What I learned from Laura Westra at the Loyola Marymount Urban Sustainability Retreat

I have been following Laura Westra’s work for some time, and while I have always liked her work, I had never met her. Yesterday, I got the privilege, and she is both brilliant and delightful.

Let’s put it this way: she had a long and productive career as a philosopher, and then, at age 65, her Canadian University aged her out and she responded by turning around and getting another PhD in jurisprudence and the law. She is in her 70s, she looks fabulous (yesterday she was wearing a grey zipper suit, heels, bright turquoise glasses, and pearl hoop earrings.) She has a black belt in karate, but she doesn’t do karate any more: she does kickboxing.

She has written and edited 24 books. This is her method, loosely transcribed:

“I write it all down with a pen and a paper. Then I go through and type it all. I have a Smith Corona–such a wonderful machine. There is only one man–a wonderful little man–who fixed all these typewriters for his business for many years. Now he is long retired, but he still fixes my Smith Corona for me. I don’t use the technology. It’s too distracting.”

Laura is a rights theorist, and here are three books with which to start:

Environmental Justice and & the Rights of Ecological Refugees

Environmental Justice and the Rights of Future Generations:Law, Environmental Harm, and the Right to Health

Environmental Justice and Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

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Evan Ringquist, hotspots, and environmental justice in the New York Times

Via one of our brilliant PhD students, Noah Dormady.

Evan Ringquist is an environmental economist who does really interesting work in environmental justice. First, he took on one of the major claims in the early environmental justice research: that the EPA did not as rigorously enforce environmental violations in low-income and minority communities as in more affluent and white communities:

Ringquist, E., 1998, A question of justice: equity in environmental litigation, The Journal of Politics, 60(4), pp. 1,148-65.

Recently, the New York Times highlighted some new work from Ringquist that looks at one of the most pervasive beliefs in environmental justice: that cap and trade systems cause hotspots. Places near low-income people of color are probably older industries who will simply trade to pollute more or as much as they always have, thereby cleaning up areas far away from the communities that need it most. It’s been one of the most pervasive critiques of Southern California’s RECLAIM, and it’s one of the reasons that some environmental justice folks in California are litigating against a cap and trade instrument for energy producers in climate action in California.

I’ve always been a bit dubious of these ej claims, as at times my economist self overrides my sympathetic-to-communities self. The bottom line is that we can get more overall reduction with cap and trade, and while it’s too bad that the reductions are not even-steven, properly designed cap-and-trade system reduce emissions everywhere simultaneously. The problem is that neighbors want zero emissions or simple regulatory control–understandable enough. The uncertainty created with trades bothers people. However, there are tons of things you can do to make sure you get the local improvements you want:

a) simply disallow trades once local emissions targets are hit; or
b) severely penalize trades with polluters near ej communities; or
c) severely penalize trades with polluters in hotspots.

So functionally, if a local target says you get to trade only to level X, it’s no different than a regulation that says you get to emit to level X.

Cap and trade may change hotspots, but there are already hotspots: polluters cluster for a variety of reasons already, from zoning to industrial agglomeration. So cap and trade can intervene to lessen hotspots as much as they can reinforce spatial patterns, depending on their design.

Moreover, if you are are concerned about equity and the surrounding communities, you can give them a great deal of self-determination and endow them with the permits or credits, and then allow trades with local polluters ONLY with the surrounding communities. That injects some inefficiency–in general, these markets work best when there are enough sellers to produce opportunities for gains to trade, but not so many that information problems become an issue. But it puts communities in the drivers’ seat, and if they want to enforce the maximum, they can, based on their read of their potential risks rather than some scientists at EPA or CARB who don’t necessarily have a stake in the decisions the way the community members do.

The problem is, I think, that all of it sounds less controlled than regulation. Some big-money corporations buying the “right to pollute” is intuitively wrong, as Michael Sandel became rather famous pointing out. And markets. Lord, capitalism brought us all these polluters, now it’s going to fix it? I don’t think so! However, a regulation implicitly bestows polluters with the right to pollute up to a certain amount. There’s no real difference, unless you buy Sandel’s argument. And I don’t–I believe that outcomes matter more (for the environment) than process (a controversial position, I understand, and a conclusion I draw reluctantly).

More tangibly, it’s hard to take the idea that you might have gotten more local reductions with regulation: hey, under the trading system, we only get X reduction, and they got X+Y! (for a total of 2X + Y). If those guys over there abated to X+Y, why didn’t WE get X+Y, but only X? (The fact that X is actually the target means less now that one might have had more.)

