The American relationship with nature is fragmented and divided against itself, and this division has shaped the land. Americans invented the ideal of wilderness, land forever protected against roads, buildings, and engines. Our laws consecrate more than a hundred million acres to that ideal, most of it in the West, where you can wander for days without seeing a sign of “development.” Our national parks mark the first time a democracy chose to set aside revered landscapes in the name of all the people – and for their use and pleasure. President Theodore Roosevelt, a macho bully, imperialist, and champion of executive power, created vast acres of wildlife preserves, quite possibly in violation of the Constitution, because he loved birds.
But joy in nature, and reverence toward it, are half the story at most. The United States was founded on the belief that the natural world exists for human use, and the noblest activity is to make nature economically productive – to turn it to human needs and human wealth. This idea has always implied a certain mercilessness toward other views of the non-human world. Early Americans justified taking the continent from the Indians on the theory that tribes that did not settle and clear the land could not own it, because ownership had to be earned by development. The American Revolution, too, was justified partly by the British government’s forbidding the colonials to settle beyond the Allegheny Mountains – denying them, in other words, the human right and duty of development. This view of nature has often been at war with the first: in loggers fighting environmentalists, cattlemen who resisted the parks and wilderness system, and Westerners today who want to kick the federal government out of the national lands in their backyard. Those who work the land for wealth have often felt that preserving it from use is not just inconvenient to them: it is an insult to their way of life.
Then there is a third ideal, which really came into its own in the suburbs and culture of consumption after World War Two. This is the clean landscape: unpolluted, free of rank smells and waste, safe for children to run. The wish for the clean landscape helped to inspire the great anti-pollution laws of the 1970s, including the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, which did indeed make life safer and healthier in much of the country. But this was also a segregating ideal. It drove working nature out of sight and out of mind, excluding farming, making things, and burning things for energy from the places where people lived.
The logic of all this is to create sacrifice zones – the places where we produce food and energy, with little regard for the health or beauty of the land, to maintain our clean and convenient lives. American farmland has become more and more like an industrial waste system over the last fifty years, and its fertilizer, pesticide, manure, and soil erosion account for much of the country’s failure to meet its announced standards for clean air and water.
Since the mid-1990s, central Appalachia has become the country’s purest sacrifice zone. Energy from coal runs laptops, iPhones, and super-green electric cars, plus high-efficiency air-conditioning – all the conveniences of the clean world. At the same time, it comes from a use of the land that treats it as disposable. In the Appalachian coalfields, Americans do not treat the land as a people would who expected to live in a place for generations, or for more than a few years. When dynamite blasts apart a hilltop and draglines heap dirt in the surrounding hollows, the land is being classified as a place that we ruin forever, in return for a few years of convenience.
The movement against mountaintop removal has failed again and again in court, though at the time of writing it may be starting to see some success in politics. Its clearer success, though perhaps a Pyrrhic one, has been to raise Americans’ awareness of the sacrifices their energy economy entails. This comes at the same time that the industrial food system is increasingly visible, so that plastic-wrapped hamburger and pork chops have indelible associations with pools of liquid manure, industrial-scale antibiotics that produce drug-resistant bacteria, and confinement that denies animals the basic pleasures of movement and fresh air, and seems to drive them mad. These changes in awareness are beginning to show those who pay attention that there is no such thing as a clean world. Instead, we face a choice between acknowledging our waste and destruction, and trying to deal with them as responsibly as we can, or ignoring them and deepening the logic of the sacrifice zone.
What does all of this have to do with justice? A standard definition of environmental justice is that less powerful individuals and communities should not bear a disproportionate share of environmental harms, from pollution to the destruction of mining. This is an idea based in a certain version of fairness: treating people alike, although they may be different in wealth, region, race, or other ways. It is very clear that mountaintop removal, waste dumps in Appalachia, and the rest of the region’s environmental experience are instances of environmental injustice in this sense.
It is important, though, to be clear about how little power this idea of justice has in American law or American life more generally. We allocate most of the benefits of social life according to wealth: buying land in a clean and safe neighborhood, paying for a good education (at a private school, or by buying a house in a good school district), being able to purchase good medical care (or, for the moment, any medical care at all). Even outside of economic life, the burden of our criminal justice system falls heavily on the poor and racial minorities, who fill prisons, and whose crimes are punished much more harshly than those of the comfortable and privileged. We don’t exactly let people starve, and in person we Americans are often compassionate and charitable; but our way of sharing out the world speeds many lives on a road to ruin.
We treat landscapes the same way, along with the people who live on them. There is no equality among American landscapes: some are sacred, some protected against harm, and some sacrificed. As a result, there is no equality among Americans to the degree that they care about their landscapes, identify with them, and wish to imagine that their children and grandchildren might live there as they have. If you live in a wooded suburb of Boston and treasure the preserved lands next door, if you live in the dense neighborhoods of Boulder, Colorado, and like to duck into the Rocky Mountain National Park for your summer hikes, your relation to the land is secure, a privilege enshrined in law. But if you love the hills of southern West Virginia or Eastern Kentucky, if they form your idea of beauty and rest, your native or chosen image of home, then your love has prepared your heart for breaking.
Today, climate change seems to ensure that no one can be sure of growing old, or even growing up, in the landscape they were born into. Change, uncertainty, all parts of modern life, are now acute features of the global environment, with results that we have not really begun to understand. This is not just a physical, practical vulnerability. It is also a vulnerability in memory and hope, in ways of seeing the land, anticipating the seasons, knowing what will grow and what lives there with you, knowing whether it will be habitable at all. Wherever they live, Americans might consider that this is a vulnerability our laws have long imposed on those who live in, and love, the country’s sacrifice zones.