Human Rights

Call this the civil disobedience issue: Near Prescott Park in West Oakland, residents are pressing to shut down the carcinogen-producing Red Star Yeast factory with “all the tools at our disposal.” In Northern California’s Humboldt County, tree-sitters have braved arrest and jail to stop the slaughter of redwood and Douglas fir forests. At UC Berkeley’s 15-acre Gill Tract, student activists will do “whatever it takes” to block the paving of an urban farm, the very representation of sustainability.
Civil disobedience shouldn’t need to happen. But neither should the noxious smells strictly banned by Red Star Yeast’s permit; neither should Maxxam Corp.’s logging on steep slopes prone to excess runoff; neither should the development of a shopping mall on public-grant land desired for a center on urban agriculture.
Especially in this era of privatization, when public agencies are consumed with facilitating commerce, it’s becoming more difficult to plan wisely for coming generations, to control our resources so that land, air, and water don’t turn into commodities or dumps.
Residents of Stockton should not have to pry out of their city government a secret plan to contract out water services to a foreign multinational; residents of Vallejo should not lose their regional park just because Shell Gas and Power wants to sell its overseas natural gas. And Native Americans should not have the US Bureau of Land Management facilitating geothermal mining on the sacred Medicine Lake Highlands. After 10 years, members the Colorado River Indian Reservation should not still be breathing hazardous emissions at an EPA-sanctioned incinerator. Schoolchildren in the Salinas River Valley should not be exposed to methyl bromide from crop rows next to their schools. But they have been, for years.
Always, some bear more of the brunt than others.
In Richmond, California, the 20 largest industrial operations are located in or near communities where 70% of the population is African-American, and 20% live below the poverty line. “The system is just not working for us like it should,” said Henry Clark of the West County Toxics Coalition, which has effectively mobilized against pollution in the area. “If it was, then we wouldn’t need to take direct action. [Regulators] are getting paid supposedly to look out for our interests — not to allow disproportionate impact. This is not what America is supposed to stand for,” Clark said. “This is against any sense of ethics or morality. We all deserve to be treated fairly, and we’re not.”
As we report this issue, federal policy effectively makes it legal — or at least easy — to disproportionately pollute in low-income communities of color. That won’t cut it. “We don’t think any level of exposure to poisons is acceptable,” says Clark. “Legal does not mean it’s right, does not mean it’s safe.” As long as Chevron’s costs can be displaced onto Richmond, oil will remain profitable; the existence of vulnerable populations anywhere enables continues degradation of the environment everywhere. “We may ignore problems when they only affect particular classes of people,” said Clark. “But in the end, global climate change affects all of us.”
If Clark is right, we have no choice but to shift our perspective — social justice is an environmental necessity, and a healthy environment is a human right. In short, we have to look out for each other.
“The new idea,” writes Peter Sauer in the Winter 2002 Orion magazine, “that polluting water, soils, and air, or destroying natural ecosystems might be declared violations of international human rights — crimes against humanity — is vigorously opposed by powerful political forces as insanely unrealistic, and a threat to the world’s economy.”
As that conflict plays out, regulators are caught in the middle.
Private interests shamelessly browbeat and breathe down the necks of officials in agencies from the California Department of Forestry to the US Environmental Protection Agency. That’s a problem at the heart of “regulation,” because the thing being made “regular” is a commercial system, with investors and tax coffers dependent on it. To enable that system to operate, agencies often feel compelled to sanction an acceptable level of a bad thing, even without full knowledge of how bad it is. Often they are operating under no other mandate than to normalize a commercial system, from manufacturing to disposal. That’s why the US Food and Drug Administration would rubber-stamp “biopharming.” That’s why the EPA would lie to residents that an incinerator is emitting “salt and steam” instead of dioxin. And why the threat of civil disobedience would be required to stop that poisonous burning. “We told them we wanted the incinerator stopped or we would shut it down,” Chester Street Block Association President Renee Morrison later said. “We were prepared to turn the knob ourselves, so they shut it down.”
Morrison’s boldness was backed by activist groups like San Francisco-based Greenaction. That coalition is part of a worldwide movement.
“In the thirty years since the [1972 United Nations (UN)] Stockholm Conference,” Sauer writes, “a global civil society has emerged as a powerful force . . . to define what the globalized world will become. In proportion to our population, the number and diversity of civil society organizations in the US are perhaps the greatest in the world. If we merge our collective strength with that of global civil society, we can change the culture we have lived by.” The goal, he writes, is to carry on the ideals laid out by environmentalists at the UN’s founding: “convincing this nation and the United Nations [that] a just, peaceful, safe, and healthy environment is everybody’s human right and the right of every future generation. If we, their children and grandchildren, don’t do it, our children and grandchildren will.”

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