February 2, 2012
As contemporary as notions of environmental justice might seems to us, as citizens of the twenty-first century, the reality of the unequal externalization of environmental ills far pre-dates the term itself. From a local standpoint, Los Angeles contended with major issues of inequity, specifically relating to the expansion of the oil drilling operations and the meatpacking industry into areas where their presence was pointedly unwanted.
The turn of the twentieth century and accompanying oil and industrial boom brought many political, social, and economic changes to residents in Southern California. It was around this time that politicians and policy makers started becoming aware of the environmental consequences of economic and demographic growth, which were largely negative. Beginning in the 1880s (perhaps not coincidentally, the decade in which the University of Southern California was founded), a general trend of population increase started to take effect. Los Angeles was booming for a variety of reasons although they were predominantly bound to the climate, geography, and resource wealth of the Southern California region.
From 1900 to 1910, as a consequence of the appealing Mediterranean climate, population rapidly grew from 102,479 to 319,198 people, creating a real estate driven economy. However other entrepreneurs and local interests realized that the city’s economy would also be intrinsically linked to the untapped wealth of natural resources, specifically oil and natural gas that span the continental shelf and coastal areas. At the time, this desire for rapid economic diversification and a frugal political climate inherently clashed with the local residents who had a vested interest in keeping their homes and residential areas clean and safe to live in.
Although the environmental problems associated with the diversification of the economy in Southern California were clearly evident and taking a toll on the quality of living, politicians generally favored big business and economic expansion. This was due to the “political machine” in place at the turn of the century that was dominated by corruption and greed. Politicians disregarded the welfare of their citizens in turn for personal profit and the political support of public utilities and business firms.
Though nearly the whole of downtown Los Angeles was divided into residential or commercial districts called ‘wards,’ the primary division was Main Street — affluent, middle-class inhabitants chiefly resided on the west side of Main, while blue collar workers and members of the lower-middle-class lived on the east.
Not unlike what we see in today’s political arena, a century ago, there was still a clear and emphasis on fostering economic growth — often at the expense of environmental stewardship. And public policy, which, as Daniel Johnson put it, “all too readily subordinated the interests of Los Angeles’ poorer citizens to the goals and ambitions of the wealthy and powerful,” reflected that priority.
Then, as now, political protest was often the first line of defense against perceived injustices. Political corruption at the municipal level presented a very serious roadblock to any sort of positive action, however, as many ward representatives were in the pockets of public utilities. Many city politicians were openly reliant on such companies for the financial backing and campaign staffing support to hold onto their positions of power. L.A. Gas and Electric Company enjoyed an unrivaled monopoly for many years, before being challenged by an upstart and potential alternative called Suburban Gas. Although residents of the eighth ward were very vocal in making their opposition to Suburban Gas’ plan to set up shop in their backyard, the local homeowners’ protest fell on deaf ears, for the most part, and the fire commission granted Suburban Gas the permit to begin construction. It wasn’t until residents’ opposition was “coupled with substantial political pressure from the established gas monopoly” that the city council was eventually convinced to overturn the fire commission’s original decision.
In many ways, it’s discouraging to see how little has changed in more than one hundred years. Beyond shifting the region that’s most egregiously exploited and most consistently disenfranchised a few blocks further east, all of the same problems still exist. For reasons that, while utterly lacking in humanity, nonetheless make perfect sense from an economic standpoint, industry will always have significant clout in the realm of governance and policymaking. The interests of industry are currently being put ahead of the basic needs of socioeconomically disadvantaged groups, who live in disproportionately large numbers, in close proximity to the worst sorts of industrial pollution, and must endure diminished quality of life because of it.
Many — including USC’s own Manuel Pastor, who serves as Co-Director of the UC Santa Cruz Center for Justice, Tolerance & Community (CJTC) — have invested years in documenting and explaining the root causes of environmental injustices in urban areas. Professor Pastor and his colleague’s work suggest that the issue may have more to do with socioeconomic status than race, but whatever the case, it’s clear — given their century-old history in the area — that environmental justice is an issue that will require widespread attention and significant commitments to make any real headway against it.
This post was authored by Louis Lucero II ’12 an Environmental Studies major (BA) with minors in English and Screenwriting; and Scott Gross ’12 an Environmental Studies major (BA).