The Political Economy of the Environment
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The Political Economy of the Environment

James K. Boyce

In a provocative and original analysis, James K. Boyce examines the dynamics of environmental degradation in terms of the balances of power between the winners and the losers. He provides evidence that inequalities of power and wealth affect not only the distribution of environmental costs, but also their overall magnitude: greater inequalities result in more environmental degradation. Democratization – movement toward a more equitable distribution of power – therefore is not only a worthwhile objective in its own right, but also an important means toward the social goals of environmental protection and sustainable development.
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Chapter 6: Power Distribution, the Environment, and Public Health

James K. Boyce


(with Andrew R. Klemer, Paul H. Templet, and Cleve E. Willis) INTRODUCTION Environmentally degrading economic activities generate both winners and losers. The winners derive net benefits in the form of producers’ and consumers’ surplus; the losers bear net costs arising from environmental externalities. Starting with this premise, Chapter 4 advanced two hypotheses: first, social choices governing environmental degradation systematically favor more powerful agents over less powerful agents; and second, wider inequalities of power tend to result in greater environmental degradation. The first hypothesis, on the identities of winners and losers, generates the prediction that the distribution of environmental costs will be correlated with other power-related variables such as income, race, and ethnicity. In recent years a substantial literature on such correlations has emerged in the USA. Case studies have drawn attention to links between socioeconomic status and pollution exposure in various locations, from Chester, Pennsylvania and Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley’ to South Central and East Los Angeles.1 Pioneering statistical studies by Bullard (1983) and the US General Accounting Office (1983) found correlations between the siting of waste dumps and the racial composition of surrounding communities.2 Recent studies by Perlin et al. (1995) and Brooks and Sethi (1997) similarly found emissions of airborne toxic pollutants to be correlated with race and ethnicity at the county and postal zip-code levels. In response to concerns that minority and low-income populations bear a disproportionately high share of environmental costs, President Clinton’s Executive Order 12898 of February 1994 established an Interagency Working Group on...

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