Environmental Justice in the USA
Make America Great Again and Environmental Justice - a commentary
By Götz Kaufmann, 2016-11-14
11/9/16 shook the political landscape in the United States, and around the world, as Donald Trump became President-elect contradicting the election forecasts of liberal mainstream media. It was hard to believe how the voters decided for Trump considering the sheer amount of negative publicity coming from Trump's controversial statements. The reaction of the liberal and academic public's majority oscillated (and still oscillates) between panic and depression. People are demonstrating in about fifty cities in the US in the hope of changing the minds of those presidential electors who are not bound to the vote of the people. But even the Hillary friendly media admit, there are relatively few demonstrators, and a look into the history of the voting behavior of presidential electors reveals that those presidential electors who ignore the will of the people in that way have been punished and banned.
Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the United States and he will re-shape the way how politics have been done over the last decades. The question is: what does this mean for environmental justice? My conclusion is that Trump will do better than Clinton regarding environmental justice for the following reasons.
The starting point won't be a moral judgement of the public person Donald Trump. Instead of a moralization of the debate; looking at the facts is essential. The discussion cannot be whether Donald Trump addresses women and people of different descent (non-white people) and religions (here Muslims) in an appropriate way. Every educated person knows that this is wrong and populist. Gender issues and racism, social inequality and cultural oppression, heterosexualism and ageism (tbc) should not have a place in an enlightened society. There is politically nothing to add.
Open questions could be whether we live in a sophisticated society or whether this is an unproven assumption of the liberal public. This liberal assumption in discussing Trump's impact versus Obama's legacy (bound to Hillary Clinton's election) is methodologically not much different from right-wing bar talks. It also doesn't help to verstehen (in the best Weberian meaning) the issue at stake. Setting aside a judgmental frame of the individual person is essential. Individual persons don't make history, people and social systems do. Politics are not generally made by what politicians say, and particularly during election time, but by what they do. Most of what Obama wanted to do (shutting down Guantanamo, ending US involvement in wars, change the economy to protect society from 'too-big-to-fail' banks among many others) he didn't accomplish. However, he did accomplish many things (prosecuting whistleblowers like Edward Snowden like no president before, engaging in a drone war beyond any civic control etc.), which contradicted his liberal speeches. We should not pay too much attention to what politicians say as they are part of a social system (in a Luhmannian, system-theoretical meaning) that follows its own rules and has its own language codes.
Moving beyond cracker barrel politics and bar-room clichés of the liberal mainstream, the following commentary is more interested in discussing what we know about Trump's policies related to environmental justice questions and if our knowledge allows for evidence based judgment. Many people have pledged their hope in Hillary Clinton's statements of a continuation of the COP21 process and understood President-elect Trump's silence as evidence of his opposition to saving the environment. The debate seems to be more influenced by his inappropriate and vulgar words than by his policies. As for the COP21 agreement, the impact of a possible dropout by the new US government must be judged through the lenses of whether the agreement was a success or not. I assume the latter to be true as argued earlier (click here). More important is to consider that we do not know whether a president Clinton would have kept her word nor do we know whether President-elect Trump will retreat from this without any true binding obligations. So even if both Obama's and Clinton's testimonies sound more appropriate in the ears of middle-class academics and ease our moral expectations than those of the President-elect, Democrat presidencies have not stopped the decline of the US middle class and the increasing social inequality.
Considering the history of the emergence of the environmental justice movement, which in response to bourgeois mainstream environmental movements always called on the moral duty to protect the disadvantaged from environmental harm, we have learned from history that morality and appropriate words are not enough to change social facts. As a matter of fact, the status quo resulted in more deplorables and desperation of the unheard. The truth is that economic concerns trump morality. It is a moral misconception of academic elites that our moral concerns (out of niche of relative wealth and privilege) should matter for the underprivileged. They do not and they never really did. Billions of poor people in the world, mostly persons of color, women, from less-industrialized countries cannot buy food and pay their bills from our pity as liberal academics.
Critical environmental justice research bases on clear standpoint that is not moral but aims for the explication of dominant and suppressed meanings and to the identification of agents of impairment (for more click here). Who are these dominant, suppressing agents? These are those in power. Obama does not represent the suppressed people of African decent, Hillary Clinton is not one of the deplorable women. Donald Trump will be next but not as a reliable spokes man for the declining white working class.
