Peter Wenz, "Just Garbage"



2.       Environmental justice asks whether our current distributions of env. hazards are just

3.       Env. hazards: Include toxic chemicals in factories, toxic herbicides/pesticides in agriculture, radiation from uranium mining, lead from paint in older buildings, illegally dumped toxic wastes, legally stored toxic wastes, air pollution, etc.

          a.       Lead, arsenic and cadmium near homes of children can result in mental retardation

          b.       Navaho teens exposed to radiation from uranium mine tailings have reproductive organ cancer 17 times greater than national average

          c.       EPA estimates that toxic air pollution in South Chicago increases cancer risk 100 to 1000 times

          d.       Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma related to living near stone, clay, and glass industries

          e.       Leukemia related to living near chemical/petroleum plants

          f.       In general, cancer rates higher near industries that use toxic substances and discard them nearby

4.       Env. racism: Practices that expose racial minorities and people of color to disproportionate shares of env. hazards

          a.       This is the current practice in this country (and around the world)

          b.       Notice, intention to discriminate is not included in the definition



          a.       Because economics and not racial discrimination accounts for disproportionate impacts on nonwhites, current practices are neither racist nor morally objectionable.

6.       This defense relies on the Doctrine of Double Effect: An effect that would normally be wrong to cause is permissibly caused if it is an "unintended (though known) byproduct" of a morally justifiable effect you intend to cause

          a.       Hysterectomy/abortion example: Pregnant woman has uterine cancer. A commonly accepted treatment for cancer of the uterus is removal of the uterus. This will predictably end the pregnancy (as would abortion). Roman Catholic scholars usually consider abortion blameworthy but consider this instance blameless because it is merely incidental to the hysterectomy, which is a morally justified method to treat cancer of the uterus.

                    i.        Because the hysterectomy would be performed in absence of pregnancy, the abortion effect is produced neither as an end in itself, nor as a means to reach the desired end, which is the cure of cancer

7.       Racial effects of toxic waste sitings are blameless because they are unintended side-effects (of siting env. hazards in poor communities)

          a.       They are sought neither as ends in themselves nor as means to reach a desired goal

          b.       Merely predictable side effects of economic and political practices that disproportionally expose poor people to toxic substances

          c.       Locally undesirable land uses (=LULUs) (e.g., buried toxic wastes) lower property values; people who can afford to move do so and are replaced by predominately poor who can't afford to live in more desirable areas

          d.       Nonwhites are disproportionately burdened due primarily to poverty, not racism

          e.       An important legal defense against charge of racism, for racism is illegal in U.S., while economic discrimination is permitted; so if nonwhites disproportionately exposed merely because they are poor, no legal remedies available


8.       III. WENZ REJECTS THIS DEFENSE: It is still unjust for racial minorities to suffer disproportionate env. hazards, even if it is accounted for by economics and not race

9.       Because it is wrong/unjust for the poor to suffer disproportionate env. hazards

          a.       Even if racism plays no part in disproportionate exposure of nonwhites to env. hazards and this can be accounted for solely by economic reasons, justice still requires alternation of practice (it is still wrong/unjust)

10.     Unlike the hysterectomy case where the intended effect is morally permissible (to prevent cancer), it is not morally permissible (because it is unjust/unfair) to place disproportionate env. hazards on poor people

                    i.        But those who site env. hazards don’t intend to target poor (rather they are trying to dispose of the waste most cheaply)

          b.       Thus current practices of disproportionately exposing nonwhites to toxic substances are not justified even if this is simply an unintended by product (incidental) of the disproportionate exposure of poor people to env. toxins (for that is unjust too).

11.     But what if the poor are targeted not because they are poor but because economic reasons suggest this is a better policy?

          a.       Just as this is not intentional discrimination against non-whites, it is not intentional discrimination against the poor (rather it is a foreseen but unintended side effect)

12.     Another (better?) response to economic justification is to reject the doctrine of double effect and argue that people are responsible for the known effects of their actions even if they don’t intend them

          a.       Though it is true that you don't intend to heap all the env. toxins on nonwhites, you fully realize that is the result of your actions and thus you are morally responsible for that (unjust) outcome.


13.     IV. PRINCIPLE OF COMMENSURATE BURDENS AND BENEFITS: Those who get the benefits should get the burdens as well

          a.       Unacceptable interpretation: The more benefit you get the more burdens you get

                    i.        This seems wrong, for if the benefits don't involve any burdens, why should those who benefit get unrelated burdens?

          b.       So it is not that those who benefit should necessarily get commensurate (same degree of) of burdens

          c.       They should get only the burdens their benefits actually cause

                    i.        One ought to suffer the consequences of one's actions, the negative effects caused by one's actions

14.     People who benefit from a harmful activity should be the ones suffering that harm

          a.       And those who benefit more should receive more of the related harm

          b.       Examples of commensurate burdens and benefits (CBB):

                    i.        Work (a burden) due a benefit (money)

                    ii.       People on welfare criticized for receiving modest amounts of taxpayer money w/o shouldering the burdens of work

15.     Principle of CBB applied to env. hazards: The burdens of ill health associated with env. hazards should be related to the benefits derived from the processes and products that create these hazards



          a.       To assess the justice of the current distribution of env. hazards, the benefits of their generation must be considered

          b.       Toxic wastes come from many manufacturing processes: Paints, solvents, plastics, petrochemical based materials, in our homes, refrigerators, clothing, plumbing, garbage pails, etc.

