“Environmental justice” is a term that relates to claims that poor and minority households suffer harms from hazards imposed on them by large firms. It is alleged that powerful companies can steamroll the political system and are allowed to impose toxic wastes on people with little political power. Community organizers have used this claim to demand remediation of past environmental practices, such as Superfund sites, as well as demand participation in administrative processes that determine licensing of polluting facilities.
H. Spencer Banzhaf, who recently published a paper on the topic in the American Economic Review—the most prestigious academic journal in economics—furthered his work in this area while at PERC as a Julian Simon Fellow in 2007. This paper summarizes the state of the academic literature on the implications of environmental justice. A member of the economics faculty at Georgia State University, Banzhaf carefully examines some of the consequences of the policies related to environmental justice. His empirical work indicates that, as with many policies that have good intentions, the poor may not be the beneficiaries of environmental justice policies asserted to be designed to improve their neighborhoods.
Few would deny that poverty and minority status are correlated with pollution, and many have sought to redress the seeming injustice. Yet the laudible cause of helping the disadvantaged can easily be unproductive, or even counterproductive, if the forces at work are misunderstood. In this engaging essay, Banzhaf examines the evidence on why the poor often live in close proximity to pollution. His insights should be required reading for those leading the debate and shaping our policy on environmental justice.
Professor of Economics
University of California, Santa Barbara