporting Environmental Racism and Classism

Western culture has a way of extending itself over the rest of the world in a constant reminder that colonialism is never truly dead. Our attitudes and practices spread to other regions, and may even become fashionable, desirable, or prized as signs of cultural or political sophistication. Thus it is that imperialism in pop culture, politics, and other cultural avenues mainstreams into the Global South, fundamentally changing countries we may not consider formal colonies anymore.

Some fascinating illustrations of this phenomenon are visible in today’s China, a nation that guards its independence closely and has a sometimes troubled relationship with the West. Even as China focuses on independence, though, it’s acquired a number of Western habits, and the West is happy to use China as a dumping ground for its problems in another instance of colonialism; we export our electronic and other waste there, for example, and we shift manufacturing production to China to avoid tougher labour, environmental, and other laws in the West.

Within China, a little microcosm of this trend has emerged, with wealthier Chinese provinces pushing their emissions and production into low-income provinces. Since the US seems to be having such success with it, wealthy members of Chinese society see no reason not to imitate it, especially since the country is under substantial global pressure to cut emissions and help meet global targets for addressing climate change and related social issues.

Much like Western nations, wealthy Chinese provinces are starting to tighten their labour and pollution laws, for a variety of reasons including external pressures, social attitudes, and a desire to meet internal national targets. As these crackdowns occur, however, they push industry out, because companies can’t provide goods and services at the rates consumers demand while also dealing with policy changes. Thus, they congregate in poor regions where there are fewer such laws, allowing wealthy provinces to export their pollution and other problems; Mongolia, for example, has become a hub of manufacturing and production.

It’s notable that just as in the West, this involves a complex entanglement of both race and class. Many Westerners think of ‘China’ as a racial monolith, and of ‘Chinese’ people as being all one race. That’s not actually the case; China contains a wide number of racial and ethnic identities, and thus it’s significant that minority Mongolian Chinese communities are becoming centers of industrial production while majority Han Chinese communities in regions like Tianjin are exporting their pollution.

When historically marginalised, poor populations are pushed even further into marginalisation, that’s a cause for concern. And it’s troubling to see Western habits of pushing issues like pollution into low-income areas inhabited by racial and ethnic minorities being exported to other countries. The tactics used in China are the same as those we see used in the United States; poor provinces may be wooed by corporations promising more money for the community in exchange for a break on environmental enforcement, for example, or may feel forced into accepting a manufacturing proposal because they need the money even though they know it will cause significant pollution.

And, as in the US, factories will be less responsible when it comes to managing pollution and working ethically within the communities they set up in, because they have no real incentives to do so. That means that pollutants will likely be dumped in uncontrolled areas, leading to health problems, crop blights, and other issues. It means that citizens will have a hard time fighting back when their communities are poisoned, because they’re minorities and people are less likely to listen to them. And it means that over time, these communities are likely to become even more marginalised.

Just as the West tries to evade responsibility for the harm it produces by pushing it onto communities without the ability to protest loudly enough to be heard, some nations in the Global South are doing the same thing. They’re doing in the name of development, in the name of achieving a high standard of living, in the name of bringing themselves up to the level of the West, because this is the cultural, social, and political ideal. They’re often doing it at the behest of the West, too, which sets targets and pressures nations to change their way of life and policies to accommodate Western views of what ‘society’ and ‘civilisation’ should look like.

Pushing pollution and other ecological issues into smaller and smaller boxes doesn’t actually solve the larger problem of a globe that’s hurtling on an unsustainable path towards a potentially explosive end. It just puts these things off, momentarily, and creates even more harm in marginalised communities, as well as lighting a slow-burning fuse that may eventually result in mass protest, as has been happening in China this year. Thousands of Chinese people have taken to the streets in cities across the country to draw attention to pollution and other issues, demanding action, because they’ve had enough, and they want their government to take more responsibility.

Eventually, those low-income communities used for dumping grounds are going to rise up, and their governments are not going to be ready for the results. It’s time for numerous nations to be asking important questions about why environmental racism and classism continue to be a codified part of their environmental and social policy decisions, before it’s too late for these communities and their nations at large. Because no one should be living in a toxic wasteland, anywhere, ever.