After watching the documentary “GasLand” I became more curious about environmental justice issues in rural areas. Environmental justice is often framed as an urban issues. When I think environmental justice I tend to think about power plants, refineries and huge smokestacks in urban areas, without even thinking that it may be an issue in rural areas as well. This removal of rural areas from discussions of environmental justice might in part have to do with the common perception of rural areas as pristine, clean and filled with nature.
I wondered if this perception was partly because of the stereotype that rural residents are primarily engaged in and dependent on farming and other agricultural related occupations, however; this is not always the case. For example, in “North Country” the rural Minnesota town was depicted as being largely dependent on the local iron mine as a source of jobs and income. This is just one example of hazardous facilities and activities being cited in rural areas. Rural areas with a large amount of poverty and lack of jobs are likely the most vulnerable to this as they struggle with economic survival.
Another reason that rural environmental justice issues may be overlooked is because the residents in rural areas are more dispersed than in urban areas and may also be silenced by a lack of numbers. I wondered if corporations may be more likely to place their facilities or dump their wastes in rural areas due to the belief that rural areas have a smaller number of people who might feel the burden of these activities. This belief would make it easier, and maybe even more acceptable, to knowingly dispose of hazardous wastes and chemicals. This particular aspect of rurality and rural life differentiates its environmental justice experience with that of urban residents.
Environmentaljustice has two distinct components to it: distributive justice and procedural justice. Distributive justice refers to the idea that environmental benefits and burdens should distributed fairly to all people. One the other hand, procedural justice requires the opportunity for “all people regardless of race, ethnicity, income, national origin or educational level” to have “meaningful involvement” in environmental decision-making. Although distributive justice may be just as lacking in an urban area just as much as it is in a rural area, the nature of much of rural life makes it especially vulnerable to a lack of procedural justice. Rural residents tend to be geographically far from centers of economic and political activity and, as a result, have less of an opportunity to be engaged in the political process and have a say in the construction of their environment.
“North Country” also shows that environmental justice for rural people may also have much to do with rights over their natural resources and the use of these natural resources. Both “Gasland” and “North Country” portray rural communities that have been and continue to be exploited for their natural resources, and residents that have no say in the use and quality of these resources. Unfortunately, without the meaningful inclusion of those who will be impacted by the outcomes of environmental decision-making, fair distribution of environmental benefits and burdens is unlikely.