All of them are agents of impairment and suppresser in the eyes of those who never had the chance to raise as high. These people have looked for someone who speaks up, many wanted Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, but certainly not Hillary Clinton. Having to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump even a majority of white women voted for Trump (cf. 2016 National Election: Exit Polls on FoxNews and New York Times), and many people of color did not vote for Hillary Clinton in face of the given choice. These deprived people thought egoistically (and rightfully!) about themselves and understood that someone with Clinton's record will never help them as she is always occupied with helping herself first, telling everyone what everyone wanted to hear. Donald Trump used their language which middle-class educated women find disgusting but middle-class women in an unequal society are minority. Poor women have more basic environmental problems than racist and sexist speeches that you hear in every working-class bar regularly. It is the academic middle class that need to learn: the deprived people know by themselves better about what matters to them than we do.
Analyzing Trump's environmental justice agenda
As said, we don't know much about Trump's agenda and even that what we know is hardly reliable. It is reported about a ralley speech of Donald Trump on Dec. 30, 2015 in Hilton Head, South Carolina that he said: "Obama's talking about all of this with the global warming and (...) a lot of it's a hoax. It's a hoax. I mean, it's a money-making industry, okay? It's a hoax, a lot of it." To this he added later on Twitter that "The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive." (reported here) Later on he said it was a joke. As for Climate Change even leftist websites admit that there is not any public comment about it. Everything that Donald Trump has said could have been a joke but the analysis must rely on something.
For the sake of analysis, let's assume that all what he officially published was not a joke. Distinguishing between the two will inherently carry the bias of judging about one or the other. As no one knows for sure, I assume that his officially published promises to his voters will be his guideline for a re-election in four years.
We know about his action plan (download here). It contains six measures to clean up the corruption and special interest collusion in Washington DC, seven actions to protect American workers, and five actions to restore security and the constitutional rule of law.
The corruption measures on the political establishment in the US do not target environmental justice matters directly. The following seven plus five bullet points reveal two issues tackling environmental justice concerns directly, three further actions of indirect impact, and his 'Repeal and Replace Obamacare Act' plan. Many of the arguments are labelled with a big 'if' but for the sake of comparison let's assume all what he wrote he will do and avoid a prejudgment of what one or the other political direction may think is more likely to be skipped or kept.
The first one is the fourth of his five actions to restore security and the constitutional rule of law. He states that he will "begin removing the more than two million criminal illegal immigrants from the country and cancel visas to foreign countries that won't take them back." (Donald Trump specified his plan also in an interview during his campaign.) This approach indeed targets the most vulnerable groups of a society considering that most of these migrants came from Mexico due to the impacts of the implementation of the free trade zone NAFTA (Canada, USA, Mexico) under President Bill Clinton. This aspect is amplified indirectly by his second action in this category: to "begin the process of selecting a replacement for Justice Scalia from one of the 20 judges on my list, who will uphold and defend the U.S. Constitution." With the majority of then five to four supreme court judges in addition to the majority in Senate and Congress, even many human rights petitions will most likely be waved. The targeted group contains about eleven million people without legal papers in the US. These will have even less protection than before. Among them (as usual) women are more vulnerable in terms of environmental risks.
The second one is the fifth and seventh of his seven actions to protect American workers. The fifth plans to "lift the restrictions on the production of $50 trillion dollars' worth of job-producing American energy reserves, including shale, oil, natural gas and clean coal." The seventh aims to "cancel billions in payments to U.N. climate change programs and use the money to fix America's water and environmental infrastructure". Revoking billions of U$ from climate change programs as lifting environmental regulations is certainly not positive particularly looking at the paragon role powerful nations play in the world. The problem with such a global perspective on environmental problems lies in the neglect of direct local impacts for vulnerable communities. If deprived and disadvantaged people get jobs this way, they gain the resources to protect themselves from environmental impacts and even gain more capacity to oppose politically negative impacts in their neighborhood. If the whole promises are kept, if the new government distributes the billions into the general U.S. infrastructure, if new jobs are created for working class people, this is beneficial also from an environmental justice perspective. Weak infrastructure plays certainly a very important part in the unequal distribution of environmental burdens as it is a distribution fact of the environmental goods. If we keep the global perspective on the issue, the focus should be more on the military agenda in Syria. We would then have to answer the question of whether negotiations with Putin (Trump's position) are more likely to bring peace for the underprivileged people that haven't had the resources to leave the Syrian war zone, than a military engagement against the Assad regime together with Turkey under Erdogan siding with Saudi Arabia and many jihadist groups. This question must be left open here.
