Environmental Justice:
An Interview with Robert Bullard

Earth First! Journal

July 1999

Here is the full text of an interview with Dr. Robert Bullard, one of the pioneering scholars and activists in the environmental justice movement. Robert Bullard is one of the major researchers and organizers in the environmental justice movement. This interview is anti-copyright and may be reproduced and distributed at will.

by Errol Schweizer

[2877 words]

Errol Schweizer (ES): What is the environmental justice movement?

Robert Bullard (RB): The environmental justice movement has basically redefined what environmentalism is all about. It basically says that the environment is everything: where we live, work, play, go to school, as well as the physical and natural world. And so we can't separate the physical environment from the cultural environment. We have to talk about making sure that justice is integrated throughout all of the stuff that we do.

What the environmental justice movement is about is trying to address all of the inequities that result from human settlement, industrial facility siting and industrial development. What we've tried to do over the last twenty years is educate and assist groups in organizing and mobilizing, empowering themselves to take charge of their lives, their community and their surroundings. It's more of a concept of trying to address power imbalances, lack of political enfranchisement, and to redirect resources so that we can create some healthy, liveable and sustainable types of models.

ES: How have environmental justice groups organized themselves?

RB: For the most part, a lot of the small grassroots groups operate from a bottom up model. They don't have boards of directors and large budgets and large staffs but they do operate with the idea that everyone has a role and we are all equal in this together. The environmental justice groups are more egalitarian, most of them are led by women, and its more democratic. Not to say its perfect but it does bring out the idea that power rests in all of us and when we operate as a collective, that's when we are most powerful and we move forward as a unit, as a body and not necessarily with a hierarchy. But I think a lot of it is when you can have an issue that can mobilize, organize and create the catalyst that gets thousands of people at a meeting, saying this is what we want and we're not gonna back up till we get it.

I think that's where the environmental justice movement is more of a grassroots movement of ordinary people who may not see themselves as traditional environmentalists, but are just as much concerned about the environment as someone who may be a member of the Sierra Club or the Audubon Society.

ES: How has the environmental justice movement come into conflict with these traditional, white environmental groups?

RB: There's been a lot of conflict and misunderstanding about what the role of some of the green groups are as it relates to environmental justice and particularly working in communities of color. And what we're saying is that its just one environment. You're talking about planet earth, where we live, and if in fact we are going to have a global movement for environmental justice, we have to understand what environment is and what the agendas are. A lot of grassroots groups and communities of color are saying that we have to work in our communities and take care of educating and empowering our people before we can talk about having other people do stuff for us. I think to a large extent a lot of grassroots groups have come head-on with a lot of the larger groups that have not understood exactly what environmental justice is.

We are saying that environmental justice incorporates the idea that we are just as much concerned about wetlands, birds and wilderness areas, but we're also concerned with urban habitats, where people live in cities, about reservations, about things that are happening along the US-Mexican border, about children that are being poisoned by lead in housing and kids playing outside in contaminated playgrounds. So we have had to struggle to get these issues on the radar on a lot of the large environmental groups.

We've made a lot of progress since 1990 when a letter was written to them charging them with environmental racism, elitism, looking at their staff, looking at their boards and saying that we need to talk. And there's been some talking and sharing and working together along the way. We've made progress but there's still a lot of progress that needs to be made because to a large extent the environmental movement, the more conservation/preservation movement, really reflects the larger society. And society is racist. And so we can't expect a lot of our organizations not to somehow be affected by that.

We're not saying that people are evil and that these organizations are setting out to do harm, but we're saying that we have to educate ourselves and learn about each other. We have to cross those boundaries and go on the other side of the tracks, go to the meetings downtown and learn from each other. That's what we've been doing for the last twenty years: trying to get a handle on how we can work together in a principled way. And in 1991 we had the first national people of color environmental leadership summit and we developed 17 principles of environmental justice. Basically, how can we as people of color, working class people and poor people work on agendas that at the same time may conflict with the larger agendas of the big groups. And what we're saying is that we may not agree on 100 percent of the things but we agree on more things than we disagree on. And I think that we have to agree to work on the things we are in agreement on and somehow work through those things where there are disagreements.

