Two Boats Heading Down One Stream: Environmental Justice and Consumer Resistance
In the 1980s, an issue emerged which exposed the correlation between racism, poverty, and environmental threats in the United States. This issue known as environmental injustice suggests that ethnic minorities and the poor communities are targets for toxic industries. The consistent lack of governmental representation and lack of political clout caused these targeted communities to take leadership in the environmental justice movement through grassroots organizations. During the rise of environmental justice movements, there was a market revolution. Technological advancements, such as portable phones, faster cable, laptops, etc., were becoming more accessible to the public. These new resources of communication encouraged market forces to advertise and promote their products and/or services more expansively. This growing capacity for advertisement in the United States led to habits of overconsumption in American society. Soon the “nation of opportunity” became infamously known as “the nation of gluttony. This perception created animosity in the United States, and anti-consumption sentiments spread. Market rebellion soon followed. Mainstream forms of consumer resistance are continuing to develop, however the foundation of consumer resistance lies in the minority communities of the United States.
The simultaneous emergence of both the environmental justice movement and consumer resistance is no coincidence. Both movements have similar traits; they share the same actors, purpose, and resistance tactics.In my analysis I will demonstrate the leading forces in both movements, which consist of ethnic minorities and low-income level communities. I will then address the shared purposes of both movements. I will examine the similar incentives in participating in these movements, as well as the psychological/social concepts of voluntarism and civic participation. The final correlative factor that I identify between the environmental justice movement and consumer resistance is the tactics of resistance, such as, grassroots protests, boycotting, and product purchasing commitments. This analysis will determine that consumer resistance is a function of the environmental justice movement.
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Actors Women and ethnic minorities, such as, African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans, are the dominant leaders and actors in the environmental justice movement and in consumer resistance. Mexican Americans and Native Americans have deep knowledge of ecology and respect for natural resources that originate in the moral foundations of their cultures and identities. African Americans and Women share the resentment of industries to target them and construct them in terms of their roles in society. These sentiments are addressed in their acts of consumer resistance and environmental justice movements. The importance in sustaining the environment and natural resources is apparent in Native American’s traditional ecological knowledge. The significance of nature in Native American culture is shown in their spiritual beliefs and pagan religion. Many tribes idolized animals by emulating them through warrior garments, physical markings, tribal chants, and dances.
They also relied on plant life in their medicinal practices. N.Scott Momaday of the Kiowa Tribe summates the ethics of Native American tribes by stating, "We humans must come again to a moral comprehension of the earth and air. We must live according to the principle of a land ethic. The alternative is that we shall not live at all” (Churchill 1983, 47). Native Americans are ideal leaders in environmental justice movements and consumer resistance due to their strong views of sustainable resource management and their personal conflicts over land ownership and property rights. Native American communities are arguably the most susceptible to having their land taken by corporations or industries.
In terms of agricultural practices, the Native Americans, especially those tribes residing in California, have sustainably managed the agricultural cultivation without relying on machines or pesticides (Churchill 1983). Mexican Americans have a deep respect for the environment and have a deep awareness of how to use natural resources sustainably. This knowledge is important to the survival of the culture and community, and reflects their Chicano identities. Sister Teresa Jaramillo, another San Luis native, describes a local sense of place that weaves her body and spirituality into the land, La Sierra. I know the names of the creeks and lakes and ponds with beautiful fish. I know the names of the hills where trees can be found. They are my spiritual brothers and sisters, my teachers. I know the place where the animal trails take you and the beaver ponds, and the places where my uncle took sheep to graze.
I know La Sierra because she is my home” (Pena 2005, xxv-xxvi). The Mexican American people have an intimate relationship with the wilderness, which makes them appropriate actors in issues of resource exploitation. “In the land grant communities at the time of Pinchot and Muir, wilderness was inhabited; it was home.It was not a mere commodity. Nature was inseparable from civilization. Their material culture is based on this sustainable relationship to wild spaces. The wilderness is woven into people’s identities” (Pena 2005, 31).
When the common lands of and water rights of his ancestral land were taken and destroyed, Adelmo Kaber felt susto, a fright so intense it may result in the loss of soul. Mexican Americans are severely affected by environmental threats in terms of their well-being because of the significance of natural resources in framing their cultural identities and morals (Pena 2005).African Americans have been prominent leaders in combating industries through environmental justice movements and consumer resistance. Industrial forces have performed acts of environmental racism that directly affect the health and labor rights of those targeted black communities. These acts have been successful in the formation of groups meant to hinder the progress of services and industries that have destroyed the health, the environment, and the civil rights of black communities. Women have also been prominent leaders in combating industries through environmental justice movements and consumer resistance. A university study shows that women think of “big business as a deterrent to positive change in the area of the environment” and it also showed that women defined themselves in opposition to the dominant consumer culture” because of “their idea that consumption did not provide solutions to environmental problems” (Fournier 1998, 2).
