– Madison Smith ’19
In the fall, I wrote a short blog post about my initial reactions to sustainability in Manchester, England during my semester abroad. My observations included accessible recycling, vast bike paths, and a variety of vegan and vegetarian food options. In general, it seemed like the U.K. had sustainability at the forefront of their decision-making. I even went so far as to say that the United States should use the U.K. as a model for basic sustainable practices. After researching beyond just surface-level environmentalism, however, I no longer fully believe that statement holds true.
Air pollution is the biggest environmental hazard in the United Kingdom. Despite easier access to bike lanes and public transportation than we have in the U.S., air pollution levels have risen dramatically in the past few decades as the demand for personal motor vehicles has increased. According to the European Union’s record of air quality standards, the U.K. regularly exceeds the legal limits of both nitrous oxides and small particulate matter. The World Health Organization highlights how these substances are harmful to not only the environment, but also human health, and can lead to different cancers, respiratory diseases, and premature deaths. These adverse health impacts do not impact U.K. residents equally, indicating a strong case of environmental injustice.
Sources of air pollution, such as major roadways and factories, are often placed in areas with low-income families and people of color. A study done by Craig et al. in 2008 found that over half of all carcinogenic emissions exist in the neighborhoods where people with the bottom 10% income levels reside. Additionally, people of color are four times more likely to be considered “low-income” than white people in the U.K. (Craig et al., 2008). This exhibits how wealthier people have more political clout and face less discrimination when governments are planning where to locate environmental hazards. Additionally, it demonstrates how institutions have kept many non-white families in low-income positions, thus quieting their voices and decision-making power when it comes to adverse problems like air pollution. Environmental injustice is already widely prevalent in the United States, therefore the U.S. should not attempt to emulate the U.K. when it comes to combating environmental issues, but rather a country that prioritizes the wellbeing of all people.
While recycling, energy efficient light bulbs, and well labeled menus are important in the fight for a more sustainable world, their absence does not necessarily negatively impact the quality of life of marginalized communities. What I have realized in my semester abroad is that a country can do a lot to make themselves appear “green”. What matters more, though, are the underlying, significant externalities that are not advertised. It is a sad reality that issues impacting minorities and low-income earners are often the ones that are ignored. The first step in fixing these issues, however, is learning about them and bringing them to the forefront of policy-making and the environmental justice movement.
Craig, G., Burchardt, T., & Gordon, D. (Eds.). (2008). Social justice and public policy: Seeking fairness in diverse societies. Bristol: Policy Press.
UK air pollution: How bad is it? (2014, April 02). Retrieved November 7, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-26851399
Air Quality Standards. (2008). Retrieved November 14, 2017, from http://ec.europa.eu/environment/air/quality/standards.htm