ES: What kind of role has race played in the siting of toxic facilities in this country?

RB: Race is still the potent factor for predicting where Locally Unwanted Land Uses (LULUs) go. A lot of people say its class, but race and class are intertwined. Because the society is so racist and because racism touches every institution--employment, housing, education, facility siting, land use decisions, you can't really extract race out of decisions that are being made by persons who are in power and the power arrangements are unequal. When we talk about the institution of racism as it exists in environmental policy, enforcement, land use, zoning and all those things. All of that is part of the environment and we have to make sure that our brothers and sisters who are in environmental groups understand that's what we are saying.

Environmental justice is not a social program, it's not affirmative actions, its about justice. and until we get justice in environmental protection, justice in terms of enforcement of regulations, we will not even talk about achieving sustainable development or sustainability issues until we talk about justice. A lot of the groups that are trying to address these issues in the absence of dealing with race may be fooling themselves. When we talk about what's happening along the US-Mexican border and the colonias and the maquilas and the devastation that is happening along the border, the health conditions of children and workers and not understand that it's also related to our consumption patterns, consumption behavior and who has the most money to consume the most. And those are issues that may be unpopular when we sit in rooms and talk but I think that's how the environmental justice movement is forcing these issues on the table and really getting a lot of people to think about how we can start to address the disparities and the inequities and the privileged position that some people have only because of the skin color that they were born in. And that's where the justice issues come into account.

Now all of the issues of environmental racism and environmental justice don't just deal with people of color. We are just as much concerned with inequities in Appalachia, for example, where the whites are basically dumped on because of lack of economic and political clout and lack of having a voice to say "no" and that's environmental injustice. So we're trying to work with groups across the political spectrums; democrats, republicans, independents, on the reservations, in the barrios, in the ghettos, on the border and internationally to see that we address these issues in a comprehensive manner.

ES: Are you seeing more of a convergence between the traditional, white environmental groups and the people of color movements?

RB: We haven't seen a total convergence; what we've seen is a better understanding of the various sides that are there, the various elements, the various components and priorities that are there. And for a long time historically, for example, black people in the south were not even allowed to visit state parks, because of Jim Crow and segregation. And somehow we were blamed for not having appreciation for state parks. I mean, it wasn't our faults, we couldn't go to them! So we're finding as the more urban folks get to visit parks and wilderness areas and are able to appreciate that these are national treasures and not just treasures for people that have money to visit them, its everybody's. We all pay taxes. And so we are seeing more and more young people being able to take field trips to see the beauty of nature. And more and more people who are in environmental groups are now beginning to understand that what happens in cities also impacts their lives.

So we can't just let cities buckle under and fall into this sinkhole. We have to talk about this convergence of urban, suburban and rural and talk about the quality of life that exists and talk about the issue of urban sprawl. Basically everybody is impacted by sprawl. People who live in cities face disinvestment, in suburbs with the trees being knocked down, chewing up farmland. So you talk about this convergence, a lot of it is happening now, but it has to happen with the understanding that we have to include everybody, that it has to be an inclusive movement or it won't work.

ES: How can you pose these issues to people when organizing in low income and politically disenfranchised communities, especially communities with very little open space or access to natural areas?

RB: The first line is that we have to start early. We have to educate young people that it is their right to have access to open space, green space, parks, outdoors, as opposed to people thinking that their supposed to be living in an area where the only park is a basketball court with no net. We have to give people this idea that it's their right to have access to open space and green space and we have to provide funds to make sure that we get them early on and take them on field trips, take them to a wilderness area, a refuge, a reserve, to a park-a real park and to integrate this information into our curriculum.

In your geography course, in your social studies course, or science course make sure you integrate this into it, and have videos that you can show, but ultimately the best example that you can have is that young people visit these places and see for themselves what nature is.

