Samantha Zuhlke: Environmental Justice in New Orleans

Samantha Zuhlke is currently an intern with National Geographic
Education Programs. She graduated from Colgate University this past May
with a degree in Geography and a minor in Political Science. She loves to
travel and explore new places, some of her favorites being the
southwestern portion of the United States, Rome, and Edinburgh,

our college graduation this past May, two friends and I road-tripped
across the country. We planned a manifest destiny, starting at our small
liberal arts school in upstate New York and ending in Seattle,
Washington. We traced a giant “U” around the country: we explored civil
rights history in D.C. and Birmingham, camped on sand dunes in Texas,
hunted for aliens in Roswell, hiked the Grand Canyon, wondered at the
prehistoric beauty of Joshua Tree, bought cherries from a roadside stand
in California, and wound along the 101 to our final destination in
One of my favorite stops on the trip was New
Orleans. I was blown away by the unique spirit of the French Quarter,
hardly believing that the architecture, with its sculpted iron balconies
and relaxed mansions, existed within the borders of our own country.
The integration between environment and city was beautiful and
compelling, exemplified in the local cuisine, tourism, and fishing
economies. That the residents’ way of life and the environment were
twined was obvious; one would not exist without the other.

The strength of the tie between culture and environment in New Orleans
was most apparent when you could see where the relationship had severed.
Hurricane Katrina left many scars on both the physical landscape and
collective psyche of New Orleans. Many homes damaged by the storm remain
unfixed and empty. Residents we met told us not to venture off of main
roads because “you never know what you’ll find out there.” Driving to
New Orleans, we hugged the Gulf coastline along 90. On May 24th, 2010,
the date of our arrival, we stopped to put our feet in the warm Gulf
waters. By that time, BP’s Macondo well had already been spewing into
the Gulf for a month and four days, creating a new rift in the
relationship between man and nature and carving a new set of scars into
the Big Easy’s heart.

Mainstream environmentalism has
traditionally considered and treated the environment as separate and
different from society. However, as witnessed by the history of New
Orleans, it’s hard to separate natural occurrences their resulting
societal impacts. Environmental Justice differs from mainstream
environmentalism in many ways, but particularly in its definition of
“environment.” Environmental Justice considers the environment as
the setting where society unfolds. The environment is not “out there”
in National Parks; it’s where people live, work and play everyday. As
such, environmental justice centers its issues on the lives of people, championing the belief that everyone has the basic right to a healthy environment.

an economical sense, environmental justice movements happen when the
benefits of a situation do not meet the costs of it. Specifically, the
people who bear the brunt of an environmental cost are not those that
reap the benefits. Many times these situations apply to situations where
horrible environmental conditions such as toxic waste plants have been
forced upon people with a limited political voice, meaning they have no
way to fight against their condition. For example, in 1987, a study done
by United Church of Christ
showed that race was the biggest indicator in the location of toxic
waste facilities. Since its inception, environmental justice has tended
to be associated with grassroots racial minority groups; however, that
is not always the case. Environmental justice can be applied to any
group that is marginalized in a particular situation. In one of the
first and most famous cases of environmental injustice, a group of poor
white citizens at Love Canal
fought against Hooker Chemicals to have the company remove 21,000 tons
of toxic waste that they had buried in a failed canal, and then sold to
the local school district as a suitable site for building. These
chemicals had negative health effects on the residents.

Considering New Orleans in an environmental justice light is not uncommon.  In the literal wake of Katrina, environmental justice
was a vogue analytical tool used to describe the injustices suffered by
many poor, elderly, and African American residents. Applying
environmental justice to the Deepwater Horizon disaster is not hard to
do considering the conditions that brought about the spill. BP decided
to cut corners on a drilling project that had gone on for too long and
had become too expensive, resulting in one of the worst ecological
disasters of our time. Would BP executives have acted differently if the
potential well had been located in their own backyard, off their own
nation’s coast? To be fair, 107,000 jobs in Gulf states are provided by
the oil industry, meaning that the people of the Gulf did reap some
benefits of BP’s presence. In comparison though, 524,000 jobs in the
Gulf are provided by tourism, and one third of the total U.S. shrimp and
oyster catch is harvested by Louisiana fishermen. It’s fair to say that
the people most impacted by the spill are the ones who had the least
say in the decision-making process.

Even with thirty years
experience since Love Canal, government and private response is still
inefficient in the face of environmental disasters. The US government
has been criticized for its underwhelming response to the spill. BP’s
emergency plan for the Gulf was created by cutting and pasting plans
from the Arctic, a completely different ecosystem. This is unacceptable.
It’s long past the time to start considering the environment as
something more than an “otherness”; the environment is not something
separate from us, but something that we are a part of.


Bourne Jr., J.K.  2010. “The Deep Dilemma.” National Geographic Magazine, 218 (4): 40-61.

Barcott, B. 2010. “Forlorn in the Bayou.” National Geographic Magazine, 218 (4): 62-75.

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