Rus Higley

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Interviewee Affiliation

University of Washington Tacoma


Shirley Low, Rachel Struck, and Julie Dolan

Date of Interview


Document Type



This interviewee underscores the need for social equity, stressing that all community members should have equal opportunities for prosperity, health, and access to natural services. An emphasis is placed on the fact that the indigent must live in and around areas of high toxicity vis-à-vis their wealthier counterparts who can afford to live closer to healthy green spaces. He also states that the actions taken by one person have direct consequences on others, and that a failure to recognize this has led to environmental abuses by people living in affluent countries who are unaware of the harm their choices cause others. The interviewee raises examples where the purchase of commodity goods in one location work to drive an increase in industrial pollution somewhere else. Consequently, there is a growing need for governments to develop better regulatory measures where external costs are calculated and paid for by the responsible parties. There is also discussion about designing systems that produce minimal waste, thus lessening the need to recycle. As a whole, the interviewee places a great deal of focus on anthropocentric concerns, and approaches the topic of environmental justice from a perspective of human equality and equity.


Shirley Low/Rachel Struck/Julie Dolan: Please tell us your name and organization affiliation.

Rus Higley: My name is Rus Higley. I’m an instructor at University of Washington Tacoma where I teach Environmental Science and Conservation Biology classes. I also am an instructor for Highline Community College where I teach Biology, Oceanography, Environmental Science, and then I manage their Marine Science and Technology Centers. I run a public aquarium with animals from the environment.

SL/RS/JD: What is environmental justice?

RH: Environmental Justice is obviously an offshoot of the concept of justice. And so, justice is equality but it’s even more . . . it’s equity. It’s access, equal access to things that we need and the environmental justice is a component of that. So, often times we’re talking clean water, we’re talking clean air, we’re talking a healthy environment. Ah, it’s the right of, I won’t say consumption, the United States consumes a lot more than is our share and that’s not Environmental Justice, or it’s not a good example of Environmental Justice. It’s there, it’s that everyone deserves a chance at a healthy sustainable lifestyle.

SL/RS/JD: How does environmental justice work in your community?

RH: It’s where you live or where you can afford to live. It’s the idea of, you know, um, the SODO neighborhood of Seattle which is, you know, former industrial sites that are now communities where people are living. And those are often first time homeowners, they’re often . . . lower income sort of things. You don’t have that industrial complex legacy in Mercer Island or, you know, Redmond sort of thing. So it’s a function of, there’s . . . if you look at where most of the parks are, the green parks and the green spaces, they’re not in the lower income areas. They’re in the higher income areas. And so there’s very much about access. We have some legacies of that with landfills and other things around the northwest. You know there’s, ah, we’re right now in the Des Moines/Federal Way area and there’s a couple landfills that what used to be called Midway. The Midway landfill, and it was midway between Seattle and Tacoma and they basically shifted it as far away as they could between Seattle and Tacoma. That’s what became the Midway landfill. Those are not the most high income houses that live around those sort of things, so absolutely environmental justice.

SL/RS/JD: What needs to change?

RH: I teach in my classes the idea of a business model internal and external costs. And when we buy a car we pay internal costs. We pay insurance, we pay gas, we pay maintenance, we buy new tires, all that other stuff, but we don’t pay the external costs: the costs that cause air pollution, higher asthma rates, we don’t pay the costs of, you know, having oil wells that are providing the fuels or plastics for our car. So when there’s an oil spill – recently in Canada there’s been a couple tankers, oil tankers, trains that are full of oil – they’re shipping oil cross country using trains because they can’t build a pipeline. And when those trains spill and collide, I think that 30 or 40 people died in Canada as a result of one of those . . . that’s a cost paid by other people because of my demand for fuels. But I don’t pay the costs for that sort of thing. That’s an example of an external cost. And for us to change, I think we have to start incentivizing good things and de-incentivizing bad things. Right now we pay a sales tax. And, you buy products in Washington State, and you pay a 9-ish % sales tax whether you buy crappy food or good food. Let’s incentivize people to buy good food. Let’s reduce the tax on organics and increase the tax on others. Another one Governor Inslee is working on, as well as British Columbia, Oregon, and California is this idea of cap and trade where you’re charging taxes for pollution. British Columbia just did this and it’s, and any obviously large plan can be corrupted to some levels. But at least the simple idea is BC took, and I don’t know the exact number, a couple billion dollars in taxes and replaced it with a couple billion dollars of cap and trade taxes. So they didn’t, there’s no net increase of taxes. This one replaces this one. And so now we’re taxing companies that pollute rather than companies that are doing good things. That’s again making those external costs be internalized by the companies, which means to be honest us, the consumers, because we’re the ones making the waste.