If you talk about people of color, African Americans for example, we are land-based people. Africans are land-based people. Native Americans are land-based peoples. We have been pushed off land and we now find ourselves in cities but that doesn't mean that the institutional memory of what the land was to us and how we are tied to the land and how our whole existence was based on community and being tied to the land. And so I think we've gotten away from that but the reintroduction of those concepts can be achieved if we make a concerted effort at trying to do that. And some of that is being done if you look at the environmental education curriculum that is integrating environmental justice into it. We're trying to do that but there is a whole lot of resistance.

Traditional environmental education is to basically do it by the numbers the way it's been done for the last 50 years and thats not working. It's not working for our communities.

ES: What is the EJ perspective on the population/border debate within the Sierra Club?

RB: (Hehehehehe) Well, you know... My position--and I can only speak for myself, is that immigration is not the problem in terms of environmental degradation. If we talk about having no borders and addressing issues of economic justice--we can address lots of the environmental injustices around the world. If we talk about respecting life and respecting people and respecting communities, if we do that we can end a lot of the international friction that results from transboundary waste trades, and imbalances created as a result of NAFTA--people call it "ShAFTA". We can do a lot of things and I think this whole anti-immigrant wave is just another wedge that is driven between folks that are organizing and mobilizing. I don't think it will work.

This country is changing demographically and it is scaring a lot of people. The year 2050 is supposed to be the magic year when people of color will be in the majority in this country. But at one point in time this country was people of color, it was indigenous people. So when we talk about these issues, we have to put them in the context of the long term. We need to address things within US borders but at the same time we cannot export problems abroad and create problems in areas that we know do not have the capacity to handle garbage and environmental waste and the risky technologies that are being exported and the unsustainable development policies that are being exported abroad, most of it by our government. So I think that environmental justice folks are saying that we are going to have to work across borders and those ties are already there and it is just a matter of making sure that we strengthen those and we expand and keep reaching out.

ES: How has the environmental justice movement attacked the mode of production, the way that things are made, as well as the fact that things are being dumped on people.

RB: Well, as a matter of fact, there was a meeting in Detroit [recently] on clean production. And what we're saying is that clean production can be a major component in the environmental justice movement because if we are talking about clean production, changing the way things are made and what goes into the manufacturing of products, we can save a lot of headaches for communities that are surrounded by polluting industries. So if we clean up the production and a lot of communities that are living on the fence lines with these facilities, a lot of their problems can be solved immediately. So EJ and clean production go hand in hand. What we are saying is that we have to make sure that as these new movements come along we integrate EJ into it. We've done that with the clean production movement.

ES: EF! considers itself to be the radical end of the environmental movement. What can EF!ers do to further the vision of the environmental justice movement?

RB: Well, you know, the EJ movement is an inclusive movement. What we are saying is that everything on the spectrum as it relates to siting, pollution, industrial contamination in communities, non-sustainable development, non-sustainable patterns of production, I think everybody has a role in that. The EJ movement is an anti-racist movement and I don't think you can get any more radical than fighting racism. Because when you talk about fighting racism, you make a lot of enemies because racism permeates everything.

I think Earth First! can really embrace a lot of the environmental justice principles that we have and see that there are a lot of things that environmental justice groups are advocating and trying to implement that cut cross some of the issues that you're addressing. And I'm not saying that you are gonna get a lot people of color inundating your organization [sic] with membership but we can work together without being members and that's where I think the collaboration, coalitions and signing onto supporting specific campaigns has really made a difference in some of the more recent campaign victories that we've had on EJ.

The fact is that the environmental justice movement over the last ten years has really matured onto developing policies and issue statements and working on issues ranging from housing, transportation, health to economic development, community revitalization, you name it. I think that the mere fact that we have a number of environmental justice centers around the country now that are working with communities--not organizing communities-- but working with, in support of and providing technical assistance and training, we've been able to do some things that no thought we could do 10-15 years ago and thats really making a difference when we talk about working across disciplines and geographic, racial and economic spectrums, we're the most powerful and thats when we are the strongest.


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Last modified: 22 January 2000