Environmental Justice: What’s Happening and What’s Next?
With global population, energy consumption, and technological demands growing rapidly, human-induced strain on the environment has never been higher. The rape of the Earth since the second Industrial Revolution has been a radical and unprecedented geological transformation. Nevertheless, established corporate powers and their politicians, groups perfectly aware of the unsustainable nature of current resource management and environmental policies, have adamantly refused to take comparably radical countermeasures to address the world’s needs. In fact, both groups stand to profit profit from denying any moral obligation whatsoever to protect the future of a planet in peril. According to the New York Times, 80% of internal research and communications at fossil fuel giant Exxon from 1977 to 2014 indicated that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions could cause global warming, but 80% of Exxon statements to the public over the same time frame espoused climate skepticism/denial. Such gross negligence is a mainstream aspect of corporate culture within the industries that pose some of the greatest threats to the environment, including fossil fuels, chemicals, textiles, and automobiles. A particularly damning example was the Volkswagen “clean” diesel scandal. According to the BBC, Volkswagen implemented a software “defeat device” in their diesel cars to detect testing conditions and temporarily reduce emission of nitrogen oxides, extremely potent pollutants. Under real driving conditions, the cars released up to 40 times the allowable emissions. The company led US regulators on a wild goose chase for years, all the while marketing such cars to increasingly environmentally conscious consumers as “green” and “clean.”
Corporate influence in politics leads to a vicious cycle of accountability failures. Without strict government regulations and penalties, there is no immediate financial incentive for companies to be honest, responsible, or sustainable. Companies cut corners because it helps them get ahead in the next quarter and generate value for shareholders. Empowered by the gains built on lies and negative externalities, these corrupt players can influence policy to further favor their practices and consolidate their power. The situation becomes especially complicated in semi-socialist economies like Germany. The state of Niedersachsen still holds a 9 billion dollar share of Volkswagen, which amounts to 20% of the company’s value, according to Reuters. Critics claim that this special relationship has led government regulators to turn a blind eye to Volkswagen’s abuses of power. Clearly, government investment in and/or takeover of capital is not a complete solution to environmental negligence, and may indeed exacerbate the problem.
Even through all the smoke and mirrors of corruption, a few positive signs are cause for hope. The complex levels of deception Exxon and VW went through for monetary gain are a testament to the increasing concern the average consumer has for the environment. Everyday people care a great deal about leaving a healthy planet behind for their descendants, and in a perfectly representative democracy, policies would be enacted accordingly. However, the economic reality of the typical individual around the globe is not one that allows for long-term planning, environmental activism, or extensive research into the veracity of corporate claims. Nevertheless, by banding together through climate justice movements like 350.org, political participation, support of scientific research, and empowerment of free and independent press, average people have forced many of their leaders to the table to finally address the worst environmental side-effects of modernity. The most recent testament to this social movement are the Paris Climate Accords. The popularity of the agreement shows that a consensus exists among the world’s working class that something must be done to save the environment.
However, entrenched power still has a stranglehold on environmentalist discourse, especially in the United States. Donald Trump’s destruction of the Clean Power Plan and withdrawal of the US from the Paris agreement are a painful reminder of how much corporations are willing to lay on the line for short term gain, even in the face of public backlash. The following is a short excerpt from Trump’s speech announcing the US’s abandonment of the promised progress of Paris:
“At 1 percent [economic] growth, renewable sources of energy can meet some of our domestic demand, but at 3 or 4 percent growth, which I expect, we need all forms of available American energy, or our country — (applause) — will be at grave risk of brownouts and blackouts, our businesses will come to a halt in many cases, and the American family will suffer the consequences in the form of lost jobs and a very diminished quality of life.” -Donald Trump, according to the White House
The justifications from the Trump administration all follow the same tired argument: American prosperity is built upon rapid economic growth enabled by fossil fuel use and other non-renewable practices. In more honest words, this is an admission that our system is unsustainable and that we are being held hostage by the fossil fuel industry. However, rather than beginning to address that fundamental flaw in our system, Trump decided to raise tariffs on solar panels from China, adding an additional barrier to the energy transformation our society must achieve in order to slow climate change. This is like a heroin addict relapsing after methadone treatment so his dealer doesn’t go broke, then burning down the clinic.
