Environmental justice and permitting


Recently some folks in Rhode Island have begun a discussion about some of the tools that could be developed and utilized to directly change some of the practices associated with economic development that perpetuate economic and environmental injustice.  I was spurred by a notice that NJ is looking into a law that would bring environmental justice principles and practices into every permitting decision.  Low income and People of Color communities would have a real voice, by law, and there would be actual standards and regulations to prevent the targeting and siting of dirty and dangerous facilities where they would add to the harms the community already experiences.

13 people have asked to be a part of the discussion and we have discussed once.  This note is primarily directed towards the participants, but I know many more folks are interested in the topic, and we are open to additional people joining the discussion and helping us move towards action.  greg

Musings on how to change the nature of economic development in RI so that it works for our communities, not just the 1%,  and especially for low income and People of Color communities.   Greg Gerritt   Late July 2020

Recently I saw an article about the nature of the economic development and how a little sliver of that nefarious game could be stopped.  It really appealed to me as in recent years a good deal of my practice and writing has been focused on how economic development is managed in Rhode island and all of the stupid things done to perpetuate the power of the real estate industry and the medical industrial complex to the great detriment of the community and ultimately the economy.  Any economy based on increasing the value of property will reward those with lots of property much more than those with little or none, growing the inequality gap.  

The article stated that in New Jersey there is a bill to require the government to incorporate environmental justice criteria into every permitting application.  I asked some colleagues and they said it was not a perfect bill but a good place to start.  What I did not check, but assume to be true, is that procedures designed to make sure that the community really gets its say early in the process are built in. In Rhode Island we have had long and hard discussions about what kind of access is necessary to overcome the bias in the system, but I am not sure how well those suggestions were turned into practices.   What the proposed NJ bill does not appear to have is the right for communities to vote to say no, with a majority voting no stopping the effort in its tracks.  That is probably still a bit much for most politicians, but based on the fights I have been in over the years, that is the real tool communities need to protect themselves, the right to say no and have it stick. Still, the NJ effort is a good place to begin so I did.  

We have now convened once and agreed to continue to converse.  I have no idea where it is going to go.  The topic is so vast, both intellectually and politically that it will take some time to sort out strategies.  It will depend upon who can find time to work on the topic and shape both the framing and appropriate movement and strategies to  keep pushing forward.  I will continually ponder how my work can best serve this effort, to create some of the frontiers to push on intellectually and economically, while serving the rest of the effort.

We all have our own ways of working.  My go to way of attacking such an issue is to write about it and to speak out at public hearings.  If that is your main strategy, you have to be patient, but there are several times when this strategy has paid off in ways that approach the kind of systemic change we need.  Sometimes it even becomes the conventional wisdom.  I would have just followed merrily along my usual path, but some colleagues suggested that it might be a better solution to build a large, broad, and powerful, movement led by People of Color from frontline communities as that is more likely to work faster.  Happily knowing that I would not be in a position to lead such a  movement, but totally supporting the idea, I did a bit of convening, with the group referenced in the beginning of the essay.  I do not know what will happen, but I am happy I could help the conversation begin, and begin with a topic in which my expertise might be  useful.  I get the feeling I will be getting out of the way of the organizers soon.  But for the sake of my colleagues  who are coming together I figured I would share a bit of what I know.  

The essay within the essay

The fight by the people of Burrillville to stop the building of a gas fired power plant and the fight by the people of Washington Park and nearby neighbors of the Port of Providence to stop the building of a dump along the port, in both cases successful!!!, was followed closely by the COVID – 19 pandemic.  The pandemic also seems to be effecting the development of the monstrous tower supposed to go up in the I-195 lands that the community tried very hard to stop, in this case unsuccessfully.  The pandemic has pretty much undercut the economy, not only here, but everywhere, and the political class is in a tizzy trying to put Humpty Dumpty together again.  

They need to stop.  The pandemic, the piling up of trash, the Fane tower, and the power plant in Burrillville are the centerpieces of an economy that has clearly failed the people of Rhode Island and our entire planet.  An economy based on depleting and destroying natural capital and calling it income, rent seeking by all of the wealthy people who buy the aid of the political class so that they can price gouge, evade taxation and avoid responsibility for polluting our neighborhoods and the planet,  is killing our country.

The only way an unjust and anti-community economy can persist is through violence against the community.  We may not see the slave patrols, but racism and work to death camps and industries still exist. Dirty industries are sited in low income neighborhoods primarily inhabited by people of color, and the treeless streets are patrolled by police forces intent on locking up anyone who will not shut up and do what the overseers demand, especially people with darker skins.  

It is obvious that the Trump chaosistration is simply a more upfront example of business as usual in which the rich poison, pollute, drown, beat and burn our communities in pursuit of the almighty dollar and will tell any lie to keep their power even beyond the gates of hell that climate change is ushering in.

I have been pushing for a green economy for 35 years, an economy based  on community control via democracy, an economy of no pollution, clean energy, healthy local foods, maximum wages, living wages, housing for all, a massively reduced military, police forces that are smaller and serve communities, and a healthcare system for everyone, with liberty and justice for all  Success when it came around, has only been within the context of specific projects and never on the big picture approach that would offer a real way forward.  You might call what we need a Green New Deal.  You might call it hippie economics.  You can refer to it as community based economics. But whatever you call it, it is an idea whose time has come, even if the obstacles are still obstinately in the way and protected by state violence against communities. 

It is great to see the conjunctions of Black Lives Matter, Climate Justice, reducing the size of police and military budgets, growing and eating local foods, and making sure there is housing for everyone, breaking through our collective consciousness.  But it is a damn shame that it took more murders by police departments of innocent Black people combining with a global pandemic introduced to the world by the rapid destruction of forest ecosystems, exacerbated by climate change and the stupidest health care system in the world, and spurred on by a President hell bent on dictatorship by the rich flouting every constitutional principle upon which the United States was founded, to bring the country to a place where for the first time in 50 years we may go forward instead of backwards. 

I am hoping that others decide that they are willing to create this part of the movement, that part focused specifically on the economic development process, and connect it to other aspects of the larger movement in ways are appropriate for our times.   Many of the obstacles we are going to face will be economic.  The rich are going to demand that they be allowed to make more money in the traditional way despite how it harms the planet and our communities.  We are going to have to be very clear that the traditional way of development actually gets in its own way and creates a system in which community prosperity is diminished even if it creates more money in the pockets of the rich and in the government statistics.  

Because the approach needed to create actual prosperity in our community directly confronts the power of the real estate industry and all the politicians who have bought into the traditional real estate driven economic development model the road will be long and hard.  Not enough of us have the resources to be able to stand up and say your numbers are wrong and here is why and how.  More people know that the traditional system fosters racism and inequality and holds the community back, and to be successful we need the wonks and the community working together so we can back up the political will with the real numbers of how the new way will work.   

I wish that the process of economic development was truly ready to accept, understand, and incorporate justice, anti-racism, and  the climate crisis in every instance, but we are clearly not yet there in Rhode Island.  I hope the conjunction of Black Lives Matter, the Climate Crisis, and defunding the military and the police will spur more hard discussion of how the economy must change with the times, how we must reduce the power of the rich by incorporating democracy and justice into every economic policy, permitting rule, and project, and that this movement is led by people from the most adversely affected communities. 

So I say to my colleagues, I may write and say stuff you have not seen elsewhere, it is my gift to the movement, but I am also most willing to help each and every one of you offer to this movement what you can offer so that all of the pieces and strands can come together and move us forward.  Let me know what you need me to do.