Environmental Justice and the Rhode Island Economy

Environmental Justice and the RI economy.  Greg Gerritt  September 2013
Over a 25 year period i have evolved a “Practice Focused on Community Prosperity on Planet Earth”. https://prosperityforri.com     Its slogan is “You can not heal ecosystems without ending poverty, you can not end poverty without healing ecosystems..”  The practice developed from the observation that the poorest people live in the most degraded ecosystems and that the only way to help communities prosper is by addressing both the poverty and the ecosystem degradation simultaneously thorough reforestation, building soils, restoring fisheries, cleaning up pollution.     This is true whether in rural villages or urban slums. As a result of the convergence of situations we find in lower income rural and urban communities living in degraded ecosystems we need ways forward that are applicable in communities across the globe, In the industrial west and in the tropics.  Struggling communities seeking prosperity in current conditions need to heal ecosystems, reduce inequality (1), develop resilience in the face of climate change, and surf the massive changes in the global economy as economic growth continues to slow (2) and all countries converge towards the global mean in per capita income.
Given the global upheavals, economic development in the 21st Century is going to be a bottom up affair if it is going to work and it will need to keep food security front and center.  Climate induced Bread Riots were the spark that touched off the Arab Spring (3), building on the long term trauma of living in places with too little water, too few jobs, and too little justice.   The forces of patriarchy have tried to smother the democratic and justice sparks of the Arab Spring. Despite the continued maintenance of political power by traditionally hierarchical systems based on ecological devastation and violently enforced inequality, the oligarchy is no longer able to deliver prosperity to the masses (4, 4A) . So the young demand justice knowing that that is the only way to get the economy to work.  Another world is possible.
Many of the poorer countries on the planet are still seeing a rise in per capita income towards towards the global mean, but rarely doing it in a way that spreads the wealth or preserves the ecosystems that feed them. (5, 6)   In an effort to maintain their power as the global economy slows, the rich have fostered an ever more unequal system so that they can maintain their privilege and the illusion of wealth while everyone else in the west gets poorer and communities around the world are devastated.       http://www.alec.org    is one of the propagandists of the vision of global domination by wealthy white men.   NSA style snooping is how the government and the ruling class seek to damp down the resistance to the oligarchy, their economy, and the pseudo democracy they offer. Thank you Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden for pulling back the curtain.
The urge to create a security state is nothing new for the oligarchs, they have always created enemies to kill,  but today some of the tools the capitalists have developed to cover their economic tracks can no longer pretend the times are good. Even the World Bank, the cudgel of privatization and austerity, knows the current system is breaking down and that a new strategy is necessary (7) . Historic growth rates will not be returning except in places with some newly exploitable natural resource to devastate and pollute with such as places now being fracked. (8) Overall in the US 60% of the growth is in the medical industrial complex   (9), and the rest is being sucked out by Wall St. or contributing to global warming. 90% of us are already getting poorer and receiving degraded services.
Business as usual is failing because it is not based on the truth, ecologically or economically.   The more this becomes obvious, the more the forces of the 1% work to convince us that what they are doing to us is good.  We are bombarded with the message that doing exactly what business wants, eliminating rules, allowing more pollution and degradation, lowering taxes is the only way to more money. They call this having a good business climate and beat us about the head telling us we must obey, despite no evidence tying community prosperity to the business climate.  Do we really want the economy of Mississippi? (10 )
The World Bank describes forest communities as sitting on some very valuable and easily capturable resources.  (11)
 ”…….forests often have a combination of capturable wealth but poor, isolated, and powerless residents. Powerful interest groups can seize this wealth, depriving poor people of access to forest resources, and sometimes contributing to corruption and poor governance at the national level. Because it is more profitable to mine the forest than to manage it sustainably, this contributes  also to environmental damage.`
The people are marginalized, disempowered, disenfranchised. Often forest people are of a different ethnicity than the wealthier people of the cities. The mechanism of displacement is often a general or warlord on the take from Asian Pulp & Paper or some other corporados.   Two major factors right now are driving global deforestation.  Plantations for global corporate agriculture and China wants the wood to build its new cities and provide raw materials for its factories,  China has very limited forest resources  due to thousands of years of deforestation so it is cleaning out what is left in Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and Africa.  (12)  Money changes hands, legislators vote for concessions, a new supply zone is now open for destruction, The community is soon headed headed for shanty towns and malnutrition, while the wood heads to the city and is often used by the employers who hire the refugees as low cost labor.  Resisters to government/warlord stealing of community forests are being killed across the world.  (13) Genocide has often been the tool of choice when powerful interests want a new forest to cut.