It will be impossible to protect the environment without changes in political leadership. This cannot be overstated. Neoliberalism and crony capitalism at large have no place in a sustainable society, but they drive all of global politics today. It will take many decades to break down the systems of corruption and tired economic theories that have built up over the past 40 years. Amazingly, despite decades of propaganda from industry and mainstream political parties, people still care about the health of the environment. The popular will exists for a “green” global politics, but the political infrastructure doesn’t yet exist for politically viable green parties. Environmentalism must return from the fringe back to mainstream discourse. Finally, international criminal enforcement mechanisms must be created to force rules on the transnational polluters that threaten us all. Until then, there will be economic incentives for industry to operate in poorly regulated countries and to continue to pollute the commons of the air and water.
Unfortunately, we cannot wait until a political revolution starts to begin addressing the destruction of nature. Leadership must also come from consumers in the form of sacrifice, boycotts, and individual responsibility. The easiest way to do this is by using less energy and refusing to buy unsustainable products. This somehow has to include decreased consumption, no matter the risks to “economic growth.” Reckless consumption of non-renewable resources has built up modernity on a house of cards, and it must be deconstructed before it gets tall enough to collapse under its own weight.
Environmental Challenges in Nigeria
Many of Nigeria’s environmental problems originate in the nation’s oil industry. One major cause of air pollution has been rampant gas flaring, a CO2-emitting practice made economically viable by a legal loophole. According to Quartz, the use of the term “charge” instead of “penalty” in the Nigerian law has allowed oil companies to write off the cost of gas flaring as a tax deduction! This is in line with a pattern of disregard for the environment by oil interests in Nigeria, a pattern that has had negative consequences for the nation’s air and water (note: water.org is not involved in Nigeria). The same article reports that Shell Oil is having to clean up oil spills in the Niger delta region at a cost of around $500 million, with an additional $50 million or so going to the surrounding community as compensation for lost fishing revenue. As noted in Post 1, disputes between the Ogoni people of the Niger delta and Shell Oil have been ongoing for decades and are representative of the regions’ view toward transnational oil operations. According to the Nation, some residents of Ogoniland are drinking from wells that are contaminated with over 900 times the recommended limit of benzene, a carcinogenic component of crude oil. Unfortunately, some spills have actually come as a result of oil theft and vandalism aimed at economically damaging Big Oil. Such attacks are clearly a counterproductive form of resistance.
Insufficient infrastructure and lack of technology have also kept everyday Nigerians from adopting environmental friendly daily habits. A frequently cited example is cooking appliances. In much of rural Nigeria, cooking is done using wood fires produce dirty, sooty flames that worsen air quality. Furthermore, the demand for firewood has led to deforestation. However, the Nation reports that a pilot program in Enugu state aims address this problem by distributing clean-burning cooking stoves. This is a small step, but it should reduce people’s exposure to carcinogens in smoke.
Environmentalist Groups in Nigeria
Many groups advocating environmental justice are active in Nigeria. One is the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) mentioned in Post 1, whose battles with Shell Oil seek to address decades of environmental abuse.
Another organization, Friends of the Environment, has been a driving force behind the adoption of cooking gas to replace firewood in stoves. The group has focused much of their effort on schools, where many meals are cooked and students can be educated on environmental issues. Friends of the Environment has also helped to provide schools with libraries and technology, both of which should increase student’s access to valuable information about science, sustainability, and responsible business practices.
Many more environmentalist groups are active in Nigeria, including the Nigerian Environmental Society (NES). This organization has 21 branches and is the largest environmental NGO in Nigeria. In November 2017, the group help a conference focusing on the importance of economic diversification in improving the environmental outlook of Africa. As articulated in earlier posts, Nigeria’s dependence on the extractive industries (particularly oil) has led to economic vulnerability, corporate/political corruption, and environmental catastrophe. It will take a concerted effort by NES, their allies, and benevolent capital to dilute the power of the oil industry and cleanse Nigeria’s economy. My only fear is that Big Oil will float back to the top.