Environmental Justice: History and Policy in New Jersey

Aired: January 30, 2011
When people think about the environment, they usually think about conserving open space, protecting endangered species or reducing their use of fossil fuels. But what about rates of asthma in children growing up in Camden or the location of a recycling plant in Trenton? Are these environmental issues too? Environmental justice, NJCH’s 2011 theme, is a growing movement that examines how society distributes environmental burdens across populations. In this episode of Humanities Connection, Dr. Chris Rasmussen, Fairleigh Dickinson University, and Dr. Frank Popper, Rutgers University and Princeton University, facilitators for NJCH’s new program Face to Face: Community Conversations on Environmental Justice, discuss the connections between the environment, history and justice in New Jersey.

Until relatively recently historians have not paid much attention to the natural environment. However, as Rasmussen explains, a much more compelling case can be made for putting nature back into history. Understanding that there is no such thing as an untouched wilderness, means that the environment has always been impacted by humans and, in turn, affects social relations. Given the particular connection of United States with its land, American nature writing has been a particularly rich genre which has had direct impacts on the development of the environmental movement.

Whatever the acronym—NIMBY (not in my backyard) or LULU (locally unwanted land use)—the meaning is the same: while things like prisons, airports, and waste dumps are necessary, no one wants any of these located in their town or neighborhood. Many environmentalists have argued that capitalism, which conceptualizes nature as a resource to be exploited for profit, has distorted human’s relationship with the environment. Yet Popper argues that environmental degradation has been caused by socialist nations as well.

Sustainability, green jobs and environmentalism are on everyone’s mind, but what can we do to insure that just decisions are being made to improve our environment? Popper argues that the first step is to have a deeply knowledgeable local perspective, including understanding the history of the areas where environmental problems are being addressed. However, he cautions, as environmental problems become increasingly complex, the solution may be to regionalize environmental laws and regulations


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