Rhode Island is the Industrial West’s fun house version of what is going on in forests around the world (the Great Swamp Massacre was not much different from what is going on in Irian Jaya today), where inner city populations are of a different ethnicity than the wealthy suburbanites and efforts to disenfranchise voters and ignore the will of the people are well known. In Rhode Island unless we encourage the paving over of farms and forests, which is an extremely stupid thing to do in the current global situation in which food security is critical to our development efforts, the prized sites for development in the cities are the brownfields, usually the old mills or dumps that line our rivers and dot our neighborhoods.  Our heavy and textile manufacturing is essentially gone, leaving toxic sites, degraded rivers, and poisoned low income people surrounding the sites.  The game of developing these sites so that they can generate money for the wealthy plays out similarly to the development of forest communities by the generals,   In the US we call these disenfranchised and marginalized communities subject to degradation Environmental Justice communities, EJ for short, and in our old deindustrialized industrial revolution heartland, these communities are treated similarly to forest communities in southern Asia that have been targeted for resource extraction.  With similar results.  It is my contention that the best practices that have been developed over the years to help forest communities develop themselves, the ones that yield the best results in terms poverty reduction, ecological healing, and contributions to the larger economy, provide some very clear lessons for places like Rhode Island. If we placed those same best policies and practices at the heart of all economic development efforts in Rhode island, rather than the business climate, we would achieve much better results in high poverty areas, and for the entire state, than anything going on today.
The best practices prescription the World Bank (14) offers for sound economic development based on their experience in forest communities:
Make sure the project has an ecological sustainability component based on real science and ecosystem health,
Include efforts to directly address poverty, especially addressing the needs of the poorest people and most disenfranchised in the community,
Put specific safeguards in place to make sure the capturable benefits stay in the community rather than end up in the hands of those who already have power and resources,
Develop democratic processes and practices for directing investment, and
Specifically encourage and train communities to stand up for themselves, while setting up a structural framework of real democracy in the larger community
I do not know about you, but that sounds exactly like the approach to development that is needed in our EJ communities and in Rhode Island in general, and is the one that most effortlessly puts money in government coffers as well with a fair taxation system  If the capturable resource is abandoned mills and the result of development tends towards displacement of the community already there as it is upscaled, how does this differ from forest people ending up in shanty towns when the generals steal their forest?    If the community has no say in what happens, if they suffer the burdens and displacement of development but not the benefits, how does that differ from what forest people get, and how does that change as to what we ought to do to remedy the situation?  And how does this not fit in to the picture of 121% of all the income growth going to 1% of the people?  (15)
It says to me that the best way to get economic development right in poor communities, or actually all communities, is to practice economic democracy, To allow the community not only a voice, but a vote and a stake in what happens to them and the land in their community.  The way forward is not continued deregulation, allowing harm to communities, it is not restricting labor rights or cutting benefits, it is not lowering minimum wages and the like.  It is not making a place business friendly.   It is bringing low income communities in to the process  and making sure the pie is more equitably distributed and the environment healed.   This is massively resisted by those who most benefit from the current system in Rhode Island and those who claim the mills as their property, just as it is resisted by the warlords in Africa trying to control the flows of wood and coltan.  The World Bank offers us a way forward, and everything we have learned in the Environmental Justice movement over the last 30 years says that is a path with heart.  The ecological condition of the planet says follow this path.  And the changing economies across the world say the old development model is failing fast.  The growing inequality and a system based on eternal growth and resource depletion is incompatible with making our communities and planet livable. (16)
