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About This Issue

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Environmental Racism and Nuclear Development

(March 28, 1993) A nuclear society cannot exist without racism. It is impossible to even imagine a harmonious and sustainable society with nuclear power and weapons yet free of racism. On the other hand, it is impossible to imagine a harmonious and sustainable society without nuclear power and weapons but still racist.

Last year, the year that "celebrated" the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage, was a year that brought many reminders of this along with its stark reminders of the legacy of 500 years of colonialism, racial injustice and human rights problems. Forums such as the World Uranium Hearing and the Second Global Radiation Victims Conference held in September focused attention on a new kind of colonialism -- nuclear colonialism -- and we began hearing the term "environmental racism" coming up more and more in discussion. This special issue of the News Communique was conceived as our way of helping to keep international attention focused on these issues, as well as a way of contributing to the discussion, and to the search for solutions.

Environmental racism is defined by Arjun Makhijani in the following article as a "particular form that is reflected in the fact that many of the effects of environmental problems hit specific groups in the society the hardest." Those groups are victims of prejudice, whether racial or economic. Examples can be drawn from all over the world, but the nuclear establishment especially provides graphic illustrations: Each phase of nuclear development -- both civilian and military -- has a deadly impact on all forms of life, but those peoples who have been hit the hardest have been the traditional landholders.

Among those hardest hit by the Chernobyl catastrophe, for example, were the Sami reindeer herders and landowners living in northern Scandinavia, Finland and the former USSR. The Sami are a semi-nomadic people who follow the huge herds of reindeer on their natural migration from the uplands in summer to lowland pastures in winter. They have made a compromise between their culture and the outside world by selling their reindeer (from which they derive their staple food, much of their clothing, tools and shelter) to their southern neighbors. In this way they are able to retain their traditional ways, at the same time accepting some of the technological advances offered by 'civilization'. When Chernobyl's fallout dropped onto the feeding grounds of their reindeer herds, this way of life, even the very existence of these people, became threatened.

All too often it is people like the Sami who are the first to pay the costs of humankind's efforts to control the atom. This has been true from the very beginning of nuclear development, and it is true all along the nuclear chain -- a chain that begins in those few areas still occupied by their traditional landholders with uranium mining, and ends on those same lands with weapons testing and waste storage.

By another irony, it happens that the majority of the world's uranium reserves are on traditional lands. In the US, on what land is left to the Navajos, there were at one time a total of 42 uranium mines in operation, in addition to seven uranium mills. Shiprock Mine, formerly operated by the Kerr-McGee corporation, employed Navajo miners at two-thirds the normal pay rate. By 1960 radiation levels in the Shiprock mine were 90 times the permissible level. 'Diseconomies' of uranium closed the mine in 1970, causing the loss of any health insurance the miners might have had. A world glut of uranium supplies then closed most of the other mines. But the damage had already been done. By 1980, of the 150 Navajo miners employed by Kerr-McGee 38 were already dead of cancer and another 95 had cancer and lung diseases. Meanwhile, Kerr-McGee had left behind 70 acres of raw uranium tailings (which retain 85% of their radioactivity) just 60 feet from the community's only significant water supply. People continue to sicken and die. They lose the ability to bear children. Reproductive cancer among Navajo teenagers is 17 times the national average.

This same scenario is elsewhere being played out again and again. On Aboriginal lands in Australia, the Kokotha are fighting exploitation and development of uranium resources on their lands by Australian and French mining companies. In Namibia, while still under illegal occupation by South Africa, uranium was mined and other resources plundered with the help of the British-based multinational Rio Tinto Zinc. Even now, three years after independence from occupation by South Africa, the mining continues. In Canada, because of destruction of their lands from uranium mining by Canadian corporations, Adele Ratt of the Cree Nation in La Ronge declared the entire north of Saskatchewan to be in a state of emergency. In the Pacific, the Tahitians and other Pacific Islanders are still feeling the devastating effects of French nuclear weapons testing, despite the current moratorium. Elsewhere in the Pacific, in the Marshall Islands, already devastated by US nuclear tests, the islanders' homes are being considered by the US as a dump site for nuclear wastes from the US mainland. In the former Soviet Union information is slowly coming to light about the effects of its nuclear weapons testing program on the Kazakh minority living near the Semipalatinsk test site, and on tribal societies such as the Samoyeds, Khanty, Mansi, Evenks and Chukchee, among others, living to the north of the Novaya Zemlya test site in Siberia. In addition, it only recently became known that there had been a secret nuclear weapons testing site in Chukotka during the 1950's and 1960's, further exposing the Chukchee people to fallout. The mortality rate resulting from cancer among the Chukchee is thought to be the highest in the world.