SL/RS/JD: What parts of environmental justice are important you?

RH: Again, it comes to that global sort of idea. We need to be willing as citizens of this planet to not necessarily choose the best that’s for us. We need to be able to look beyond. Whether it’s for three generations in the future, whether it’s for people that live in Africa whether its people that live in Arkansas. It doesn’t matter sort of thing. We need to not be quite so self-serving. I see that, we see that a lot. There was, you know, whether its taxes to raise money for schools. It’s like people are like “I don’t want to pay tax.” Well understand then that the schools don’t get their money. Again that’s hugely simplified. That’s one of those things if we don’t step up for the good, the common good, then we don’t, then stuff doesn’t get fixed.

SL/RS/JD: How does concern for the environment connect with environmental justice?

RH: If we use stuff unsustainably here we create a massive amount of waste. I was actually just grading a paper and it was talking about the idea of how do you make somebody do something. The question was about making them recycle. So how do you do that? But one of the points that actually was kind of a noted level point is making them recycle is one thing, but let’s back up – let’s make it so we don’t even have to recycle right now. If we can reduce and reuse it never gets to that recycle stage. And so, again, it’s that connection, it’s that if we buy things you know they’re eventually going to end up in the dump which is eventually going to affect water quality. So that’s that environmental justice and most of that, most of our trash here in the northwest . . . our trash is shipped down to eastern Oregon, sort of thing. So we get the NIMBY (not in my backyard). I don’t want to dump it in my backyard, let’s ship it to eastern Oregon sort of thing. And that’s that, you could argue the justice of that sort of thing. If you want to be environmental justice for trash, then keep it all at your house sort of thing. You make it, you bought it. You break it you buy it, sort of idea.

SL/RS/JD: How do these concerns relate to sustainability, health, and Nature?

RH: It’s that ecosystem, it’s a healthy environment sort of idea means a healthy us. I mentioned the idea before of air pollution, our cars. Look at asthma rates as a function of distance to the nearest freeway sort of things. I mean it’s, there’s a drastic particulate matter sort of idea, and other noxious gases sort of things. Those are higher near a freeway, okay. So the farther away you live from roads, the healthier it is. Well guess which houses are cheapest. The ones nearer the freeway sort of things. There’s an environmental justice sort of idea. And so if we start looking at these sustainable ideas, I mean again, going to air pollution, the shift to electric cars, that’s not the panacea that it is, but it’s better than burning fossil fuels sort of idea. We’re not to the level where we can do it as a whole global society. But it’s going to take some growing pains. If we can shift away from burning fossil fuels, that’s going to help a lot of things. That’s sustainability, that’s health, warming planet, you know we’re seeing diseases that we didn’t used to see, we’re seeing storms that are much more extreme or more frequent than we’ve ever seen before. That’s health. I mean the stuff right now that’s going on in the Philippines. You can’t say that that storm was caused by climate change, but if you look at the pattern of storms, we’re seeing more extreme storms, we’re seeing more frequent storms. All that’s a function of climate change which is caused by us.

SL/RS/JD: How is environmental justice useful to you in addressing the issues in your community?

RH: You know I think there’s a lot of shifting, especially in the northwest, to that idea of we need to be aware of those equity issues sort of things. And I am, I’m not, you know, an expert per se on the legal side of this, but I remember being told one time kind of the difference between equality and equity and what I remember is we don’t need equal access we need equity. And it’s the idea of creating that if you and I are students, and you need some extra help, well if its equality, we get the same amount of help but that’s not a good resource, maybe I don’t need that help or maybe you need more help or vice versa, it doesn’t matter. Equity is let’s make us both succeed sort of thing. Let’s give us the tools so we can all succeed.

SL/RS/JD: How might others be able to help?

RH: The key for social justice is taking ownership. That’s, I mean, that’s it. Be responsible sort of thing. Understand the costs that you are putting on the environment, which, oh yeah, by the way includes people sort of thing. If I’m not living sustainably, if you’re not living sustainably, then you’re creating an environmental justice issue. Somebody’s paying the cost of you, me, us not living sustainably. So it’s pushing for those policies, pushing for those laws, its purchasing different things or not purchasing different things. You know, it’s live local, shop local.

SL/RS/JD: Is there anything else you would like to say about environmental justice?

RH: It’s understanding that we need to make these shifts. It’s understanding that little actions times 7 billion people can have a significant effect. It’ s understanding that if we keep going the same way, we’re in trouble in a lot of different ways both in terms of health, as well as economy, as well as in planet Earth.

Additional Files

Higley_Transcript.docx (26 kB)