Impact of Society on Environment

Categories: NatureResponsibility

Capitalism is an economic system in which companies must increase market shares and profits and decrease costs in order to succeed. In this type of environment, a company will not make a decision that will increase costs unless it is politically or legally necessary. In keeping with such a model, environmentally friendly choices will not be made by companies unless they cut costs or increase profits in some way, and unfortunately, that is almost never the case. Instead, companies will function under the idea of the externality theory, where they will externalize costs onto the public instead of internalizing them and sacrificing financially.

Individual corporations externalize costs in the form of social consequences to the public through mechanisms such as geographic, demographic, and temporal displacement. Displacements on the public often lead to environmental injustices as seen in the environmental crisis’ of Altgeld Gardens Chicago, Uniontown Alabama, Indonesian rainforests, and more, that will be discussed later in this paper. A capitalist economy demands that companies prioritize maximizing profits and minimizing costs over all else in order to survive, this model encourages externalizing costs which often means harming the environment and marginalized populations to come out on top.

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Altgeld Gardens, also known as the “toxic donut”, a predominately black public housing community in Chicago, is an undeniable example of capitalism forcing demographic displacement of externalities and the destruction of the natural world. The toxic donut got its name from the Environmental Protection Agency by being located in the most densely populated area of hazardous waste sites, landfills, and Superfund sites in the United States (Cosier, 2018, par.

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1). Residents of the community are living amongst harmful toxins such as PAHs, pesticides, and heavy metals and many suffer from ailments from asthma to cancer as a result (Cosier, 2018, par. 2). In a report published by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 1999, the disparities in health conditions between the average population and Altgeld Garden’s residents are addressed. The OECD (OECD Seminar, 1999, p. 27) reported:

“Altgeld Gardens is a 10,000-person housing project where the residents have experienced: (1) a high rate of children born with brain tumors; (2) a high rate of fetuses that had to be aborted after tests revealed that the brains were developing outside of the skulls; (3) a higher than normal rate of children and adults with upper respiratory ailments; and (4) higher than normal rates of cancer, puzzling birth defects, asthma, ringworm, and other ailments.”

As a result of the mistreatment of her community Altgeld Gardens resident, Hazel Johnson turned environmental justice activist after her husband inexplicably died of cancer and her children were afflicted with a variety of health conditions (Chicago Public Library, 2014, sec.1 par. 3). Through extensive research and activism, Johnson discovered that companies including Waste Management, Sherwin-Williams, and Ford Motor Co. were responsible for polluting her neighborhood and surrounding areas (Chicago Public Library, 2014, sec.1 par. 6). It is clear that the people of this community were suffering greatly from the actions of corporations taking advantage of their vulnerable situation. Companies like Ford Motor Co. were using selective victimization to dump waste and dangerous pollutants onto people with little political power and influence. In doing this these companies were maximizing financial benefits and political practicality while harming the environment and humans in the process. Environmental justice activist Daniel Faber explains the issue of demographic displacement in his book Capitalizing on Environmental Justice (Faber, 2008, p. 25), he says:

“The less political power a community of people possesses; the fewer resources (time, money, education) that people within have to defend themselves from potential threats; the lower the level of community awareness and mobilization against potential ecological threats; the more likely they are to experience arduous environmental and human health problems at the hands of capital and the state.”

If an affluent, highly educated, white community was named the toxic donut and members of that community were getting sick and dying it would be front page news, lawyers would be hired, the state and the companies responsible would be sued. Companies like Waste Management know this too, they will not take the risk financially or socially by dumping on areas that have people with the resources to fight back.

More recently a similar narrative to the “toxic donut” in Chicago is being played out in Uniontown, Alabama, a largely black rural town that is being dumped on without second thought. The small town borders the giant Arrowhead Landfill, owned by waste management company Green Group Holdings. The landfill is used for dumping a variety of substances and waste including coal ash which is known to contain neuro and endocrine toxins such as mercury and arsenic that can cause serious health issues and death (Milman, 2018, par. 8). Uniontown is 90% black and more than half of the residents live below the poverty line, leaving them with little political traction (Milman, 2018, par. 6). Citizens of Uniontown recognized the severe impacts the landfill is having on their health and other social issues such as air pollution, water contamination, destruction of the local cemetery, and decreased property values. In 2013 residents of Uniontown filed a complaint with the EPA claiming that the landfill was in violation of the Civil Rights Act, following the complaint Uniontown citizens went to the EPA again in 2016 accusing Green Group Holdings and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) of retaliation proceeding their complaint. The EPA response noted that residents of Uniontown claimed that Green Group Holdings “threatened to take legal action against community members’ speaking out about the threats and injuries endured and perceived in the town” and that in a 2013 Alabama Environmental Management Commission (EMC) meeting residents were “denied the opportunity to speak by the EMC’s board members” (EPA, 2018, p. 20, 23).

