Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Environmental Justice: A Conference Is NOT Making History


By Norris McDonald

Over about the past two decades, holding environmental justice conferences have been repeatedly described as historic.  I submit that holding a meeting, forum or conference is not making history.  It is holding a meeting, forum or conference.  On any given day in our nation's capital, there are hundreds of meetings, forums and conferences going on.  History is made when Congress passes a law, the president signs a bill into law or the Supreme Court makes a ruling.  The product of Washington, D.C. is the meeting. So although a meeting, forum or conference includes one of the three actions by one of our branches of government, it is not making history. So can we please stop describing virtually every environmental justice conference as somehow 'making history.' I submit that making history, in an environmental justice context, is passing legislation, preventing a minority community from being polluted, cleaning a site that threatens a community or relocating a community out of a toxic area.

Thankfully, the Environmental Justice in America Conference has not described itself as making history in each of its past four years.  It has provided a venue to address national environmental justice issues on an annual basis.  In essence, this private sector initiative has accomplished standardizing the process for addressing the issue.  The National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) also provides a government platform for addressing EJ issues.  Another government platform is the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice.  It is designed to coordinate the federal government response to environmental justice.  There are many entities addressing environmental justice, but there has been very little actual accomplishment, besides meetings, on the ground.

At the recent White House environmental justice conference, activists expressed frustration with the lack of 'on the ground' progress related to environmental justice.    However, without a national environmental justice law, Executive Branch agencies, the Presidential Executive Order on Environmental Justice (12898) and Title 6 complaints are woefully inadequate in addressing environmental injustice.  AAEA is promoting the Environmental Justice Act of 2011 to address these inadequacies.

There is still much work to be done in addressing environmental justice issues.  I hope we can get more actual results 'on the ground' and maybe that will move us beyond considering conferences as making history.

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