The end of economic growth in the west was noted and footnoted earlier, but not adequately explored, and it adds an additional complication to the shifts communities all over the world are going through as they find economic equality such a critical component of poverty ending development.  So lets explore this and a few other factors so that we can relate them back to the other disasters /opportunities we are facing.
Economic growth that we have come to love and honor and rely upon to cover the tracks of the massive stealing by the rich, the system that allowed a few crumbs to trickle down to the rest of us because there was plenty more where it came from for the wealthy, is essentially gone, partly from ecosystem collapse, partly because inequality grinds economies to a halt, and maybe because the industrial revolution has run out of job creating innovations (17, 18) . At least one author has gone so far as to suggest that it is impossible to build modern industrial economies without new forests to exploit (19) something that is rapidly disappearing on planet Earth.  The stats coming out say the US economy grew about 2.5% a year last quarter (20). Not quite the 3% that signals good times, but the best in years.  What the media forget to tell us is that for the last 5 years more than 100 percent of the growth in income has ended up in the hands of 1% of the population.  (21)    Maybe 5% of the population has done well for itself, but wages are sinking for most workers and have been for years.  So for 80% of Americans there is no economic growth already and nothing in the offing from the traditional leadership seems like it will restart the jobs machine or relink it to improvements in productivity.  The growth is just funny money the rich play with so they can steal ours.
Another condition not mentioned in polite company is that 60% of the pseudo growth is in an industry that is bankrupting the country.  The Medical Industrial Complex. (22)  People are going bankrupt due to the high price of health care, while workplaces and municipalities are finding they can not afford health care for their employees or communities.  By every measure the US has the most expensive health care system in the world, and one of the worst of the industrial systems for most consumers. It takes from the poor and gives to the rich. This sector is growing at the expense of nearly every other sector in the American economy and Congress offers us pseudo solutions that keep the Insurance fat cats fatter while stymieing the ability of people to start and run microbusinesses.   So nearly everyone else is worse off now than they would be if the health care economy in the US was proportionally as large as it is in Western Europe and as good. Our political leadership keeps touting the medical industrial complex as a, economic growth center while trying to rein in health care spending.  Such contradictory goals highlight the problems we face as a community. Especially when the overall system is geared to expensive cures rather than cheaper prevention.
Due to the various “free” trade pacts large corporations have negotiated on their own behalf and then paid politicians to solemnize, wages in the US are trending down towards the global mean,and  have been for quite a while.  The buying power of the average American continues to go down every year ( 23)  and long term unemployment is spreading.  Even employed people have a harder time making ends meet each year as wages lag productivity.  Yet consumerism continues to be the state religion and every time housing prices go up the media pundits dance a jig despite the fact that many people, especially lower income people, are paying way too much of their income on housing ( 24). The rent is still too damn high. While the wealthy squawk when we tell them that we can no longer allow building in places at risk from rising sea levels and bigger storms.
When we go to the halls of government and community meetings to explore prosperity for RI, there is still much resistance to speaking the truth, of describing the inequality growing among us like a cancer and describing the results inequality brings to the economy and the ecosystem.  The economic development specialists continue to deny the reality that American Capitalism is no longer delivering the goods to any except Wall St.  The developers offer us a 50 year track record of failure in Rhode Island but continue to insist the emperor is clothed.  They offer us rising inequality, dropping wages, climate change, artificial foods, expensive health care, and diminished democracy held together by the national surveillance state, the thugs of the empire, and the criminalizing of dissent.   And have the audacity to tell us our business climate is bad and that giving the rich more would solve all of our problems.
Given the track record it is time for a new approach.  So let us try using the principles the World Bank offers us, which turn out to be exactly the same principles we have developed after looking at what kind of development really does alleviate poverty in the West and especially in EJ communities.  Take the principles of the Environmental Justice movement and put them at the heart of our work on developing the economy for all of our communities while remembering to ponder development in an age of no growth.  The key is development, not growth.  Using less but encouraging a healthy community without a toxic burden.  Providing for more of our own needs, becoming fossil fuel free and growing more of our food regionally.  Equality, community, justice and a proper and well maintained infrastructure are a great substitute for useless stuff.
