September 8, 2020

Policy in the Pandemic: Labor Day Reflections on Social Inequality and the Environment

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

By Kay Jowers

Labor Day is a time to pause, not just to revel in the last bit of summer, but also to reflect on how social movements and collective action have historically influenced—and continue to influence—our lives and work. This day honors the collective actions of labor movement participants who risked their livelihoods and often their lives to protest oppressive and unsafe working conditions of the mid-to-late 19th-century workplaces. They protested because the system of institutions and regulations in place at the time was failing to protect them.

On Labor Day 2020, we are faced with mounting evidence that our system of institutions and regulations has been yet again failing to provide equal and equitable protection for all on many fronts. We find ourselves amidst a global public health crisis and a global wave of protest. In the United States alone, organized protests are calling attention to a range of collective grievances, including structural racism, disproportionate police violence against Black Americans, and even COVID-19 pandemic-related actions.

These issues may at first glance appear unrelated to the environment, but they are. The protests began in May with the killing of George Floyd and have centered on the disproportionate killing of Black Americans by police, incidents of which continue to happen and be brought to light. The participants in these and related protests are also mobilizing more broadly against structural racism within our country’s institutions and regulations—structural racism that also leads to environmental injustices.

Significant problems arise each day at the intersection of the natural environment and social inequality. There are problems that are clearly and directly environmental—water shortages, increased flooding, toxic pollution, biodiversity loss, and climate change. But environmental problems also include food insecurity, energy poverty, housing insecurity, and yes, even preventable diseases like COVID-19. Each of these are experienced unequally across social groups defined by race, ethnicity, and class in the United States. Our land use and consumption patterns have created inequities within and across communities that result in indigenous people and people of color living in communities that bear a disproportionate burden from environmental hazards. These areas are often more vulnerable to natural disasters and human-created hazards and lack access to affordable and healthy housing, food, energy, and health care resources.

Environmental justice is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Recognition of environmental justice as a principle that should drive our decision-making is due to the mobilization of communities and people who are most impacted in places where they live and work. One of the first major campaigns of the environmental justice movement occurred in 1982 over the state of North Carolina’s decision to locate a hazardous waste landfill to receive PCB-contaminated soils in Warren County, a rural county with a predominantly Black population. Mobilization has continued over many similar decisions that placed the environmental burdens created by our economic system on the poor and on people of color.

The economic system that drives environmental inequities and injustices is not just the polluting industries but also the end users driving consumption patterns. Recent research shows that non-Hispanic white Americans experience on average 17% less air pollution than is caused by their patterns of consumption, while Black and Hispanic Americans bear 53% and 63% more pollution, respectively, than is caused by their patterns. These disparities in air pollution exposure have been linked to the racial disparities we are seeing in COVID-19 exposure, infection, and death rates.

This week as we reflect on the meaning of Labor Day, I want to share resources and pieces that I have found helpful in my own reflections about Labor Day 2020, the importance of protest, and my own role in contributing to this system of inequities.

The Role of Protest:

Environmental Injustices and COVID-19:

About the Author
Kay Jowers is a senior policy associate with the State Policy Program at Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


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