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The Connection Between Latinos and the Environment

The Macro Perspective

The global degradation of the environment threatens the survival of all life on this planet as well as human life. While this degradation affects all people, it does so unequally. This is a central point regarding the connection between Puerto Ricans and Latinos and the environment in the USA. How is this possible? To start, the degradation of the environment is generally the result of human activity; in particular, how society creates and recreates its life. In other words... the unequal degradation of the environment results from the unity of production and the social order. Production can be understood as industrial activity, and the social order is the way in which the society is organized around recreating its life, enabling production to happen.

The problem has been that there has always been a tight linkage between how we recreate our way of life and the degradation of the environment. The elimination of waste and dangerous materials affecting human health was impossible, because then industrial activity would then be impossible. Pollution has been linked to what we need to live. The traditionally predominant view on the issue has been how we should regulate/control/manage pollution.

To illustrate the point of linkage of pollution and industrial activity, an example of a body can be used. The body is society, and getting food and eating is creating its life. The brain (the powerful) decides what needs to be done to eat, but it knows that every time it prepares food and eats (to live) it must also poison itself. So it must do several things to keep alive and functioning. It must control its eating by taking in smaller pieces and do so every so often. This is the idea of regulation/control/management of pollution. The body decides that it will only dirty its hands and concentrate the poison in its feet. The hands and feet are correspondingly the disenfranchised workers, the poor, and communities of color.

To put the last statement another way, since the elimination of industrial activity is impossible, the social order regulates the degradation linked to it for all people by pollution control, management and regulation. Nevertheless, the social order also channels the degradation selectively, localizing the undesirable work, products, and waste on what the social order designates as the undesirable people. Not only is degradation unequal, but in disenfranchised communities, the impact is unequal. The beleaguered and debilitated array of supportive structures—education, health indicators, access to health services, stability of community institutions, and political power that normally buffer the affects of degradation in the Puerto Rican and Latino community—make the impact of degradation even more severe.

Latinos, the environment and the cities

Census trends predict that Latinos will be the largest national minority group in the United States in the coming years. One of the characteristics of the established Latino population is that most live in the America's urban centers; most Latino newcomers will probably also settle in urban areas. An example is that 75% of all Boricuas are concentrated in America's inner cities. In addition, many of us have seen the massive arrivals of Dominicans, Mexicans, and Central

Americans to the Latino communities spread throughout New York City. This urbanization of our population is paralleled by the general population, where 75% of the U.S. population lives in cities.

The decay of the cities, as Ritchie Perez has stressed, is of paramount importance because most Puerto Ricans and Latinos live and will live in the cities. Many things characterize the decay.  Ammong them are a deteriorating infrastructure, lost manufacturing and associated industries with their jobs, and high concentrations of people in destitute poverty. The decay's social consequences are visible to any New Yorker and were visible to the nation and world with the LA riots.

A malicious neglect by the federal government under three Republican Administrations has been a major cause of this deterioration. For example, federal dollars to the cities dropped from 9 percent in 1978 to 4.2 percent in 1986. The federal government's process of defunding city governments greatly increased the financial burden of city and state governments. The shifting resources that proved necessary for city governments to provide essential city services resulted in fewer funds for city environmental agencies. This caused a decline of environmental protection and a degradation of the urban environment overall, especially in terms of air quality and hazardous waste. This negative effect probably impacted more severely communities of color in these cities.

The low level of environmental protection of cities can be shown by two examples. The Williamsburg/Greenpoint area was shown to have 1.5 pounds of toxic air emissions for every woman, man, and child per square mile of this area. This is far above the government's clean air standards. The Latino population in this area is one of the most concentrated in the country. On the national scene, the Argonne National Laboratory has compiled data that shows that 91% of Hispanics disproportionately live in cities that exceed the federal Clean Air Act's emissions standards for certain airborne pollutants.

The combined effect of Republican administration hostility to cities and beleaguered local governments has resulted in a decline in the protection of the urban environment, particularly in communities of color. Whether the new Democratic administration, in the light of competition pressures for deregulation and budgetary cutbacks, will move to curtail urban environmental degradation is still a big question.

Another factor that influences the impact of the environmental degradation on the cities is the lack of an adequate response mounted by traditional environmental movement. There has been a lack of emphasis on urban environmentalism by the mostly white, middle-class movement since white flight has left the urban areas for people of color. The environment of the cities has been understudied and it seems that cities lack of a theoretical framework such as the ecosystem idea for wilderness areas. This is beginning to change due to the influence of the grassroots organizations of people of color. This influx of activists will push the urban environment to become a priority, so that we have ideas that will allow our work to forge ahead.

To transform the environment of Latinos, the social order must also be fundamentally changed. We must move from an order shaped by economic exploitation and racial injustice to one where the democratic spirit of self determination invades our economic and cultural lives as well. Perhaps only when the disenfranchised and their allies rise up against the scourges of racism, poverty and pollution will there be a "new world order." Only then will we have clean, earth-friendly, egalitarian ways of living on our planet.

The micro-perspective

This perspective presents the ways in which the environment of Latinos gets degraded by the intersection of the social order and production. How we work to recreate our life concerns the issue of occupational health or the exposure of workers to toxic chemicals (i.e. pesticides) in the workplace. How we live addresses, among others, the issue of lead poisoning from lead-based paint and proximity to transportation routes. How things are made and/or disposed of deals with the issue of exposure to toxic and hazardous materials in communities. The disposal of sewage, toxic and radioactive waste from production and services, as well as the incineration of solid waste from temporary goods, are the major ways in which our communities confront these issues.


 Latinos & the Environment      ?õ¬?       Vol. 4 No. 3      ?õ¬?       Fall 1993

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