17.     Toxins released into our env. in greater quantities than ever before because we have a consumer-oriented society, where acquisition, use, disposal of individually owned items is greatly desired

18.     Wenz's diagnosis of our consumer society

          a.       We associate dollar value of the items at our disposal with our standard of living

          b.       Assume higher standard of living (more consumption) is a better life

          c.       Toxic wastes are produced as byproducts of pursuit of what our country considers valuable: consumption of material goods

          d.       Our economy requires increased consumer demand to keep people working (to produce for that demand)

          e.       At Christmas, people worried that shoppers won't buy enough

                    i.        Patriotic duty after Sept. 11, shop to keep economy going

          f.       If there is not enough demand, people put out of work

          g.       Demand must increase (and not hold steady), for improved labor efficiency (same output with less labor) requires fewer workers to produce same number of objects

          h.       Need more demand, more items desired, so don't have unemployment due to this increase in efficiency

                    i.        Environmentalists often suggest use efficiency gains to increase leisure time (shorten the work week)

          i.        Keep demand high by convincing people their lives require improvements that can be achieved by consumer purchases

          j.        Blur difference wants and needs

                    i.        If we can make people feel they need X rather than just want it, more likely to buy

                    ii.       Creep of perceived needs: Easy for people to see they need food, clothing, housing, then becomes indoor plumbing, then stylish indoor plumbing, then 2nd/3rd bathroom, kitchen disposal, refrigerator attached to plumbing so ice can be made automatically in freezer, cold water obtained w/o opening refrigerator door, and on and on

          k.       All this needed to keep economy growing w/o limits

          l.        Our cultural value system that sees good life as consuming more and more produces huge amounts of env. hazards

          m.      Get NIMBY, Not In My Back Yard, as knowledge of health impairment due to toxic substances increases, people less tolerant of risks associated with their proximity



          a.       Principle. of Commensurate Burdens and Benefits indicates who should suffer burden of proximity to toxic wastes

20.     Those who benefit most from the production of waste should shoulder the greatest share of burdens associated with its disposal

21.     Consumption of goods is the principal benefit associated with generation of toxic wastes

22.     This consumption is generally correlated with income and wealth

23.     So, justice requires that people's proximity to toxic wastes be related positively to their income and wealth: Wealthy get more toxics

          a.        This is exactly the opposite of the predominant tendency in our society

24.     Unjust to expose poor people to vital dangers whose generation predominantly benefits the rich



26.     LULUs (locally undesirable land uses) include not only toxic wastes dumps, but also

          a.       Prisons, halfway houses, municipal waste sites, low-income housing (so poor would automatically get LULU points for living in one?), power plants (nuclear/coal)

27.     Assign points to different types of LULU

          a.       E.g., Nuclear plant 25 points, municipal garbage dump 5 points

28.     Require all communities to earn LULU points

          a.       Communities existing with LULUs now get those points

29.     Wealthy communities would be required to earn more LULU points than poorer ones because their wealth/consumption creates more LULUs


30.     VIII. Implementing this proposal (LULU points) would ameliorate injustice of disproportionately exposing poor people to toxic hazards and largely solve problems of env racism


31.     IX. LULU Proposal would benefit life on earth by reducing generation of toxic hazards: When wealthy are exposed to env. hazards, culture will quickly evolve ways to eliminate their production.

          a.       Wealthy people control manufacturing processes, marketing campaigns, media coverage

          b.       When they are exposed to env. hazards, culture will evolve quickly to find their production is largely unnecessary

          c.       E.g., people will discover that plastic items can be made of wood, as we discovered in late 80s that ozone depleting chemicals not necessary

32.     Proposal would not eliminate pollution entirely, since to live is to pollute

          a.       But would motivate significant reduction in generation of toxic wastes and help poor, especially nonwhites and also the env.


33.     Approach should be applied internationally: Rich countries should not ship their toxic wastes to poor countries:

Toxic child

Times story about shipping toxics to Africa

          a.       Prohibiting this would discourage production of dangerous wastes as it would require people in rich countries to live with whatever dangers they create

          b.       Remember Larry Summer’s memo (from Jamieson?): Should ship toxics to poor countries!



          a.       These theories justify locating env. hazards in poor, nonwhite areas

35.     Because equal consideration of interests requires rejecting purely free market approaches when basic/vital needs at stake (e.g., health, education, military service)

36.     For more details on Wenz’s rejection of free market and cost/benefit approaches, click here:


Study questions on Wenz’s “Just Garbage” and Environmental Justice

1.         What is environmental justice? What is environmental racism?

2.         What are the reasons for thinking it is true that nonwhites face a “disproportionate” amount of environmental hazards in this country? Do they?

3.         What is the doctrine of double effect and how does Wenz use it in his critique of environmental racism?

4.         Using examples, explain Wenz’s principle of commensurate burdens and benefits. How does he use this principle in his analysis of environmental justice?

5.         Why does Wenz discuss consumerism and how does it fit into his argument concerning environmental justice?

6.         Who does Wenz believe should receive the lion’s share of env. hazards and what is his argument for this conclusion?

7.         Explain Wenz’s proposal concerning the awarding of LULU points. How does he think this suggestion would lead to a drastically reduce production level for environmental hazards?

8.       What is the free market approach to the distribution of environmental hazards? Why does Wenz reject this? Do you agree with his reasoning?