Case study: Environment and community engagement


Conflict theory is useful to explain class conflict, which affects the vulnerable section in a notable way. The vulnerable groups are compelled to tolerate pollution in different parts of the world. Power and class are the concepts that can be used to explain the power relations. The Aboriginals in Australia and Canada suffered due to a lack of recognition and opportunity to participate in the decision-making process. In the US, however, communities have been involved while establishing wind power plants in their neighborhood. Community participation leads to environmental justice. The absence of community participation, on the other hand, leads to environmental inequality.

Case study: Environment and community engagement

Karl Marx, by using the concept of class struggle, has shown the impact of capitalism on the proletariat, the working class people affected by the greed of the capitalists for more political and economic power. The concepts such as class, power and politics and conflict theory provide further insight into the struggle between the rich and the poor (Brym & Lie, 2009). The rich, because of their ownership of land and resources, are able to exploit the poor. The concept of power thus explains the ability of the rich to control the resources. It also explains the domination of the rich not only in economic terms but also with reference to the social status. Class is another concept that is useful in this context, as the power struggle refers to the struggle between the classes. Conflict theory explains the relationship between the two parties to the conflict. Various parties to the conflict do not agree with the rules, institutions, and policies of others. However, they do not consider conflict as leading to the integration of social groups. In this way, they differ from structural functionalists who exhibit a positive attitude towards conflict between individuals and groups (Sociology Guide 2015).

The conflict theory is applicable in the case of the struggle between the rich who exploit the environment and the poor who suffer from exploitation of the environment. In many regions even today, there is a wide disparity between the high-income and low-income groups. In the context of Australia, the indigenous communities suffer due to lack of access to economic resources and environmental degradation. The developments such as industrialization and urbanisation have benefited a few while it has affected many others. In Canada, for example, one can note a difference between large urban centres and rural spaces (Gray and Sinclair 2005). The policy makers understand the need to bridge the gap between the two sections, but they are not able to find a viable solution to this problem. In Australia, a group of people has used the opportunity available to achieve economic progress. However, another group has failed to use the opportunity, and consequently it has become the object of exploitation by the opportunists. Some also suggest that rural regions may give way in the future to large urban centres, thereby destroying the traditional lifestyle of the people in the villages. In Newfoundland, Canada, one can note transition of rural society into an urban complex (Gray and Sinclair 2005).

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The vulnerable communities, in the regions such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, feel powerless due to the coal ash pollution, which has considerably affected them. They have suffered from the lack of environmental justice, as they have sacrificed for the sake of the national revenue. The government or other authorities have not initiated measures to achieve equality between the local residents who suffer from coal ash pollution and urban dwellers that enjoy the fruit of environment exploitation. The local people have demanded the introduction of measures to reduce the negative impact of pollution on them. There is a conflict between the persons and groups belonging to different classes. The struggle for political and economic power has negatively affected the local population that has demanded social and environmental justice. They suggest that all the parties involved should equally share the burden of environmental pollution. There are obvious health issues that have emerged from this pollution, which has affected around 4,000 people (Broto & Carter 2010).

A study of the rural American Northwest clearly shows the disparity between the Latino poor and the rich communities of the country. This region was used as a playground and a dumping ground. The playground has various stakeholders including the rich and the poor. However, the dominant group is able to exploit this area to the maximum extent. However, the dumping ground has affected the rural poor as their neighbourhood is polluted due to the dumping of industrial and residential waste. The Latino poor the Northwest do not have the voice in the policy making process, and this affected their interest (Lawson et al 2010).

A disaster can considerably affect the poor when compared to the rich, as the poor lack access to resources such as the humanitarian aid from international agencies. The underprivileged section also lacks appropriate education essential to deal with the after effects of disasters. The rich, on the other hand, are able to deal with such problems. It is apparent that disasters have far greater consequence on the socially vulnerable groups when compared with the people belonging to the upper class. This is significant when one notes that disasters are also the result of uncontrolled economic growth due to the need of the rich to amass wealth. The society, which is based on the class concept, does not recognize the need for change in the social structure. The government needs to introduce appropriate policies to change the class character of the society (Thomas et al, 2013, p. 108).

Environmental justice has emerged as a major issue that can affect the socially vulnerable groups. For example, in the US, Hurricane Katrina affected large numbers of the poor, even though they were not responsible for this event. At the same time, the people with power, the privileged class did not suffer significantly from this event. This development shows the disparity between the privileged and underprivileged groups. Hurricane Katrina also contributed to problems such as unemployment, poverty, racism, and a feeling of helplessness, thereby affecting the African Americans who lost their homes and they had to leave their homes to obtain a source of livelihood. Similarly, pollution has affected the vulnerable communities in New York (Schlosberg 2013, p. 43).

