I've been working on a means to measure environmental privilege, using and index and ArcGIS. Here are some notes on my progress and a couple maps to go along.
It is no secret that we live in a world riddled with inequality. This is a world in which access to clean, safe, and healthy environments is distributed unequally both socially and spatially. Yet inequality as such rarely goes unchallenged. In the United States, and increasingly across the globe, people are calling attention to the normative notion of environmental justice, forming a global social movement around the idea that all people, regardless of any defining social characteristics, are entitled to freedom from environmental hazards and risks and access to amenities like green space (Gottlieb 1993; Pellow 2007). Climate change, for instance, has spurred organization around the notion of climate justice and the necessity for the most privileged within the global social system to recognize their part in the unfolding crisis and to do something about it (Petit 2009). The notion of climate justice points directly to the ethical problems that climate changes poses, given that the world’s most vulnerable are also least responsible, but suffer the greatest damage in terms of climate related disaster (Roberts 2001; Roberts and Parks 2006).
While scholars have spent a great deal of time describing, and identifying, the mechanisms behind environmental inequalities, they have spent far less time exploring the other side, that of environmental privilege. Wherever there is environmental inequality, there must also be environmental privilege, which allows for certain groups to have access to safe environments to live, work, and play in, while others do not. This privilege is the result of interlocking systems of political, economic, and cultural power, that allow for freedom from hazards, such as air pollution from toxin releasing manufacturing facilities, and access to amenities such as coastal property or national parks. Therefore, to better understand environmental inequality, it is important to focus on both sides of the coin, addressing both the negative (unequal exposure to hazards and risks) and positive (unequal access to amenities) aspects that environmental inequalities necessarily entail.
I measure environmental privilege by considering both social and environmental factors:
Using a points system, I calculate the Environmental Privilege Index score at the block group level, and map using ArcGIS. Here is an example of Rhode Island and Providence (the largest city and capital of RI).
At the state-wide level we see disparities between various municipalities in levels of environmental privilege, but there are also disparities within cities too. It is important to point out that the areas shown in red with little or no environmental privilege are concentrated in Rhode Island's urban areas, with high concentrations of minority and working class people. Here is a map of ethnicity in Rhode Island to help give you an idea.
Below, I have another map, this time showing Providence. We see a disparity between the east and west sides of the city. Not coincidentally, the east side of Providence is home to Brown University, and many wealthy and white residents of Providence, while the west and south side of the city are composed of mostly minority residents.
Finally, we have a map of Providence showing the environmental burdens overlaying the EPI Scores of each census block group. From this map, you can see that the areas high EPI scores in green are mostly free from high volume roadways, hazardous material sites, and industrial areas. They are also the most affluent. On the other hand, the areas shown in red and orange are areas close to industrial areas, hazardous material sites, and high volume roadways. In sum, I think that Environmental Privilege Index is a productive way to think about environmental privilege, other means (perhaps historical or ethnographic) are needed to assess the mechanisms that create and maintain it.