In 2018 the EPA responded to the complaints saying there was “insufficient evidence” that the site or the treatment of the citizens by Green Group Holdings, ADEM, and EMC were in any violation of their rights (EPA, 2018, p. 5). Even with 26 pages outlining the health and non-health related impacts as well as the retaliation the Uniontown citizens were facing from the Arrowhead Landfill, the EPA concluded that nothing had to be done and no action would be taken. Uniontown and Altgeld Gardens are stark examples of extreme environmental injustice and racism, but even in places like Massachusetts which appears to be a politically liberal state, there are systems of oppression in place that cause lower class and minority communities to bear the burden of capital interests. In a 2005 report depicting environmental injustices in Massachusetts data shows exposure to hazardous waste sites, chemical releases, and cumulative hazards are all positively correlated with the percent of the population that is non-white and negatively correlated with median household income (Faber, 2005, p. 3-10).

In addition to demographic displacement seen in Altgeld Garden and Uniontown, the structure of capitalism causes companies to employ other forms of displacement of externalities to increase profits such as geographic displacement. An example of geographic displacement is the deforestation of Indonesian rainforests for the mass production of palm oil, a cheap vegetable oil found in many foods and consumer products. In the film Before the Flood, which confronts the current climate change crisis, Leonardo Dicaprio travels to these once forests turned massive monocultures and witnesses the detrimental effects they are having on the environment. US corporations outsource to regions like Indonesia where miles and miles of natural rainforest are burned down to produce palm oil.

In creating these farms the deforestation releases massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and destroys the natural environment of endangered species and native peoples. Even though some organizations are working to supply sustainably produced palm oil, the price of the more environmentally and socially conscious oil is almost triple that of the normally produced oil (Raghu, 2019, par. 5). With such disparities in price and little regulation on which palm oil companies must buy, large international corporations like Mondelez and Costco choose the cheaper oil to remain competitive and save money (Goodman, 2015, p. 9-10). These large companies are profiting from the fast and cheap production of this oil and placing externalities on the people and environment of Indonesia, a country that requires the palm oil industry for their own economic stability and therefore cannot enforce environmental regulations because of the risk of economic failure.


The social costs of capitalism are vast and causing significant harm to the global environment and marginalized human populations within it. As a system that is based on constant growth and expansion, capitalism realistically cannot be modified to decrease the social costs enough so that people and nature are not suffering. Both sides of the political aisle have attempted to mend the current environmental crisis within the scope of capitalism, and even though some are doing so with good intentions the issues are not being resolved. In Capitalizing on Environmental Justice, Faber explains that the left, “has corrected some single-issue environmental and human health problems for some people (or sector of the environment) by causing industry to transform the ecological hazard into another form, which is then displaced onto other members of society and/or another realm of nature, typically made up of the working class or poor people of color.” (Faber, 2008, p. 11).

Instead of short term solutions that deviate externalities onto disenfranchised communities, a shift of economic and government structure must occur for the halt and repair of the damage that capitalism has inflicted. New regulations and systems must be proposed that take into account not only the physical harm being inflicted on the environment currently, but the intersectionality between social injustices and the environment now and in the future. The environmental injustices of today created greatly in part by the capitalist state must be met with true democracy, a restructuring of government that allows marginalized communities to have an equal voice in decisions being made about environmental and economic regulations. The United States claims to be a democratic nation, but our government is constantly infiltrated and influenced by capital interest. Giving a voice to the actual citizens of the country, those who feel the negative impacts of the decisions made to benefit capital is the only way that environmental justice and repair can be achieved.

Cite this page

Impact of Society on Environment. (2021, Oct 15). Retrieved from

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