The fact that the much of the information concerning the effects on these peoples has only recently come to light is not surprising. Racism produces disinformation -- precisely about those groups that it marginalizes. How much more do we not know, for instance about the conditions in the uranium mines in Argentina, in the Andes (the last refuge for traditional land holders in that region)? Or in Columbia, where holes drilled by companies exploring for uranium were left open, but only the local people know about it because the companies simply forgot about it when they found they could not exploit the uranium economically? Or in Brazil? In Morocco?

At any rate, all of the above examples clearly illustrate the term "environmental racism" as it is currently defined. But we would like to broaden that definition, thereby broadening the discussion.

Racism, by itself, is a symptom of the deep sickness at the heart of our society. But racism never exists by itself. The sickness of which it is a symptom is rooted in the shattering of what was once a strong connection the people who walked the earth had with the land and all living systems. To understand this rupture -- a rupture which underlies the entwined oppressions of race, sex, class and ecological destruction -- we need to look at two things: first, at the current model of development, then at the history of the last 500 years which led to this model.

The current model of development includes a system that benefits a relatively small part of the world's population who can be found in the industrialized countries and in the local elites of Central and Eastern Europe and the South. For this model to operate, political choices have to be made. In the case of nuclear development, one of the choices has been to ignore the social costs. When social costs are ignored, selected groups of people are made victims. This is marginalization.

More is involved here than even the marginalization of people. Knowledge is also marginalized, set aside, lost. Traditional ways of thinking and practical knowledge disappear forever. With the development of a nuclear (nuclearized?) society, we are becoming poorer in knowledge and solutions. We have lost wisdom, impoverishing ourselves by cutting ourselves off from receiving what Starhawk, author of Dreaming the Dark, calls "the rich gifts of vision that come from those who see from a different vantage point."

This model also compartmentalizes and divides. It restricts our thinking and our actions for change. To illustrate this in relation to environmental racism and nuclear development, it gives us two movements: the anti-racist movement and the environmentalist movement.

With its specialization and compartmentalization, the current model pushes us to be nuclear and racist, or anti-nuclear, or anti-racist. By accepting its divisions, we find ourselves still caught within its confines. In this way we play the game of those enforcing this model, of those in power. We need to be creative and change the rules. We must redefine power and reshape it. We must see that it becomes something shared with others, something empowering, and not something exercised over them or used against them. And we need to link these two movements, now separated under the current model, and move together to create a healthy society, based on justice, equality and sustainability, where people are no longer afraid of differences in others, or afraid to be different. But to do that, we first have to make the connections between all systems of domination. And we must recognize that the dominant culture is willing -- to a frightening extent -- to write off the lives and interests of those groups of people it considers of low value.


On Power

We are looking for a new power, power shared with others, not power exercised to gain control over them. Feminism, ecology and non-violence belong together and are interrelated. But at the same time, we must be watchful that, while we struggle together against the big war, the little war in our everyday life is not forgotten -- the little war being waged against the weak, the handicapped, the elderly, against children and women. All of us must be concerned with both levels: the big and little war waged against us as individuals, against smaller countries, against the planetary environment, every single day. Resistance to war, to the use of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy is impossible without resistance to sexism, to racism, to imperialism, and to violence as an every day pervasive reality. There is a very profound relationship between the fact that many women and children are commonly attacked, beaten up, and raped, and that a nuclear war as well as a nuclear catastrophe threatens this entire planet Earth, which has no emergency exit.

Petra Kelly
(Reprinted from Anumukti, Oct/Nov 1992)


We also need to understand how we got stuck with the current model of society and its divisions in the first place.

When Columbus' ships first arrived in what Europeans so arrogantly called the "New World", it is estimated that between 70 million and 120 million people lived in the Americas. This was a population larger than that found at that time in Europe. The systems of government developed by the people the Europeans encountered were, says historian Howard Zinn in A People's History of the United States, "complex, where human relations were more egalitarian than in Europe, and where the relations among men, women, children, and nature were more beautifully worked out than perhaps any place in the world".

