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Talking about environmental injustice through digital technology

Talking about environmental injustice through digital technology
• Sun, Jul 01, 2012

By Victoria Goff

Delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991 drafted and adopted 17 principles of Environmental Justice. Since then, the principles have served as a defining document for the growing grassroots movement for environmental justice. When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) looks the other way at gross environmental injustices committed by corporations, is it acting in violation of human rights? When the state of Michigan makes treaties with Canada to house Canadian garbage, is it in violation of international law? What about when the United States ships discard computers to digital dumps in West Africa? Is that an act of genocide against the citizens of the countries who are dying because of pollution?

While there are no easy answers to these questions, environmental justice advocates created principles that attempted to start a discussion between communities most affected by governmental decisions about pollution and environmental injustice. Of those principles, the 10th one is particularly relevant in working through these questions: Environmental Justice considers governmental acts of environmental injustice a violation of international law, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the United Nations Convention on Genocide.

But what does the 10th principle even mean? And what does it mean in the context of our communities? What is an environmental injustice? And what does it mean for any government to be in violation of human rights?While in many cases mainstream media may expose or report on environmental problems, it only very rarely does the work of explaining complicated language like “human rights” or “genocide.” More often than not, mainstream media actually refuses to even use the language our communities create to address specific situations, instead opting for general reporting that remains carefully “neutral.”

When six corporations own most of the production and distribution media companies in the U.S., it makes sense that our news is carefully limited to “neutral” phraseology or simple omission. But not only does this deny communities most affected by environmental injustice the language necessary to describe their situations, it also keeps valuable contextual information off the table as well. For example, while it may sound impressive to say a government entity is in violation of international law, how is international law different than the law in the United States? Who gets jurisdiction in the courts? What does jurisdiction even mean?

Enter digital justice. Digital justice is the belief that communication is a human right. It operates from its own set of principles, most of which focus on the right of community members to access information and produce and distribute their own media. A good example of digital justice work might be how bloggers have used the mobilization power of the Internet to pressure the attorney general in Florida to pursue charges against George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin. Bloggers produced and distributed their own content about Trayvon Martin in a manner that centered justice for Martin and his family.

When it comes to environmental justice, digital justice doesn’t have the greatest track record. Communication technology isn’t even close to being environmentally friendly and even low-tech communications options like paper and ink can be horribly degrading to the environment. The one thing that digital justice has done incredible work around has been, as in the case of Trayvon Martin, centering the stories that are most important to our communities and fighting for the right of community members to not only tell those stories, but to distribute them and start conversations around those stories throughout the world. And now digital justice is taking on that important work in the environmental justice sphere as well.

Take, for example, the work Dr. Angie Allen, Dr. Conja Wright, Patrick Geans and Rhonda Anderson did around the environmental catastrophe created by industrial pollution in 48217. What started off as a class project for the Detroit Future program eventually became a feature-length documentary that highlighted not only the horrible effects of environmental pollution on the 48217 community, but also began to answer those questions that principle No. 10 points to: What is environmental injustice? And what can communities do when it’s the government that is committing crimes against them?

While this type of media work certainly doesn’t have the level of circulation as the New York Times, it does the far more important work of reaching out to other community members and informing and politicizing their understanding of the situation. The documentary eventually had a community screening where people from the 48217 community spoke about their experiences, and Detroiters from outside the 48217 community were able to gain a better understanding of the situation. It is the sort of dialogue that doesn’t happen very often through corporate-owned mainstream media.Digital justice does not always have the easiest relationship with environmental justice. But because “working in principle together” asks us to work toward the principles’ actualization — rather than to already have them actualized before we start the important work of rehabilitating our environment — digital justice doesn’t have to be the sole answer to solving all the problems of environmental injustice.

As we work towards figuring out how to create communication infrastructures that don’t destroy the planet just by existing, we can use digital technology to continue to tell the story of our communities. Digital technology is only a tool in the fight for environmental justice, but it’s a powerful one, and one that we have the right to access on our own terms to suit our own needs.

Victoria Goff is the communications coordinator for the Detroit Future Program. You can find her at or on Twitter @dcommunicates.

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