University of Washington Tacoma
Mikailah Grover and Hannah Rajacich
Date of Interview
This interviewee discusses the issue from an anthropocentric viewpoint, stressing that disadvantaged communities are usually the ones who bear the brunt of environmental-related problems. And while the interviewee stresses air pollution and the proximity of I-5 to poor neighborhoods as examples of injustice, he also points out that low-income, inner-urban areas suffer from a lack of nutritious food. He also discusses the role of politicians and political structures, and what their responsibilities should be relative to ensuring environmental equity.
Gawel, James E., "Jim Gawel Interview" (2013). Puget Sound Environmental Justice Interviews. 6.
Additional FilesGawel_Transcript.docx (23 kB)
Mikailah Grover/Hannah Rajacich: Please state you name and organization affiliation.
Jim Gawel: My name is Jim Gawel, and I am an associate professor at the University of Washington Tacoma.
MG/HR: What is environmental justice?
JG: In my definition, I guess, environmental justice is trying to address environmental issues while considering the different types of people that might actually be affected differentially.
MG/HR: Who benefits from environmental justice?
JG: If it is justice and not injustice, I would say that the people that are normally on the fringes of society, people that are in low income areas – and usually it’s about low income – or people without political clout who are the ones that are hurt; therefore, they are the people that usually benefit most.
MG/HR: What is the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (US EPA) role in environmental justice?
JG: That’s a good question. There were rules passed that basically require that they consider environmental justice as part of their decision making process, but as far as I know, it’s not a hardened rule. So it basically means that they are supposed to include it in all of their decision making, but there isn’t anything that requires a decision to be turned over if it has an enormous impact on a particular population.
MG/HR: How doesn’t environmental justice work in your community?
JG: My community? Um... Well thinking of myself as Tacoma overall, I think that what ends up happening is that people . . . the biggest thing in our community has to do with transportation and air pollution. I think that air pollution is the biggest problem we have around here, and that low income areas that live around I-5 corridor, and near the big commercial quarters are the ones that actually end up getting hurt most around our community.
MG/HR: Do you have any suggestions for what would need to change for those to be less un-working environmental justices?
JG: I think that in reality what has to be addressed is actual attention to what the potential exposures are there, and whether there are ways to decrease those exposures. I think the fact that some schools are right over the top of I-5 is a bad thing, and those are some things that actually could be addressed I believe . . . you can’t up and move everybody, but you can potentially look at plantings and things that actually decrease particulate matter in air pollution sources.
MG/HR: How would you summarize the connection between environmental justice and environmental sustainability?
JG: To me, for something to be considered sustainable it should be just at the same time; otherwise, you’re looking at sustainability for only part of the population. So I think that you have to look at whether something will work for everyone or not.
MG/HR: How about the connection between environmental justice and environmental health?
JG: Again I think that environmental human health issues really are related, usually you end up with a population that’s more at risk because environmental justice is not really considered in the process.
MG/HR: In your opinion, how is environmental justice useful to you in addressing the issues in your community?
JG: I think the concept is there to use, how it can be applied is tougher. I think the problem is that people try to blame the population at risk, so everybody spends too much time looking at whether the pollution source was there first and then people moved there, or whether they put this pollution source where a lower income area was. In reality, it doesn’t matter which way it came around. I think thinking about how you safeguard the health of people in the most affected areas means that you’re doing a better job of considering health overall.
MG/HR: How might others in the community be able to help?
JG: I think that if you’re looking . . . what I see happening is that the people with political clout make the biggest noise, or at least get the ear of people. So I think that in reality your politicians and your elected officials need to actually consider who is talking to them and whether that’s really a response from the community as a whole, or whether it’s one particular really powerful group. And so I think the elected officials have a responsibility to try and weigh those things out and make sure they are really considering the community as a whole.
MG/HR: Is there anything else on this topic that you would like to discuss with us?
JG: I think one of the things that gets lost sometimes in environmental justice issues is everybody looks at pollution sources, there is a new wave of people looking at what is called “food deserts.” It basically means that . . . part of environmental health effects on people is their nutrition. So if you live in an area where the only places within walking distances are 7-11’s, or convenience stores, it doesn’t give you much options for good nutrition overall, especially if you have lower access to transportation and other things. So I think that considering non-pollution sources in environmental justice actually ends up being a really important aspect of things.
MG/HR: Well thank you!