International Environmental Racism

Made in China. What do you first think of when you hear these words? Does a McDonald’s toy come to mind? What about a Wal-Mart gadget? Made in India. Do you think of jewelry or clothes? These words are on most mass-produced items that are sold in America. It is unexpected to buy an item that says, “Made in The United States of America.” Many of the US’s products are made in developing countries, and this type of development leads to environmental pollution.

Below, are two charts representing the comparisons of trade between China and the US and India and the US.  Both graphs depict a large amount of imports from these two countries into the US.  The US uses these countries for cheap labor causing them to suffer from the pollution that we avoid by having the products made elsewhere.

Taken From the Business Insider India
US Trade with China
US-India Total Trade in Goods

There are many benefits for the US to import these mass-produced products and develop factories of American companies in developing countries. The cheap labor and lack of regulations attracts large corporations to these places. Americans value capitalism and the global market with a laissez-faire economy. The US is one of the top dogs in the market, but the US did not achieve its status using the current model it employs today. Tariffs, the placement of natural resources, and timing set the West apart from the rest.

The West created the model for development, and it imposed its way on everyone else . Oftentimes, colonizers would justify their actions by arguing that they were helping develop the colonies. Even though the age of colonialism has come to an end, neo-colonialism is ever present. The West still uses the developing nations for its own growth without thinking about the welfare of those countries.

A photo of a highway in Delhi crowded with cars in a smog of air pollution.
Pollution in Delhi, Photo by Nonika Marwaha

Cindy Johnson, in a panel discussion at Kristu Jayanti College in Bengaluru, India, covered the idea of environmental justice and environmental racism. She defined justice as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people. As she spoke more on the topic, she delved into environmental racism. This is when a group of marginalized people is placed in harm’s way and their interests are not valued concerning environmental legislation and procedures. She gave examples such as the Dakota Access Pipeline and Flint Michigan.

Environmental racism is not exclusive to race. The term refers to any characteristic that stratifies a group of people in the context of environmental justice. Class, caste, socioeconomic status, country, race, ethnicity, physical or mental abilities, etc. can all factor into environmental racism. When an elite person, company, or country desires something, they are prioritized. It is not that people completely ignore the rights and interests of marginalized communities, but the elite’s interests are accommodated to at the expense of the marginalized. For example, if the president and a random citizen were both in harm’s way, the president’s well-being would be prioritized.

"My Neighborhood Is Killing Me"
Photo From Environmental Studies Blog

One can take this metaphor a step further by replacing the president with the West and the citizen with developing countries. While environmental racism occurs domestically, it also happens on a global scale. International environmental racism falls under the neo-colonialism model. The West desires a higher GDP, which requires the production of items faster and cheaper. Developing countries also seek a higher GDP and the West is willing to “help raise it.” These developing countries such as India, China, Mexico, or Indonesia provide what the West needs. They can meet the faster and cheaper requirements.

There is a lack of legislation on production in these countries because their goal is to develop. They are trying to catch up to the West’s progress. Because of this, they are easier to manipulate. The West upholds its rules of environmental sustainability but doesn’t hold others to those same standards; in fact, it encourages the developing nations to pollute because it is the cheapest and quickest way to produce. The West receives all the benefits of the products at a cheap price, while the developing countries are underpaid, overworked, and suffer from pollution. This international environmental racism is destructive to the lives of the marginalized countries.

An example of this disparity is the case of Bhopal, a small, predominately Dalit community in India. On December 3rd, 1984, 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas leaked out of a pesticide plant which was owned and operated by a US company called Union Carbide. The leak was deadly and the gasses killed over 15,000 people.

Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, Photo by Madhu Kapparath/Mint
Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, Photo by Madhu Kapparath/Mint

The fact that this plant existed in India, rather than the US plays a role in the environmental racism, but it extends further. The US company refused to clean up the leak. It was aware of the polluting chemicals secreted from the plant, but chose to keep the plant running because it was profitable for them even though it caused locals to fall sick due to the contaminated drinking water. This is a prime example of how power hungry elites care for their own success and eliminate the thought of preserving the wellbeing of others. Development can be beneficial if it is performed sustainably and justifiably, but when development turns into destruction it is no longer progress. Udayakumar calls this form of industrialization “development of mass destruction.”

Some of the people who died during the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984, Photo by Reuters
Some of the people who died during the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984, Photo by Reuters

Development is progress, but, if it is not applicable to all, it is not progress for all. One’s environment directly influences one’s wellbeing. When individuals, companies, or countries marginalize others by not valuing their interests, discrimination takes place. No matter how much one sugarcoats this discrimination, it is present. This form of neo-colonialism persists today through international environmental racism. Until the West employs the same standards they have for themselves on everyone or until developing countries stand up for themselves, this stratification and discrimination will continue. Until we stop revolving around the ‘development sun’ and start focusing on the sun that provides life, there will always be power imbalances.


References VtlQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj_q6HPytfXAhUM148KHSVBATwQ6AEIZjAI#v=onepage&q=international%20environmental%20racism&f=false



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