These societies had developed scientific systems of agriculture based on the conditions of their environment. For centuries they had, just as had other traditional landholders across the world, engaged in sustainable land management and land-use in the areas in which they lived. They were able to work in harmony with the environment to maximise benefits without destroying it.

The European invaders carried with them a new ethic and practices which brought about a change in these relations -- between nature and people and between the people themselves. The invaders were quick to clear huge tracts of land, over-plant indigenous crops for export and introduce alien crops better suited to the agricultural techniques and climate of Europe. This caused the destruction of much flora and fauna, a depletion of nutrients in the soil and the eventual degradation of the land. Their mining activities further degraded the land and resulted in entire nations throughout the Americas in being displaced, enslaved or completely destroyed.

For the Europeans back in Europe, the 16th and 17th centuries -- the period which marked the beginning of European colonial expansionism -- was a time when Western Culture was undergoing crucial changes. It was the time of the Renaissance and Reformation, when a flowering of art, science and humanism took place. But it was also a time marked by persecutions. Even as the Renaissance bloomed in the late 15th century, the persecution, torture and burnings of women (and sometimes men) accused of being Witches was increasing, and Christian heretics, individuals and whole communities were wiped being out.
These persecutions ensured that those who would benefit from the changes occurring in society would be the rising monied-professional classes. And they made possible the extensive and irresponsible and even ruthless exploitation of women, working people and nature. They are also an expression of the weakening of traditional restraints and an increase in new pressures that were linked to other changes going on at the time, including the expropriation of land and natural resources and the expropriation of knowledge.

Though the feudal society which this new order superseded was an authoritarian, hierarchical system, it had nevertheless been based on an organic model in which people still retained important ties to the land on which they lived. Feudal society was a complex system of interlocking rights and responsibilities. Under this system the lords possessed the land but did not own it as we understand ownership of private property today. Thus European peasants -- free and serf -- had access to it. The land was expected to provide a livelihood. Profit was not yet its primary purpose. Feudal society was still guided by an economic principle of use, thus land had value because it provided subsistence, not because it was seen as a resource to be exploited for maximum gain. But with the rise of a market economy, along with the declining fertility of the land (for, unlike traditional landholders, the Europeans did not practice sustainable land management), that was changing.
Whole tracts of land that had once seen common use were being expropriated by the lords -- now truly landlords -- and put to producing for the market not what was needed, but what could be sold for profit. The poor -- and now landless -- were forced into wage labor at wages that did not provide even the subsistence income they had previously expected. Their communities became fragmented, and the decisions which had once been left to the villages or their representatives were appropriated by the landlords along with the land.

Those who emigrated were primarily those who had been cut off from the experience of a tie to the land and community -- some only for a generation. They took with them this new ethic of private property and the absolute right of ownership, which they imposed not only on the Americas, but on Africa, India and the Far East as well. What is more, they extended this ethic to the ownership of people. The property ethic supported a ruthless slave trade, justified the taking of lands from native peoples, and reinforced the European notion of the inferiority of women.

This idea of the inferior status of women -- and the subsequent denial of rights and power to them -- was new to the Americas where women were held in enormous respect among native peoples. Communal power was often found in the hands of the women, who were regarded as the keepers of the family and of the nation. The European ideology of female inferiority directly benefited the male-dominated power structures and those in power, including the church hierarchy and the evolving merchant class, and in its turn, reinforced the ideas used to justify the slave trade and expropriation of land.

The ethic of ownership -- an ethic of extract, accumulate, control, consume and discard -- shapes the landscape of our reality today, from how the food we eat is grown to property speculation that is driving people of color and poor working-class white families out of their neighborhoods to how we produce our energy or whether we use money to feed and educate people or use it to develop nuclear weapons. To oppose it effectively, we simply cannot continue operating according to the rules set under the current model which divides and compartmentalizes. We must change our understanding to recognize that destruction is inherent in every form of domination and that all forms of domination are intertwined. It is domination that we need to challenge, and this means changing our present relationships -- to the land, to authority, to each other.

The WISE-Amsterdam Collective
March 1993