I suspect that at least some players would prefer overall we get 2X in the name of equity than 2X+Y. Why should they get Y when we don’t? And under regulation, we are likely to to 2X-E (with E being the an error in negotiation) rather than 2X, but at least then I know we got 1/2*(2X-E) and nobody got more than us. (Not irrational if the argument is made as a reflect of entitlement or respect; why, exactly, should the other place get X+Y simply because they live next to the lower cost abater?)

The big gain you get from cap-and-trade is when you observe the market, you see who trades and you begin to see the real costs of abatement because not abating suddenly as a market cost–what you could sell your permit for. Negotiated levels under regulation often occur in a context of severe information asymmetries between government and industry. Without the market, you have to rely more than you want to on industry claims of regulatory costs, which they may a priori not know or strategically inflate. When we watch the trading, we can figure out how many permits to remove from the trades to reach the cap when we wish to lower the target, and we can figure out fast to remove those permits to get as much emissions reductions as we want–with less of the threats of plant closures and layoffs that inevitably come with regulation.

Ringquists’ new study basically shows that the SO2 trading system did not create hotspots: it had overall benefits, and it benefited low-income communities most. That’s how a well-designed trading system can and should work.

Camden, NJ, Chris Hedge’s “indictment” of academia, and poverty reporting

I recently became rather annoyed at Chris Hedges pointing his finger at academics as liberals who have abandoned working people and progressive causes. This NPR story was circulated via the delightful Frank Popper via Facebook, which started up the usual whine that “professors have all this power and they don’t use it, or one proffie was mean to me once, so clearly academics have abandoned The Cause.”

Sure, yeah–universities are corporate–heaven knows I work at one. And there are plenty of academics that are only out for themselves. But what annoys me about Hedges–and the response–is that it’s so knee-jerk, one-dimensional and stereotyped. Can professors be abusive? Sure. Why would they as a group be any different than any other people when they hold the position of “boss”? People are people, with human failings, in every context. If we weren’t all working at essentially the same place with essentially the same people, Dilbert wouldn’t be as funny as it is.

But when you want to rage against the machine, you might want to ask: is the person/institution you are raging against capable of

  • putting hundreds out of work to give themselves supra-normal profits with one decision?
  • stealing people’s pensions and impoverishing elders?
  • torturing and killing your family and neighbors?
  • writing $163 million dollar checks like it’s nothing to get yourself elected into a highly influential public office?

My colleagues and I certainly make a comfortable living, but we had to save to buy our small houses and condos–we are, simply, not in that league, except for those who came in with family money.

I’m not saying big-money universities are good thing or that they have clean hands. I’m also willing to believe that higher education should take their lumps at budget times with everybody else: I’m unprepared to put higher education before foster kids in the state’s budgets, at least not without more study.

I AM saying that Yale and Kansas State are worlds apart in the influence they hold, and treating them like they are the same–or that they are in the same power universe as a Goldman Sachs or the Meg Whitmans of this world strikes me as being both inaccurate and a bit self-serving of Hedges. After all, if everybody BUT you has abandoned the poor, then suddenly you are very very important as the Voice of The Poor. There’s a little too much “don’t blame you, don’t blame me, blame the guy the behind the tree–those other people, the media, academics, Rush Limbaugh” about Hedges, who lined his nest quite comfortably I suspect when he was part of the mainstream media, whom he says is Part of the Problem, at the New York Times.

And that’s the irritating thing. Hedges, Barbara Ehrenreich and Naomi Klein make a pretty comfortable living being “the voice of the poor.” Now, I think Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed, is excellent. But if I’m in moral hazard territory because I make my living researching poverty rather than solving poverty, I kind of have to wonder whether what they are up to is really all that better than what I do or don’t do.

Here’s an example of how Hedge’s arguments are rather self-serving and contradictory:

In this issue of the Nation, Hedges has an article about Camden, NJ: City of Ruins. Nice enough piece, only there is little of substance that hasn’t already been said by an academic, Howard Gillette, Jr., in his book published five years ago: Camden After Fall. (If you haven’t read it, drop what you are doing and read it right now, along with American Project by Sudhir Venkatesh)

So the question: are academics really the craven sell-outs who don’t grapple with hard issues and poverty, or does Mr. Hedges need to read more?

