We are All on the Titanic

Editors note:  Peter Montague wrote this years ago and thought it was more relevant today than ever.

Environmental injustice arises when people of color and/or people of below-average income are (a) unfairly burdened with bad environments, or (b) unfairly denied good environments, or (c) harmed because vulnerabilities leave them especially prone to injury from “normal” or “average” circumstances.

Having been active in the Environmental Justice (EJ) movement for the last decade (and supplying it with information for the past 30 years), I’ve come to believe that the EJ frame is now too narrow. New information about environmental threats has changed the picture very substantially. We are all on the Titanic and we can see the iceberg ahead. On this voyage there are no lifeboats. A plutocratic oligarchy has seized the bridge and taken command of the wheelhouse. Instead of steering a true course to safety and prosperity for all, they are busily stuffing their pockets while they debate what we can all see looming ahead — isn’t it really just a patch of fog? Is it worth the trouble and expense to try to turn the ship? Shouldn’t we count on the invisible hand to steer us true?

The EJ movement originally demanded to move from steerage up to first class. But 30 years later the situation has changed; we can now see that such a move isn’t going to provide a full measure of justice for anyone. As we draw closer to the iceberg, in the ensuing panic people of color and the poor will be ignored and forgotten — perhaps jettisoned overboard. But justice continues to be the central demand of any strategy that can turn the ship. The EJ perspective is now crucial not only to people of color and of low income — it has become crucial for us all. Our national pledge of allegiance, “…with liberty and justice for all,” now means we must all demand environmental justice for everyone, remove the oligarchs from the wheelhouse, and turn the ship before it is too late.

We must not dilute the demands of people of color or people with low income. But today we can aim to build a broad, inclusive movement for change by recognizing that their legitimate demand for justice pertains now to a majority constituency — all those who are marginalized, disrespected, ignored, abused, hurt, and harmed. In sum, a call for environmental justice can now speak to the vast majority of Americans, whose environmental, social and economic needs are no longer being met.  –Peter Montague