Sophistry, Not Science | Letters | Chicago Reader

Sophistry, Not Science 

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Dear Reader:

Not only does Don Coursey show a clear bias, so does Harold Henderson, author of "The Cost of Living," February 17. Coursey is biased, for example, against the idea of environmental justice. Henderson is biased in favor of Coursey, worshipfully writing: "Coursey has the scientist's instinct to pick a problem like "environmental justice' apart, regardless of the effect on someone else's agenda." Oh, please! The truth is the opposite: Coursey has his own agenda.

How could a "scientist's instinct" square with the unquestioning acceptance of the myth that buying a house or choosing a place to live in a highly segregated city is a "voluntary exchange"? How could a "scientist" on the one hand trumpet his preliminary conclusion that African Americans in Chicago do not suffer disproportionate exposure to hazardous waste sites, yet on the other hand "admit that it's not the whole story"? How could a "scientist's instinct" cavalierly dismiss Charlie Cray's well-founded charge of racist and classist institutional biases of the EPA by saying: "I don't think [emphasis added] there is less chance of something being reported in a poorer neighborhood than in a richer one"? Clearly, Coursey's willingness to question assumptions doesn't go too deep. He assumes that even one call would generate a paper trail--what about the 36 files the EPA couldn't even find? This is sophistry, not science.

The argument that anyone who knowingly moves into a polluted area is voluntarily assuming the risk is nothing more than blaming the victim. This is a good example of why relying on bourgeois economics only leads you away from the truth, with its ideological faith in the ridiculous dogma Coursey states so succinctly: "voluntary exchanges make both parties better off." This type of superficial analysis can see no further than the appearance of equality in the market, even when discrimination and exploitation are at their most blatant.

The example he gives of a Chrysler plant in Detroit is a clear-cut case of environmental racism: a community desperate for jobs is forced to accept less environmental cleanup than any white suburb would ever accept. That Coursey denies this is environmental racism is as outrageous as his answer to the similar situation of siting an incinerator in Robbins. His answer is that the rich have troubles too. The name for these situations is environmental blackmail.

Now that we've read about environmental justice being "picked apart" by an enemy, wouldn't it be good to run something that would report the meaning of this important new movement from a more objective standpoint? In the meantime, allow me to mention some of its notable aspects. This movement has pointed out the uneven distribution of costs and benefits: people of color pay a greater share of the environmental costs, both at home and at work, while receiving a smaller share of the economic benefits. (Several studies back up this observation, despite Coursey's poorly designed study that excludes the suburbs and unquestioningly accepts the EPA's nonmissing files as truly representative. Most recently, there have been the September 1992 Lavelle and Coyle study in the National Law Journal and the 1994 study by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice et al.)

You wouldn't know it from the article, but environmental justice opposes NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard), which all too often turns into variations of PIBBY (Put In Blacks' Back Yard). Instead, this movement stands for justice for everyone: not in anyone's back yard. Therefore it advocates pollution prevention as the first strategy.

Environmental regulation is challenged from the right as too costly, usually using cost and benefit dollar figures supplied by industry and its ideological representatives. We hear about that all the time. Who needs a long Reader article to repeat it? What about the challenge from the left? The environmental justice movement has questioned the whole regulatory approach. That approach relies on probability of fatality, and thereby fails to take into account health effects that fall short of death. It also rests on assignment of "acceptable" risk and the use of "averages," which conceal the uneven distribution of environmental risk. It thus provides a way for "objective" science to be used as an ideological cover for value judgments that legitimate existing inequities.

By bringing to environmentalism questions of social justice and analysis of social relations, environmental justice deepens the whole concept of what environmentalism is about. It returns us to the revolutionary question of what kind of society can we build where decisions are based on the well-being of actual human beings--which includes a healthy environment--rather than being based on "growth" (read: capital accumulation at the expense of human beings and nature). You will notice that commentators like Coursey do not touch this question, preferring instead to propose "helping" poor people and people of color by selectively relaxing environmental standards. Such are the depths one can sink to if one's thought is confined within the framework of existing capitalist society.

Franklin Dmitryev

E. Van Buren

Harold Henderson replies:

If my treatment of Coursey had been "worshipful," I wouldn't have sought out eloquent critics like Cray, Jim Schwab, or Tim Sullivan. Nor would I have asked Coursey to respond to them, which is how the revealing EPA quote came to be.

As for the CERCLA list, one portion of the 1987 United Church of Christ national study employed it and found a correlation that suggested environmental racism. If we're going to trash one study for relying on EPA data, let's not trash only the one that violates our preconceptions.

But clearly there are bigger issues here than research design. I urge Tverdek and Dmitryev to throw off their shyness and tell us what lies behind rhetoric like "better' form of society" and "revolutionary question." Do these words allude to some noncapitalist way of organizing society that can (a) produce the wealth we need to survive (and clean the environment) and (b) respect democracy and individual rights? If so the world is waiting to hear. If not let's get serious about eradicating racism from the system we have.

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