While the EJ movement developed out of the civil rights movement and the environmental movement, it crystalized around some reports in the 1980’s about the ridiculously high incidence of the most toxic industrial and waste treatment sites being sited in the most vulnerable communities. (25)  From this beginning we have also come to see how it applies equally to the redevelopment of inner city sites, the lifting of historic toxic burdens from the working people in old and post industrial communities, and economic development in our communities in general.    Many years ago I wrote after my first visit to Milwaukee that it was following exactly the same redevelopment model that Providence was following with the resculpting of the riverside neighborhoods.  Both the positives and the negatives of redevelopment mimicked those of Providence, and were resulting in the same sort of gentrification of neighborhoods.  In the post real estate bubble crash of the economy Providence developed several shanty towns that the police wiped out, displacing a number of people.  We supposedly have shelters, Asia and Latin America have shanty towns, But shanty town or shelter it is the poor being displaced again because the financialization of the economy that functions by the rich capturing the capturable resources of the community and everyone else getting poorer.   Sometimes we get the illusion of growth, but often the growth we see is the result of adding to the economy things we should be subtracting.  If you do not subtract the cost of displacement and the diminishment of the resource base,  it is easier to pretend the economy is growing.
So the goal ought to be the redevelopment of old industrial sites in a way that keeps all of the added value in the community and displaces no one.  That requires that the community be an integral part of the development planning from day one, and that they get most of the economic benefits rather than the benefits leaking out of the community.  A system that uses private developers might work if democracy was enforced and communities could choose not to be displaced, and if no special treatment was asked for by the rich.  But the reality is that economic development  is a game played by governments and developers with all kinds of goodies not accessible to most in the community.  It is not private enterprise, despite the propaganda. The government provides the basics, everyone else follows along, and we allow the biggest followers to pick up most of the money created instead of an equitable distribution.  No wonder our communities are suffering.
Several years ago several people associated with the Environmental Justice League of Rhode island spent a year negotiating with the RI Department of Environmental Management on new rules for the redevelopment of brownfields, specifically focusing on community involvement.  We developed a set of rules that made the process transparent and fostered community involvement.  Those rules still sit in limbo, the DEM not having sufficient staff or political capital in the age of the business climate obsession to finalize them. The false austerity reigns.   It is clear that to further develop the compost industry in RI, to remove a major pollutant from the waste stream and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, while providing a critical resource for our agricultural economy and food security, we need a new set of rules governing compost facilities.  Several of us developed a set of rules and sent them over the RIDEM.  Again DEM due to state budget cuts targeting enforcement had insufficient staff to review and revise the rules and they sit in limbo as does the industry.  But wealthy interests continue to call for the deregulation of everything, especially rules that protect clean water and the legislature follows their lead,  despite no evidence that the business climate actually measures anything useful or contributes to prosperity  (26)
We are stuck.  Gridlock in Washington, unanimity on Smith Hill, all following the business climate lemming march to ecological and community apocalypse.  The withering of the economy makes the business climate fantasy ever more dangerous for our communities, but the beat of the business climate propaganda machine, the repression of democracy, the criminalizing of dissent and the disenfranchisement of the poor make resistance tougher.  But we plod on, bringing the message of justice and ecological healing as the way forward.  RI has several public processes going on and is drifting ever faster into the business climate fantasy.  But the message of economic democracy, of ecological healing and the ending of poverty as the keys to prosperity, will march along with the EJ movement and will change the world. Instead of resisting, a clearer understanding of these changed conditions by the political and business leadership in Rhode Island would get all of us much more of what we want, Prosperity for all in healthy communities.
1.   Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett       The Spirit Level       Bloomsbury Press New York 2010
2.   Robert J Gordon     Is US Economic Growth Over?  Faltering Innovation Confronts Six Headwinds   NBER Working Paper No. 18315   Issued in August 2012    http://www.nber.org/papers/w18315
3.    2011 Food Price Spikes Helped Trigger Arab Spring, Researchers Say    Steve Baragona      Last updated on: December 13, 2011 7:00 P

