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Environmental Ethics

Volume 16, Issue 3, Fall 1994

Robert R. Higgins
Pages 251-264

Race, Pollution, and the Mastery of Nature

Racial environmental inequities, documented in research over the past ten years, have deep cultural sources in the connections between the concept of social pollution as it has operated in U.S. race relations and the pollution of minority communities, both of which are, in part, the expression of our dominant cultural ethic and project of mastering nature. The project of mastering nature requires the disciplining of “human nature” in a context of social power in order to dominate “outward” or “external” nature for the purposes of production and consumption. In disciplining human nature, our ethics and practices of work and gender have fostered the repression and projection of sensuality, widely construed, onto African-Americans in particular. This racial “other” has been historically segregated in our society through social pollution taboos. Social pollution practices, in turn, facilitate the disproportionate environmental pollution of minority communities by rendering such pollution, like the communities themselves, less visible and therefore less of a threat to white centers of power. This fit between social and environmental pollution is expressed in the notion of “appropriately polluted space.” Attempts to understand and correct racial environmental inequities will founder unless these deeper cultural connections are recognized and challenged. Moreover, attempts to redefine an environmentally benign “self” in the American context require that the historical “other” of race be confronted and transcended.

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