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Three ways to improve your understanding of how environmental justice affects your community

Environmental degradation harms every individual by causing pervasive decline of life on Earth, but it doesn’t impact everyone to the same degree. Environmental justice addresses two things: sharing of benefits and proportional distribution of consequences related to environmental degradation. No matter how you are affected, it is crucial to solve these problems in an equitable manner. Plant and Wildlife Sciences professor Ben Abbott shares three ways to improve your understanding on how environmental justice affects you and your community.

climate justice
Photo by Dylan Smith

Acknowledge disproportionate levels of vulnerability

Environmental justice usually affects families who are least able to deal with consequences and creates community-based vulnerability established on race and wealth. During the 20th century, zoning laws based on racial or ethnic status prevented groups from integrating into middle to high-class neighborhoods. People with more financial resources are more able to move away from harmful areas due to natural zoning that segments nicer houses into cleaner locations. “Places that are cheaper tend to be more polluted and more vulnerable to natural and human-exacerbated problems,” Abbott explains. Typically, white, affluent families live in clean areas, and minorities are separated into neighborhoods that expose them to the consequences of environmental degradation. Injustice is perpetuated when minorities are bearing a majority of the consequences of environmental degradation instead of the whole community bearing it proportionally.

Learn what your community is missing

Not only are these groups less able to deal with the consequences, often times they aren’t aware of the problem and can’t defend themselves against injustice. Bringing things closer to home, Utah Valley showcases two major problems that illustrate the lack of protection against these problems. In Utah Valley, housing prices are lower closer to the freeway, so these neighborhoods ingest higher concentrations of particulate matter that are connected to cognitive, reproductive, and neurological harm. Pollution is an invisible problem, but the consequences are chronic. Additionally, Utah Valley has not updated their building efficiency standards in 10 years. If Utah accepted federal building codes, builders in Utah would be required to improve standards on things like insulation, efficiency, and window seals. Currently, builders can sell houses for approximately $700 less with current inefficient standards, but that $700 “discount” adds up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs coming out of the pockets of the buyer.

Embrace accountability

People who aren’t intensely affected have the privilege to ignore the problem, but they aren’t void of responsibility. If we don’t act for change, we propagate the injustice. “It’s no longer an environmental issue, it’s a basic moral and human rights issue” says Abbott. We subsidize environmental injustice when there’s no cost to producers and users who benefit from degradation. We lack urgency because it’s hard to visualize the cost it has on our community. Let’s hold ourselves accountable to properly distribute the costs and consequences of environmental deterioration. Focus on enacting change by getting informed, voting, and calling representatives to address environmental justice issues like zoning laws and the cost of pollution.

"Because this has direct implications on families and local community health, I feel that this is something we should all be getting on board with,” Abbott says. “Don’t we all want to have more efficient, healthier, and livable conditions that elevate people out of poverty and allows them to get ahead?" In the end, we are truly in this together.