I do not claim to understand fully why this is happening, but one concept that may be useful is that of environmental justice. The concept of environmental justice seeks to explain why health problems are concentrated in some places. It says that in some places there are imbalances in power so large that people cannot successfully advocate for themselves. Coal country is a good example. People in
Appalachia were so dependent on the coal industry for jobs that they could not successfully demand safe working conditions, reasonable compensation and a clean environment. They were never able to diversify their economies so that when the coal industry declined and jobs disappeared families were wiped out and the tax bases of communities collapsed.
Communities where there are high levels of environmental injustice tend to have three characteristics:
- Dependency. Residents are economically dependent on a powerful industry and are forced to tolerate abuses to survive.
- Powerlessness. Efforts to demand justice are unsuccessful because of the imbalances in power.
- Voicelessness. When residents speak out or try to tell their story they are told they are wrong or ridiculed.
Are there rural communities with widespread environmental injustice in central and northern Michigan? It is easy to think of examples. Towns in the Upper Peninsula were dependent on iron and copper mining, for example. But I’ll write about what I know: the environmental disaster in St. Louis, Michigan in the geographic heart of the Lower Peninsula.
Beginning in the 1930s the Michigan Chemical Company produced a variety of chemicals on the banks of the Pine River in St. Louis, including DDT and a flame retardant PBB. It was widely known as a very dirty business, encouraging employees not to worry about exposure to toxics, and dumping waste in the river and several sites in the community. But people were dependent on the company and so it got away it. In 1978 PBB was accidently mixed into animal feed that was shipped to cattle, hog and chicken facilities throughout Michigan. When Michiganders consumed meat, milk or eggs they were exposed to the PBB. Many farm families who ate their own animals became very ill. Today Michiganders who are tested are still found to have PBB levels six times higher than the national background level.
Urban, mostly Black Flint, and rural, mostly White St. Louis share some unfortunate traits. They have been dependent on industries that didn’t love them back, they have been powerless to influence decisions about their fates, and when they tried to speak out their voices were not heeded. They share some other things too: both culminated in environmental disasters that have been incredibly expensive to clean up and both ruined the reputations of moderate republican governors who wanted to leave legacies as environmentalists but weren’t willing to put the systems in place that would truly protect the environment (Milliken for St. Louis, Snyder for Flint).
With this kind of history to unite us, Michiganders should band together to fight for environmental justice, but often we don’t. Often we feel like we are pitted against each other. Can that change? I witnessed something recently that says maybe it can, at least for some of us. At a community meeting at Alma College I saw this exchange between two people who I will call Bob and Betty (not their real names). Bob burst out with “So these people in Flint don’t take care of themselves, and they mess up their water supply, and now other people like me are supposed to pay millions of dollars to bail them out?” Betty turned to Bob and put her hand on his arm and said, “Bob, when you talk that way it makes me sad. Remember, we have been working for decades to get the government to pay millions of dollars to clean up our mess, and now they are finally, and we are glad, and people in Flint are paying their share of that, too.” Bob thought a minute and said, “Thank-you Betty, you are right.”
I managed to go on for hundreds of words here talking about Flint without really talking about race. In my next blog post I am going to write at length about how race influences our thinking about environmental justice, including in rural areas.