During the 1980’s, women broke out of their former social constructs of the 1950s by entering the workforce and abandoning their roles as being solely the housewives. This created women’s growing resentment for household and childcare products being targeted at just a female audience. The rising influence of women in leading environmental justice movements and consumer resistance is due to the growing influence of Ecofeminism. This new sector of environmental justice “is based on the idea that domination and exploitation of women and of the environment are interconnected. ” (132) Ecofeminists identify the problem as being “the capitalist system of economic exploitation and its control of science and technology” (Pena 2005, 133). The growing credibility of this approach provides another portal for women to combat industries through environmental justice movements and consumer resistance.
The environmental justice movements and consumer resistance share the same purpose in terms of hindering industries that are detrimental to the environments they target. Both movements have a cause-and-effect relationship. Collectively changing consumption patterns reduces exploitation of resources and environmental degradation. Reversely, advocating for more environmentally benign production practices in toxic facilities creates eco-friendly products and services. This relationship is reflected in the shared incentives and the psychological implications of the environmental justice movements and consumer resistance. Many notable environmental organizations, such as Greenpeace, Co-Op America, and Earth First, address both issues of environmental justice and overconsumption in order to improve their credibility in the realm of environmentalism. In current environmental issues, Greenpeace “opposes the release of GMOs into the environment” and “advocates immediate interim measures such as the labeling of GE foods and the segregation of genetically engineered crops and seeds to prevent them contaminating conventional and organic produce” (Greenpeace).This demonstrates how Greenpeace merges consumer resistance and environmental justice by altering the content of GE food labels, which would reduce consumption of GE food, as well as improve human health and the environment.
It is apparent that the intentions of consumer resistance includes the intentions of environmental justice movements because anti-consumption depends on a sense of identity grounded in social positions, such as, pro environmentalism, empowerment, and a vision of society that involved eco-friendly market behavior and structure. Anti-brand movements merge concerns of consumer resistance and environmental justice. Issues prominent in the anti-brand movement range from workplace equality and corporate domination to environmentalism and marketing propaganda” (Hollenbeck 2006, 1). These sentiments are reflected in the Fair Trade Coffee campaign of the Global Exchange Organization. The Fair Trade Coffee campaign “assures consumers that the coffee we drink was purchased under fair conditions. To become Fair Trade certified, an importer must meet stringent international criteria; paying a minimum price per pound of $1. 26, providing much needed credit to farmers, and providing technical assistance such as help transitioning to organic farming.
Fair Trade for coffee farmers means community development, health, education, and environmental stewardship” (Fair Trade Coffee 2009). It is apparent that achieving environmental justice and consumer resistance simultaneously is easily attainable. Many social and psychological concepts draw connections among the purposes of both movements. The notion of voluntary simplicity, which is “the idea that personal satisfaction, fulfillment, and happiness result from a commitment to nonmaterial aspects of life,” can be applied to the purpose of consumer resistance and environmental justice movements (Zavestoski 2009, 154). This belief is put into practice by minimizing consumption of material goods, exercising self-reliance, and improving one’s intellect” (Zavestoski 2009, 155). Both movements exercise this theory in their counteractions against corrupt industrial forces by educating their communities about environmental injustices and the negative effects of overconsumption, as well as belittling the credibility of those industries by protesting, boycotting, or make purchase commitments. Another common purpose of environmental justice movements and consumer resistance is to terminate the exploitation of natural resources.
Our society’s unhealthy dependence on resources is shown through one of Marxist’s meanings of alienation: Due to the fact that who we are is defined by what we produce; when we are separated from what we produced, we are alienated from ourselves. In a system in which forms of production cut the laborer off from what she or he produces, as in capitalism, the laborer can no longer create his identity through production (Zavestoski 2009, 157). This implies that corrupt industrial forces are detrimental to self identity and independence. Mexican Americans and Native Americans share this sentiment of blaming industry and resource exploitation for threatening the integrity of their identities and moral beliefs of environmentalism. Marx also identifies two contradictions of capitalism. The first contradiction is the tendency for the profit rates to decline while capital expands globally. This leads to overproduction because “each individual capitalist seeks to lower costs in order to maintain profitability by out-producing his or her competitors” (Pena 2005, 134).
The unintended effect is the reduction of total market demand for commodities. Both movements adopt this theory because it implies that industrial overproduction and labor/consumer demand are to blame for the exploitation of resources (Pena 2005). The second contradiction is characterized as a problem of underproduction. “Individual capitalists lower costs by externalizing costs to labor or nature,” but “the unintended effect of this is to raise costs on other capitals…and lower profits” (Pena 2005, 134). This contradiction is the main concept in Ecosocialism, which declares that “the economic system destroys the natural conditions of production and provokes an ecological crisis” (Pena 2005, 134).This theory draws the connection between consumer resistance and environmental justice movements because it blames corrupt industrial forces for creating environmental threats and exploited resources. Tactics Environmental justice movements and acts of consumer resistance share the same tactic of boycotting as well as forming or joining grassroots organizations.