In the 1980s and 1990s, studies were conducted in the context of the USA to analyze the environmental impact on the African Americans and Latinos. The Studies showed that large numbers of the minority of groups were likely to reside in the regions comprising toxic waste. Three persons out of five African American and the Hispanics were affected by pollution. The implication of this study is that 15 million African Americans and 8 million Latino are exposed to pollution in the country. This study showed that race was the major factor that determined the status of the individual in the society. The studies have showed the differences between the majority and minority groups in the country (Byrne et al 2002, p. 5). A study conducted in the context of the southern part of the US showed that African-Americans formed the major portion of the local community in the regions recognized as waste landfill areas. For example, at Alabama, 90 percent of the population near the landfill regions are African-Americans, thereby showing their vulnerability to environmental injustice. Along with this concept, environmental inequality is also discussed. African-Americans in Alabama suffered from environmental inequality (Cutter 2012, p. 253).

Even though environmental justice emerged as a major discourse, the government and its institutions have given less importance to this theme while formulating its policies. A study shows that urban sustainability is the concept used to create sustainable cities. However, importance is given to indicators such as sustainable economic growth. At the same time, environmental justice is absent in the public policy rhetoric. This study reveals that the poor are likely to be sidelined in the future, as there is no policy framework to protect their interests. It is revealed that in the US only five cities out of 77 included environmental justice as an important theme (Pearsall and Pierce, 2010, p. 570).

Environmental justice comprises concepts such as distribution, recognition, participation, and procedure (Xie 2011, p. 162). There is the need for equal distribution of resources between the people belonging to different communities. It is important to recognize the local community. At the same time, community participation becomes imperative while taking important decisions. Implementation of the decision is another significant aspect of environmental justice. In China, the government decided to establish a waste incineration plant at Liulitun. The local residents comprising the educated people belonging to the middle class organized a movement to oppose this project. They insisted the community participation in the decision-making process. Consequently, the local residents obtained justice as the government decided to change the location of the incineration plant (Xie 2011, p. 168). It is apparent that power and class play important role in deciding the attitude of the authorities towards the local community. In the case of China, the middle class community was able to oppose the plant, which potentially affected the environment. On the other hand, there are large numbers of cases where the local community could not oppose projects that affected them.

The dominant groups have developed the category of excluded communities or “defeated communities” (Taylor 2011, p. 104). They are defeated because they have no other place to go, implying that they stay in a locality not due to choice but due to compulsion. On the other hand, the high-income groups attempt to create safe environment and neighbourhood. In this situation, the defeated community needs to develop considerable ability to withstand environmental degradation in the form of pollution. For example, the rich have created gated communities to exclude the poor from their society. This development has obviously contributed to division between various communities  (Taylor 2011, p. 104).

In New Zealand, the authorities have ignored the interest of the vulnerable groups such as the farmers by not consulting them before introducing the market-based Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). The aim of this scheme was to compel the consumers to limit environment degradation. However, the farmers have opposed it, as they were not included in the decision-making process. The policy attempted to reduce emission of hazardous chemicals through agricultural production. At the same time, other contributors of pollution are not affected. The New Zealand government attempted to use political and economic justifications to defend its policy. However, it is apparent that the farmers are unjustly affected particularly because they are accused of creating biological pollution. However, farmers cannot manage without the exploitation of land and cattle (Cooper and Rosin, 2014, pp. 391-392).

The local communities with access to power and resources asserted their right to refuse initiation of developmental project in their areas. For example, in the US, there is general support for the production of wind power. However, the local communities appear to oppose this move due to the problems such as noise pollution and other barriers to their survival. Some scholars ignore such movements as not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) syndrome. In some cases, local groups obtain considerable support due to their relationship with the authority. For example, the citizens formed a local committee to oppose the Cape Wind Project that was proposed at Nantucket Sound. Political leaders such as Governor Mitt Romney and Robert Kennedy participated in this movement. As there were significant leaders in the movement, it was able to attract the attention of the government (Smith & Klick 2007, p. 3). All the same, many rural areas of the USA have suffered from the side effects of wind power plants.

In Canada, the aboriginal communities have been forced to fight to protect their traditional way of life and against environmental injustice. For example, the court ordered the Algonquin community to vacate their land, which was given to a private company for uranium exploration. The Canadian government had previously signed the treaty with the Indian community to involve it in major decisions affecting the people of the locality. In this case, the provisions of the treaty were breached, and the local communities revolted against this development. It is clear that the authorities refused to recognize the right of the locals to decide their fate. The authorities also used force to restrict the movement against uranium exploration. The project had significant implications for the local population (Agyeman et al 2010, p. 1). It is apparent that the Aboriginals who lacked political power could not assert their rights as against the power of the capitalist class that attempted to exploit the natural resources in the region, thereby affecting the local population.