At some point, all of us who write about poverty and inequality run the same danger: leering instead of doing. I’m all for people writing about Camden–the more attention it gets, the better, unless the attention is on the leering side, which Hedges’ piece comes pretty close to doing in the way he trades on the images of strong, spiritual black women.

Every year or so, some senator decides he’s going to live on food stamps–and finds out that living on food stamps sucks. Quelle surprise. Or some some supermodel puts on a fat suit and discovers! OMG! That being pretty has given her unearned perk after unearned perk. Or somebody decides to live among the homeless, and discovers that homeless people are human beings (wow!) and have souls but live hard. Why can’t we believe it when the single mom on food stamps tells us that it’s not enough to sustain a family? Surely, single moms do say such things. It’s pretty simple to me: it’s not that we don’t believe her, it’s that we don’t care to intervene either publicly or privately, and after the senator’s “discovery”, we go back to business as usual. Ditto with all those other examples: we go back to stepping over homeless people, etc.

That strikes me as a much bigger, more authentic source of trouble than whether proffies are doing right by the poor. No, proffies aren’t. Most of the rest of the world isn’t, either. So what is academia? Is academia represented by celebrity scholars like Joe Stiglitz, or people, like my colleague David Sloane, who has worked for years with poor neighborhoods to virtually no celebrity–but to fairly substantial efficacy?

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TOD, gentrification, Treehugger and why environmental justice advocates get annoyed with so-called environmentalists

When I first started studying environmental justice, I dismissed one portion of the critique: that mainstream environmentalism only concerned itself with the needs and desires of white people and white environments. That seemed to be a problem we could easily fix in terms of advocacy coalitions, educating white environmentalists on how to broaden their agenda to really begin to take seriously the commitment to social justice required of sustainable development. These are all progressives, I thought, and in a few years’ time, environmentalism will assume justice as a precondition to progress.

That was close to 15 years ago, and I have to say, I now get the EJ folks’ frustration. It’s all about what environmentalists want, period. Here’s an illustration.

The Dukakis Center has published an important report on transit-oriented (TOD) gentrification. The report reflects careful research and reflection on the part of the report’s authors, Stephanie Pollack, Barry Bluestone, and Chase Billingham. The report is a major achievement, pointing to tons of policy conflicts between the envisioned goals and real-life implementation of TOD. We have one handwringing study after another about how transit is so much more affordable than cars, right? But not if you can’t afford to live next to the transit, and according to this study, the people we’re trying to keep transport costs low for get shoved out of neighborhoods where TOD is supplied.

IOW, rich people can have BOTH a car (instead of two) and a light rail available for their weekend pub crawls and jaunts to the museum, but poor people needing job access and affordable transit access get to eat cake. Policy problem. Then: if rich people are moving into transit-rich areas, ridership may be lower than it would be if more transit-dependents were able to retain their housing.

The response to the report–at least in part–helps illustrate the social justice problem in mainstream environmentalism. Of responses to the report among mainstream environmentalists, Treehuggers’s strikes me as the most depressing:

But ultimately the answer is to make the United States like almost every other civilized country: install good clean transit that is affordable and comfortable, and stop subsidizing the car, the roads and the parking. In most of the world there is no stigma to transit and the ethnicity of the riders pretty much mirrors the ethnic mix of the cities it runs through. Transit is for everyone.

Clueless. Clueless. Clueless.

Here’s the translation:

Yeah, I know the Dukakis Center just showed how housing prices and residential displacement near new investments are an issue with TODs, but we should really talk about what I want, and what I want is more transit, and since I can’t see anything except what I want, and I want transit, this report must be about transit, and the way to solve issues around transit should be with more transit. It’s not about social responsibility in any other form, just transit. Did I mention transit? And how I want more transit and how society is obligated to build more because that’s the moral and civilized thing to do because I want transit and what I want must be civilized and moral and good for everybody?

The Dukakis Center does not in any way suggest we shouldn’t have transit. Nobody as far as I know interpreted the report’s findings at all like that.

Yes, the rest of the world has a great deal of public transit and there is more income diversity among its users. You know what Europe–every transit fanboy’s dream vacayspace—also has? Really pretty ubiquitous public housing programs for people who are poor and elderly so that they don’t get priced out of their housing every time a new transit investment goes in. It’s not great housing, and it’s not beautiful housing, but it’s affordable (to them; taxpayers have a different view) and it’s relatively centrally located. Here’s a little tidbit: at one point, nearly 60 percent of the housing stock in Sheffield, England, was publicly owned. Sixty percent.