Native Americans have used boycotting to combat industries that claimed the land in which they resided in. The Navajo community boycotted the uranium mining in Churchrock, New Mexico.The miners significantly reduced the limited water supply, and also contaminated what was left of the Navajo water supply with uranium. Kerr-McGee and United Nuclear Corporation, the two mining companies held responsible, argued that the Federal Water Pollution Control Act did not apply to them. The boycotts did achieve legal attention, but the courts did not force the companies to comply with US clean water regulations until 1980 (Shaiman 1998). The Native Americans referred to boycotting to avert consumption of certain products.The Native American boycotts regarding Crazy Horse Malt Liquor began when the Hornell Brewing Co. introduced Crazy Horse Malt Liquor in a distasteful and insulting manner. The introduction “demeans the name of revered Oglala Lakota Leader Tashunke Witco [Crazy Horse]” (Friedman 1999, 139). This statement reflects the feelings of the American Indian Movement (AIM) as well as two other organizations (the Wisconsin Greens and Honor, Inc. ) that performed boycotts the two associated brewers. The boycott gained Native American constituencies in Congress. However, the beverage is still sold in some 40 states (Friedman 1999).Historically, Mexican American led environmental justice movements using strikes as their main tactic.
The Cananea Strike of 1906 was documented as the first successful strike in terms of ending environmentally hazardous working conditions. The Cananea Mine in Sonora, Arizona was notorious causing fatalities among workers, who died in the explosions or from asphyxiation due to the buildup of toxic gases. On November 19th, 1906, Mexican workers went on strike against the owner, Anaconda Copper Company, a multinational corporation based in the United States.This strike was one of the first involving demands to improve workplace environmental conditions. Following that strike, Mexican Americans were excluded from the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and thus were forced to form their own unions. The environmental injustices of this occupational segregation led to numerous conflicts and strikes over the course of the 20th century (Pena 2005, 101). Mexican American tactics for environmental justice movements involve forming grassroots projects and organizations to boycott and campaign for better living conditions.
The Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) was a collective response by Mexican Americans in Albuquerque to an urban environment containing patterns of discrimination and police brutality. The toxic brownfields, polluting industries, and deteriorating housing degrade urban neighborhoods (Pena 2005, 168). Mexican-origin urban residents participate in movements for amenities, such as, better housing, community-based health care, and local food security by boycotting corrupt businesses that surround the community. Mexican Americans have utilized boycotting in their consumer resistance efforts.The organization responsible for the boycott was Justicia, one of several Mexican American groups active in media reform efforts in the late 1960s and early 1970s This group successfully dropped the advertisement of “Frito Bandito” by the Frito-Lay Company from its Fritos Corn Chips commercials. Another success was the purging from prime time of “Jose Jimenez,” the Hipic character created by comedian Bill Dana (Friedman 1999, 157). African Americans utilize boycotting in their actions of consumer resistance.
The Street Car boycotts of the early 1990s occurred in response to Jim Crow streetcar laws.Every one of the boycotts failed to reverse the legal tide of segregation in the South. As the only protest mechanism realistically available to African Americans, however, the boycott tactic continued to be embraced even though failure was inevitable. In the 1950s, the bus boycotts of Montgomery and Tallahassee regarding segregated seating proved to be effective. The bus boycotts put the buses out of business in the black community. When the Supreme Court ruled against bus segregation in Montgomery, blacks in Tallahassee resumed riding buses, with desegregated seating (Friedman 1999).Many black communities also used boycotting as a mechanism to combat the environmental injustices of landfills in the last 50 years.
In 1967, black students of Houston boycotted the city garbage dump in their community that had claimed the lives of two children. In 1968, residents of West Harlem, in New York City, fought unsuccessfully against the sewage treatment plant in their community. In 1982, the black community of Warren County boycotted the newly constructed hazardous waste landfill in the small town of Afton. State officials disregarded concerns over toxic chemicals leaching into drinking water supplies. This forced the community to confront the dumping trucks. Lying down on roads leading into the landfill, the community stopped the dumping. After six weeks of marches and nonviolent street protests, more than 500 people were arrested.
The boycotting was ineffective and the toxic waste was eventually deposited in that landfill. However the boycotts of Warren County did receive national attention and gave the environmental justice movement mainstream acclamation (Bullard 1990). Consumer resistance and environmental justice movements have contributed to female empowerment in American politics. Women are the leading actors in the current anti-consumption and environmental movements. New studies of Ecofeminism and the evolution of women’s rights contribute to the progress in women’s role in society. This changes the social construct of women and displays the shift in female roles of American society. Ethnic minorities are also empowered as a result of these popular movements.
Grassroots organizations led by minorities are gaining notoriety and credibility in the domestic policies of U. S. politics. These movements have also contributed to the modernization of resistance tactics. The Internet has made these movements more global in scale. Resources for grassroots organizations are more accessible, and there are more opportunities to gain political clout among impoverished communities. For the benefit of future generations, these positive shifts in the roles of previously undermined social groups will hopefully raise the relevance of consumer resistance and environmental justice movements in the legislative and judicial branches of government in order to create effective and permanent change.
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