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Environmental Studies

Professor Megs Gendreau: Capabilities and Environmental (In)Justice

Story posted April 18, 2012

Environmental Justice emerged as a concept in the United States in the late 1970s and it has gained increasing importance over the years. Numerous studies have shown that environmental hazards are more likely to be placed in low-income communities of color and that persons of color are more likely to live near hazards. In other words, environmental hazards are not distributed evenly and some communities bear a disproportionately large burden of environmental degradation. This leads to an increase in negative health outcomes for these people. Environmental justice, which includes the place where people live and work in its definition of the environment, seeks to redress this inequitable distribution of environmental burdens that are based upon a morally arbitrary characteristics, such as socioeconomic status, gender, ethnicity, and race. The type of hazards that can constitute environmental injustice are typically locally unwanted land uses such as industrial facilities and dangerous substances found in homes. Professor Megs Gendreau, the Andrew W. Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow in Environmental Studies and Philosophy, has seen firsthand the detrimental effects of environmental injustice from her time spent in San Bernardino, CA.

San Bernardino is a community in which over 75% of its residents are Latino. Less than 50% of adults have completed high school. 32.9% of families live below poverty level. Due to their low incomes, these residents are less likely to have any form of insurance. At the same time, they live in an area of high risk of negative health effects. The community is located next to the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railyard, a dog food manufacture, cement crushing factory, unregulated small commercial facilities, and highways. Thus, these residents are not able to protect themselves from the lung inflammation, immune problems, lung cancer, strokes, and increase in asthma that result from their environment.

There are many philosophical issues raised by this and other instances of environmental injustice. There are questions of distributive justice, questions of participatory justice, and questions of human flourishing. Gendreau believes these philosophical questions should be addressed by using the capabilities approach as presented by the philosophers Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. A capabilities approach focuses on how distribution impacts individual lives rather than what is distributed. Quality of live should be measured both by what a person has achieved and what a person has the opportunity to achieve. Gendreau prefers the Senian approach rather than Nussbaum’s specific approach because he does not assume that we can list the qualities that make a good human life. Sen believes that qualities can only be measured within the context of an individual life. Gendreau is drawn to Sen’s approach because she believes that people should have access to those things that they have reason to value. Particularities get overlooked in efforts that seek to prove universal answer to specific problems of justice, but Sen’s approach takes into account these particularities.

Gendreau believes that the capabilities approach is the most effective because the problem of environmental injustice is a problem of the distribution of resources and burdens.  The responses needed to address this disproportionate distribution must limit exposure and provide resources. Most importantly, these responses will need to vary depending on the community and the individuals within those communities. A capabilities approach would allow for unique responses to each situation because it takes into concern the needs of individuals, it allows for comparative judgment. It does not promote one solution for all problems. In addition, the current responses do not reflect the political agency of those impacted; communities fail to play a role in the decision making. However, a capabilities approach takes into concern the needs of individuals and by doing so involves the community in the political process.

Overall, Gendreau believes that a capabilities approach does not need to be limited to domestic environmental injustice policy but could also apply to international policy when dealing with issues such as climate justice.


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Quality of life should be measured both by what a person has achieved and what a person has the opportunity to achieve.