Indirectly related are his proposed first and second actions. Contrary to the first three arguments, these lean more clearly to one side. Donald Trump promised "to renegotiate NAFTA or withdraw from the deal under Article 2205" (first action) and to "announce our withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership" (second action). Looking at the history of free-trade deals, the least advantaged have never quite benefitted from it. There is a lot of evidence from old dependency theory driven research up to world system theory evaluations that free-trade agreements are strong drivers of inequality in the world. As former Democrat candidate Bernie Sanders points out in his first interview after the election of Donald Trump, opposing NAFTA and TTIP for putting working-class people into jobs would haven even his support in the electional process (click here for the interview with Bernie Sanders on CNN).
The last aspect to discuss is the 'Repeal and Replace Obamacare Act'. This is a delicate one as this may affect millions of Americans and leave them without insurance. Considering first announcements of Donald Trump after his election to keep parts of Obamacare, especially related to disadvanatged people, this issue should remain under consideration for now.
In conclusion, I think that Donald Trump was not good choice for environmental justice in the United States and around the world but Hillary Clinton would have been worse. The best (realistic) choice would have been Bernie Sanders and this was optional to the super delegates of the Democratic party but they chose Hillary Clinton. After emails have been wikileaked showing that the preliminaries by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) were not fair towards her opponent Bernie Sanders by DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Hillary Clinton was not only nominated with help of the super delegates but also almost immediately employed the former DNC chair. This requires an amount of impudence which was convincing for everyone who wanted see that at least the system where Hillary Clinton comes from, was rigged. The election of Donald Trump will maybe enforce a change within the establishment of the Democrats and open new pathways for fighting the existing intersectional inequality in the United States.
As for the judgement on Donald Trump, he will change regulations to strengthen coal, oil and natural gas, re-open the Keystone XL Pipeline, and weaken existing EPA regulations. The positive leaning judgment of this evaluation resides in a simple question. President-elect Trump posted a simple question & answer regarding his economic plan: "Any future regulation will go through a simple test: is this regulation good for the American worker? If it doesn't pass this test, the rule will not be approved." The judgment provided is as simple and this will also determine finally Trump's chance for a second term in office: will be a significant number of people have decent jobs in four years? If yes, he will very likely be re-elected and if not, this depends on the counter-candidate as the history of the ten U.S. presidents tells about all presidents that ever have failed to serve a second term. The likeliness that his plan will work out is rather small considering that he plans to run the state as a company. The difference between political / national economy and business administration is appealing and thus market driven development approaches from modernization theory have seldom played off for the underprivileged.
If Trump fails, the existing neoliberal agenda is re-opened for discussion. Social movements - like the environmental justice movement - and critical environmental justice research will find many battlegrounds and evidence to oppose the existing economic frame. The problem with leftist-in-words government like the Democrats led by Hillary Clinton is that every critique there is always bounced by the argument that such critiques support the Republicans as the Clinton administration is the best everyone could hope for. Our German experience is rich of experiences like it. When the social-democrat party took over together with the Green party after 16 years of conservative government, they established the worst cut of social benefits in Germany's history. Movementwise, the years of this coalition did more harm than good but provided a great learning for the civil society not to trust in the words but look at the actions of the political class.
A former version of this article argued that Trump did not publically refer to the Keystone XL pipeline project. This is not correct as he refers to it in the sixth action to protect American workers. This has been changed in the text. (15.11.2016)
The article also stated that "a majority of women voted for Trump". This is only true for white women. This has been corrected and amended with supporting links. (15.11.2016)
Please find some selected media coverage in the following playlist (update 19.11.2016)
Image: © bruiser