The California State of the USA for a long period tolerated highly toxic industry that manufactured pesticides, thereby affecting the vulnerable groups in the neighbourhood. Many people complained regarding illness. In the 1999, the problem attained serious promotion with more than 150 people suffering from serious illness including vomiting, and they had to be given immediate medical assistance. These incidents showed that the authorities did not respond appropriately to protect the local population.  A chemical, metam sodium was responsible for this event. The political leaders intervened on behalf of the local population, and in this way, an attempt was made to protect the vulnerable group in California (Harrison 2011, p. 4).

In Chile, there was emergence of a conflict between the State and the local communities when the government decided to construct the Ralco dam having significant implications for the local population, which opposed the project. The government decided to ignore not only the local resistance but also the comments by the World Bank, which criticized the development. In this case, the local communities were not taken into confidence before initiating the project. The government officials also harmed the religious feelings of the people when a symbol of their religion was removed to construct the dam. The government compelled large numbers of people to leave their locality. Consequently, with the completion of the dam, large numbers of villages were submerged in water. In this case, the community was not allowed to participate in the decision-making process (Schlosberg & Carruthers, 2010, pp. 25-26).

The ageing population is one category of the vulnerable group, which suffers from social exclusion. They lack the opportunity to use the resources available to other members in the society. Services such as medicine and social services are not easily accessible to them, and this affects their ability to maintain their health. Lack of appropriate transportation facilities can affect their health. Lack of financial resources is another problem that may affect this community. There is a need for a social inclusion policy to provide justice to the elderly population. Lack of services and facilities can lead to emergence of conflict between the older people and other section of the society that has access to these facilities (Walsh et al, 2012).

The minority communities are subjected to exclusion. This trend is noticeable in the case of municipalities that have the right to determine their boundary. In the State of North Carolina, studies have found that a few municipalities deliberately excluded the regions inhabited by minorities. The policy has affected the ability of the minorities to improve their social and economic positions. Majority of these communities are African-Americans. Similarly, Hispanics were affected by the exclusion policy in the State of California (Marsh et al 2010).

Community participation is one way of dealing with the problem of environmental injustice caused to the population of a locality. There are cases where the communities could assert their rights. In rural Malawi, there was the introduction of battery-based lanterns that used light emitting diodes (LED). The community participated in the decision to replace kerosene lantern with LED lanterns. The community accepted this measure as a solution to environmental degradation. In this way, environmental justice was achieved. The community benefited from the programs such as the Light Up the World Foundation (Adkins et al, 2010, p. 1088). Subsidies were provided to the villagers who used this facility. In this way, the local community could deal with the problem of lack of electricity in their regions. At the same time, it has resulted in emergence of difference between those who used LED and those who refused to use LED. The latter experienced reduced income when compared with the former (Adkins et al, 2010, p. 1088).

A study in the context of India and Sri Lanka showed that fisher folk could be protected through community development projects. The fisher folk of the region suffered from tsunami in 2004. They also suffered from short-term and long-term environmental changes. Tsunami was a major event that affected large numbers of people. There is a need for participation of the local community in its rehabilitation. On the other hand, exclusion of the community can affect its ability to recover from environmental problems (Mulligan and Nadarjah 2011).

Environmental problems are likely to affect the vulnerable groups that lack the resources to compete with the privileged class. The conflict theory is useful to explain the conflict between the rich and the poor. The poor live in unhealthy conditions, but they cannot protect their interests as they lack political power and social status. African-Americans and the Hispanics in the US, the Aboriginals in Australia and Canada have suffered from environmental injustice and environmental inequality. Through deliberate policies, a few communities were excluded. The elderly population and the minorities were excluded from social services. Large numbers of the vulnerable groups have suffered from problems such as pollution. The agricultural communities have suffered due to the use of pesticides. There is need for social inclusion to ensure justice to the underprivileged group. The government, in this context, needs to enter into a dialogue with the local population. Community participation is another way of dealing with social exclusion. The fisher folk of India and Sri Lanka could improve their position through community participation. However, a few countries such as Chile did not recognize the rights of the locals, and this affected them. Consequently, they were forced to vacate their houses. The disasters such as cyclones affected the minorities in the US. In China, however, the local community organized a movement against a waste incineration plant. The movement succeeded due to the political base of the local community. It is apparent that political power of the community plays an important role in its recognition. The government needs to take measures to ensure that the local community is restored of its legal rights. However, the communities that protested succeeded as found in the case of the wind power plants in the US. The NIMBY attitude enabled the local communities to oppose establishment of wind power plants in their locality.

In this way, conflict theory shows the uses of conflict.


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