But in US transit-oriented development, we can’t even HAVE that conversation because people here just ignore the housing issues over and over again. It’s not relevant to their transit dreams. After all, THEY have housing but not as much transit as THEY want, so transit MUST be the issue. And then if somebody raises the land price and housing issue, as the Dukakis Center report does, places like Treehugger rush in to reframe the issue as being about how WONDERFUL WONDERFUL WONDERFUL transit is, when that isn’t the issue. The housing discussion effectively gets shouted down and snuffed, in favor of what they want to talk about: transit.

We’re just supposed to build transit into every nook and every cranny of every metro area, no matter how inefficient that investment strategy is—rather than requiring that rich people, if they want to live near transit, had damn well better allow room in their neighborhoods and schools for poor people. Exclusionary neighborhoods push impoverished people farther and farther away: at the outset of suburbanization, the wealthy used transit to isolate themselves from the poor. Now disenchanted with their cars, the wealthy use transit redevelopment to increase their access and push more and more impoverished people into low-accessibility suburbs at least a subset of the affluent no longer desire (We have as much poverty in the suburbs as we do in the center city now.)

Wake up, people.

In a world where mainstream environmentalists aren’t so blindly in love with their own ideas, advocates there would see the Dukakis report for what it is: a challenge to start working on solving the trenchant problem of land prices, affordable housing, and urbanization instead of how they actually used the report: a platform on which to don their Transit Hero Hats (again, still) and preach to their Transit Choir (again, still).

As this “My Transit” dialogue drones on, and we build and build without taking the affordability questions seriously, we lose critical opportunities for mixed income development–way more difficult than it sounds—in favor of the unattainable dream: metro regions with transit everywhere. (Yes, it’s unattainable. I hate to break it to you, but European regions are not regions with transit everywhere; they are regions with transit everywhere tourists want to go. Nice enough, but it’s not everywhere.)

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Nisha Botchwey’s Online Curriculum on the Built Environment and Health

One of the great things I’ve recently received:

Online curriculum on the built environment and health from University of Virginia faculty member Nisha Botchwey. What’s really great here is that we have a lot of thoughtful reflection–not just planning rah-rah blather–about the importance of neighborhoods in community health, including the effect that neighborhoods can have on reinforcing and reproducing disparities in health.

Looking for answers and justice in Kettleman City

Kettleman City, California, is one of the place names that most experts in environmental justice recognize right away, along with Chester, PA, Cancer Alley in Louisiana, and the Niger Delta. Kettleman City has been been a conflict location between the local, deeply impoverished Latino community, the county, the state and the EPA for over a decade now. Kettleman City is the location of the largest toxic waste dump in the state of California–and it’s not just a relative measure. By any measure of volume and toxicity, this is one of the largest facilities in the US.

There are 1,500 residents in Kettleman City, and the conflict has moved back to the public eye after going quiet largely because the community has identified a clustering of birth defects and they are getting traction for their claims under Obama’s EPA. It’s about time. The LA Times has run many stories on the conflict, which I have collected here:

Infant deaths, cleft palates raise concern about toxic landfill in San Joaquin Valley | L.A. NOW | Los Angeles Times

Kettleman City asks: Why so many birth defects? – latimes.com

EPA to review oversight of toxic waste | Greenspace | Los Angeles Times

Schwarzenegger orders state to investigate birth defects in Kettleman City – latimes.com

Kettleman City birth defects: Schwarzenegger steps in | Greenspace | Los Angeles Times

On another sad note, when I was collecting these articles, I saw that rights attorney Luke Cole had been killed far too young in a car crash. Cole was one of the attorneys that helped put the Kettleman City case on the national environmental justice agenda. His obituary is here:

Luke Cole dies at 46; leading practitioner of environmental law – latimes.com

I was pretty pointed in my review in JPAM of the book that Cole co-authored about the original environmental justice conflict in Kettleman City, largely because the authors allowed their personal dislike of EPA staffers to color their writing. They missed an opportunity to write about the institutional issues that really prevented justice from being served here and instead allowed readers to go forward with the impression–all to comforting to American readers–that government employees are lazy and inept and politicians are sleazy and that’s why the residents of Kettleman City were gaining no traction. They failed to describe how the law really is stacked against communities here–property rights are established, environmental rights are not, and the knowledge burdens are prohibitively high to overcome.

