Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Environmental Justice: the New Postmodernists are Here

The Center for Race, Poverty, and the Environment has filed an administrative complaint against the Environmental Protection Agency for approving California's AB32 cap-and-trade program. Environmental Justice (EJ) advocates have long agitated against market-based instruments for environmental law and policy, most prominently trading programs. They may not know it, but I think that EJ advocates are postmodernists. The fundamental objection of EJ advocates is that supposedly welfare-enhancing economic instruments to reduce pollution at the lowest cost work systematically to the detriment of socio-economically disadvantaged groups, mostly persons of color. And this all occurs in the name of economic progress. In fact, the whole notion of "economic progress" is, to EJ advocates, an anathema, and contains a hidden agenda to consolidate power over disadvantaged groups.

Now let's rewind to the mid- to late-twentieth century, and revisit, in my circles, one of the most unpopular French philosophers: Jacques Derrida. Derrida pioneered a postmodernist school of thought that sought to overturn conventional acceptance of key words and phrases as descriptors of objective fact. For Derrida and the deconstructionist movement, things and situations are susceptible of multiple interpretations, and how any given individual interprets a thing or situation is a product of that individual's "enculturation," or her personal and social history. Postmodernist deconstruction thus posits that meaning is never really stable. But what grand "metanarratives" do is conceal the consolidation of power under a patina of some objective criteria for policy -- something like Kaldor-Hicks efficient. 

The link between postmodernists and EJ? EJ advocates are one strand of the new postmodernists in environmental law. They see the influence of economics in environmental law as the metanarrative that putatively seeks to enhance societal welfare, but is really just a means for rationalizing the continued oppression of socio-economically disadvantaged groups. Does cap-and-trade enhance the welfare of persons of color? Extreme postmodernists would even deny that this could be answered by empirical investigation. "What do you mean by welfare?" is what postmodernists would reply. There is, in the EJ world, nothing objective about welfare-maximization or cost-minimization. There is only power, the language of power is that of economics.