4.  Valerie M Moghadam  Development and Patriarchy   :  The Middle East and North Africa in Economic and Demographic Transition   World Institute for Development Economics Research of the  United Nations University    Working Paper 99 July 1992

4A  India’s Economy  A Five-Star Problem    The Economist  Aug30 2013  by P. F. Mumbai    http://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan/2013/08/indias-economy?fsrc=nlw%7Cnewe%7C9-2-2013%7C6543650%7C35389285%7C

5.  Growth and Poverty in Developing Countries    Montek S. Ahluwalia, Nicholas G. Carter and Hollis B. Chenery

Development Policy Staff, The World Bank, Washington, DC 20433, USA Received December 1978    (from Journal of Development Economics 6 (1979) 299-341 © North-Holland Publishing Company)

6. China moves to curb rising income inequality       By Charles Riley and Vivian Kam  @CNNMoney February 5, 2013: 11:50 PM ET   http://money.cnn.com/2013/02/05/news/economy/china-income-inequality/index.html
7.       Managing Forest Resources for Sustainable Development: An Evaluation of World Bank Group Experienceprepared by the Independent Evaluation Group, distributed internally on December 28, 2012     http://www.redd-monitor.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/ForestCODE-Jan-2013.pdf
8.     Robert J Gordon     Is US Economic Growth Over?  Faltering Innovation Confronts Six Headwinds   NBER Working Paper No. 18315   Issued in August 2012    http://www.nber.org/papers/w18315
9.    Health-Care Spending to Reach 20% of U.S. Economy by 2021      By Alex Wayne – Jun 13, 2012 12:01 AM ET
10.  Grading Places:      What Do the Business Climate Rankings Really Tell Us?   by Peter Fisher, with a Preface by Greg LeRoy     May 2013    http://www.goodjobsfirst.org/gradingplaces
11.    Managing Forest Resources for Sustainable Development: An Evaluation of World Bank Group Experienceprepared by the Independent Evaluation Group, distributed internally on December 28, 2012    http://www.redd-monitor.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/ForestCODE-Jan-2013.pdf
12.  China’s Forestry Resource Inventory     Prepared By:     Mark Petry & Zhang Lei    USDA Global Agricultural Information Network   http://gain.fas.usda.gov/Recent%20GAIN%20Publications/China’s%20Forestry%20Resource%20Inventory_Beijing_China%20-%20Peoples%20Republic%20of_2009-12-15.pdf
13.     Cambodian police shoot dead leading anti-logging campaigner    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/apr/26/cambodia-police-shoot-dead-antilogging-activist
14.    Managing Forest Resources for Sustainable Development: An Evaluation of World Bank Group Experienceprepared by the Independent Evaluation Group, distributed internally on December 28, 2012     http://www.redd-monitor.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/ForestCODE-Jan-2013.pdf
15.    Top One Percent Captured 121 Percent Of All Income Gains During Recovery’s First Years: Study        Bonnie Kavoussi  The Huffington Post

Posted: 02/12/2013 2:11 pm EST


16.  James D Ramsey and Terence M. O’Sullivan       There’s a Pattern Here: The Case to Integrate Environmental Security into Homeland Security Strategy

Homeland Security Affairs  The Journal of the Naval  Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security


17.   Robert J Gordon     Is US Economic Growth Over?  Faltering Innovation Confronts Six Headwinds   NBER Working Paper No. 18315   Issued in August 2012    http://www.nber.org/papers/w18315

18.     Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett       The Spirit Level       Bloomsbury Press New York 2010

19.  Immanuel Wallerstein  The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century. New York: Academic Press, 1976,

20.   United States’ 2nd-Quarter Growth Is Revised Up to 2.5%, From 1.7%  New York Times

Published: August 29, 2013  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/30/business/economy/second-quarter-gdp-revised-sharply-higher.html?_r=0

21.  Top One Percent Captured 121 Percent Of All Income Gains During Recovery’s First Years: Study        Bonnie Kavoussi  The Huffington Post

Posted: 02/12/2013 2:11 pm EST

22.  Health-Care Spending to Reach 20% of U.S. Economy by 2021      By Alex Wayne – Jun 13, 2012 12:01 AM ET
23. Lawrence Mishel and Heidi Shierholz     A Decade of Flat Wages     The Key Barrier to Shared Prosperity and a Rising Middle Class

Economic Policy Institute   August 21, 2013  


24   Home prices across the US defy gravity      John W. Schoen   CNBC    Aug. 26, 2013   8:48 AM
25.  Bullard, R. D. 1990. Dumping in Dixie: Race, class, and environmental quality. Boulder, CO: Westview.
26    Grading Places:      What Do the Business Climate Rankings Really Tell Us?   by Peter Fisher, with a Preface by Greg LeRoy     May 2013    http://www.goodjobsfirst.org/gradingplaces


1 thought on “Environmental Justice and the Rhode Island Economy

  1. Greg has provided us much to “soak on” as we begin a new week. He has elevated huge swaths of problems on the state, national and international scene — problems that are not likely to be solved in big gulps, given the tone of the times. But maybe as we do our exercise walks/jogging/biking on these delightful Fall days, Greg-readers can be inspired to come up with (and share with us others) bite-sized chunks of what can be done to nibble away at these needs within our respective spheres of knowledge and influence. A lot of it may have to do with encouraging our kids, colleagues and buddies to think about these issues in an orderly manner, and being ready to learn and modify views, rather than leaping to hard-and-fast conclusions in emotional manner.

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