Here, I suspect it will be difficult for the community to win on this, but they do have some tenacious activities. Nobody knows what causes cleft palates; we do know it’s one of the more common birth defects, and it does have a higher incidence in Asian and Latino families. This means that the environmental causes get harder to locate because it is not established that Asian communities are disproportionately located near chemical stressors, though it has been established in California for Latino families.

So this is a group of people that has a higher incidence of the problem to begin with, and if this is a small town, the clusters may be related to clusters of families who have a genetic link to the defect.

That said, the case demands investigation; cleft palates are not the only birth defect reported in Kettleman CIty, and the reports have been coming in over a decade. This is an important learning opportunity for environmental policy and public health in addition to being a crucial community issue for the residents.

Cole, L., & Foster, S. (2001). From the ground up: Environmental racism and the rise of the environmental justice movement. New York: New York University Press.

Language ability and evacuation destinations

From my research in Chicago, the data show a very clear relationship between English language proficiency and knowledge of potentially ‘safe’ locations to go to during an emergency. Those with little to no English skills were much more likely to be unable, even in interviews conducted in their native Spanish, to be able to identify a geographic location to go outside of the City of Chicago in case of a large-scale evacuation.

For those of you who are wondering, this is a mosaic plot, made in R.

Richard Green on Discrimination, Property, and Wealth

My colleague Richard Green has written what looks to be a wonderful manuscript with Thomas Mitchell and Stephen Malpezzi on the long-term prosperity outcomes associated with forced sales conditions, and how property sold under compulsory conditions yield lower prices than under fair market conditions. In addition, the race and ethnicity of the property owner also factors in, with minority-status property owners getting lower prices. There’s a “double discount”–minority property owners are more likely to experience forced sales, and then as people of color they receive even lower sale values than non-minority households.

I’m so excited by this research! It’s so essential to understanding sustainability, largely because of the looming issues associated eminent domain and with larger social justice questions involving reparations to African Americans. If I’ve said it to my students once, if forced sales results in fair sales, why do we never do it in Beverly Hills, Georgetown, Beacon Hill, or Malibu?

Incompatible land use, externality-shifting American neighbors, or unsustainable practice?

Today’s LA Times ran this story about the land use conflict surrounding an immigrant-owned poultry slaughterhouse in Rosemead: the Chinese American Live Poultry Company.

These types of land use conflicts are at the center of sustainability, and it’s a thorny set of issues. The owners, the Phus, have got a number of code violations on the books, including improper disposal of chicken waste. That you can’t have, not at industry levels. It’s not like we’re talking a few chickens in the backyard.

And yes, chickens do smell.

But the facility has been there since 1991. I suspect that many of the neighbors who hate this facility and want it shut down moved next to it in the first place. And I bet they eat chicken, regularly, though I suspect not from the bloodied floor of a local slaughterhouse, but purchased in packages at Ralph’s.

My students often want to discuss mixed land use in terms of retail, housing and office space. If I push them to think about industry, they say they envision “green industry” but have no real way to flesh out what green industry is and how it works. Isn’t this a green industry? It’s providing local-scale food. If they composted the waste material (a process that would probably send the neighbors into outer space with rage), it could be pretty green. I suggest to students “how about organic or sustainable meat production in downtown LA-would that be green industry?” and they look aghast, even though most are not vegetarians.

Two major things have entirely altered the landscape of my youth: corporate agriculture and, not unrelated, methamphetamine production. My hometown in Iowa is enveloped routinely by the smell of hog production. Is it acceptable for people in Bakersfield to have to tolerate meat production so that everybody else, including Rosemeadeans, can indulge in chicken pot pies and roast beef sandwiches without having their dainty noises offended by the reality of their food?

This has always struck me as a problem that better urban design, better industrial ecology, and better governance should be able to help reconcile. Put some money and creativity into solving the problem rather than trying to just get your own way in a public conflict. Why, really, does that building and its environs have to be so ugly? Why does this conflict have to be about putting somebody out of business instead of enhancing their business to fit in better?

Perhaps the first rule of sustainability should be that if the land use/public service/whatever can’t go in your neighborhood, it can’t go in anybody else’s neighborhood either. Which means either you get creative, or you can’t eat chicken. The responsibility resides on both the producer and the consumer to construct livable communities.