Home News A Totalitarianism of Our Time: What Arendt Tells Us About Environmental Injustice

A Totalitarianism of Our Time: What Arendt Tells Us About Environmental Injustice


Is environmental injustice so widespread, and are its impacts so damaging, that it may be understood as a totalitarianism of our time? When a toddler in Flint, Michigan turns into poisoned by lead and suffers lifelong neurological injury due to a governmental choice to change the town’s water supply, how would coverage responses be improved if lawmakers acknowledged that this devastation means the ‘proper to have rights’ (Arendt [1951] 1968, 296–297) has been misplaced? When a resident of Detroit, Michigan is left stranded like a ‘refugee in the city’ (to cite Detroit activist Monica Lewis-Patrick) due to authorities water shut-offs, how extreme and disenfranchising do the results should be for lawmakers to acknowledge environmental racism causes ‘“de facto” stateless[ness]’ (Arendt [1951] 1968, 279)? In Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley,’ well being destruction is a widespread actuality as a result of companies weaponize minority communities’ perceived invisibility by inserting poisonous industrial websites dangerously near their houses. May legislation—native, nationwide, and worldwide—be deployed to problem environmental injustice if we accepted that communities are successfully ‘banish[ed]’ (Arendt [1951] 1968, 444) from society when incapacitating well being impacts negate group members’ talents to take part in public life?

The questions posed above illuminate how Hannah Arendt’s work, significantly 1951’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, provides a novel method to understanding environmental injustice and the climate crisis. Arendt’s work, lengthy distinguished within the human rights and political idea canons, turned the topic of extra, intense public curiosity following former US President Donald Trump’s 2016 win and ensuing authoritarian approaches to governance. (Gross sales of Origins surged, climbing to sixteen occasions larger than common.) Though Arendt’s work stays central in discourse about rights, there has not been enough consideration paid to what sheoffers for an authentic understanding of environmental injustice. Arendt’s work helps us to grapple with deficiencies concerning native and worldwide insurance policies on environmental injustice and environmental racism. Environmental injustice is, I argue, a totalitarianism of our time. Native environmental injustice and the worldwide local weather disaster could have totalitarian impacts on the identical communities—and have to be addressed as linked phenomena—in an effort to develop simply, decolonial, and equitable environmental and local weather insurance policies. Arendt helps us to grasp environmental injustice and the local weather disaster—and what actions to take.

The ‘Proper to Have Rights’ at Native and International Scales

In Origins, Arendt discusses her idea of the ‘proper to have rights,’ explaining that there’s just one human proper that issues: the best to belong to a political group by which we achieve entry to all different supposedly common rights promised in worldwide declarations. In essence: citizenship. Arendt explains how ‘lack of dwelling and political standing turn out to be an identical with expulsion from humanity altogether’ ([1951] 1968, 296–297).

Governments and companies apply environmental racism by withholding sources from and forcing poisonous publicity on minority communities, stripping communities of the ‘proper to have rights’ and exploiting circumstances the place the ‘proper to have rights’ is already absent.In Origins, Arendt writes concerning the horrific remedy of displaced survivors of World Conflict II as a failed check case for the worldwide human rights system. Writing within the mid-twentieth century, she was not, in fact, commenting on the plights of local weather refugees fleeing sea-level rise, residents of cities experiencing unprecedented rainfall and flooding, or folks in California, Turkey, and Australia fleeing among the worst wildfire seasons in historical past. Nor was she commenting on the water injustice that has plagued Flint and Detroit, or the big variety of folks worldwide whose compelled publicity to toxins is so extreme that it have to be understood as  what I name toxic saturation.’ These conditions reveal, nonetheless, the relevance of the ‘proper to have rights’ to environmental injustice.

In circumstances the place environmental injustice means ‘powerlessness’ (and, I argue, resistance to powerlessness) ‘has turn out to be the key expertise of [people’s] lives’ (Arendt [1951] 1968, vii), it’s fully attainable to be in possession of one of many world’s most ‘powerful’ citizenships, in a developed nation akin to america, whereas nonetheless being diminished to rightlessness and de factostatelessness.(As a result of area confines, this text focuses on the US context. In different writing I discover how Arendt’s work helps us to grasp environmental racism worldwide, together with underneath occupation in Palestine and in post-apartheid South Africa.)

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities in america. Air air pollution is linked to larger COVID demise charges. Systemic environmental racism implies that the populations which have confronted the best COVID demise tolls are those already dwelling in fenceline communities close to pollution-emitting websites, inhaling poisonous air, being disadvantaged of water, and dealing with inequitably inadequate healthcare entry. These dwelling situations make these communities among the most susceptible to the pandemic and the local weather disaster. Most just lately, as of August 2021, ‘Most cancers Alley’ was devastated by Hurricane Ida. Residents of communities akin to St. James parish, already battling toxic industry expansion, are actually threatened by crude oil spills and chemical leaks within the wake of the storm.

Rebecca Solnit argues, concerning gender-based violence, that the failure to deal with systemic violence as ‘a disaster, or perhaps a sample’ (2014, 21) fuels that violence—an argument that additionally applies to environmental injustice. The lack of the ‘proper to have rights’ anyplace challenges the validity of the worldwide human rights undertaking in every single place. Ignoring a disaster—a evident sample—is pouring gasoline onto that disaster’s flames. Environmental injustice has a world sample, as stories of poisoned water pop up in quite a few locations worldwide past Flint, and as toxins akin to lead, different heavy metals, and chemical compounds sicken and kill folks from Philadelphia to Iraq to Nigeria. And but, media stories usually deal with these incidents as remoted—hardly ever as systemic environmental racism fueled by industries accountable for injustice that’s each short-term and long-term, and each native and international.

An Arendtian method reveals that environmental injustice is a up to date ‘totalitarian’ pressure—a pressure that strips folks of their ‘proper to have rights’ and results in de factostatelessness whereby folks keep their citizenship, however are with out rights in apply. Just like the totalitarianism of Arendt’s time, environmental injustice can solely be combatted as soon as native episodes are acknowledged not as remoted situations, however as interconnected, strategic circumstances of subjugation which might be linked with the local weather disaster and different struggles for justice. As Margaret R. Somers argues, writing about victims of Hurricane Katrina, ‘stateless residents’ are ‘socially and morally excluded—invisible, dispensable, and forgotten. Human beings handled on this manner turn out to be surplus, unfit of social or ethical recognition by others’ (2008, 114). Environmental injustice is distinct from the totalitarianism of Arendt’s time, however she provides important insights for understanding how environmental injustice features within the modern period. Environmental injustice alters current understandings of totalitarianism and citizenship.

Environmental Racism in america

In some circumstances, the hyperlink between native environmental racism and local weather injustice is obvious. ‘Cancer Alley,’ comprised of predominantly Black, low-income communities, suffers excessive most cancers charges on account of a lot of poisonous industrial websites. Diamond, Louisiana, one affected group located between a Shell/Motiva oil refinery and Shell chemical plant and the previous ‘epicenter’ of a slave rise up (Lerner 2005, 13), was merely, Steve Lerner writes, ‘not a spot the place most individuals would select to reside’—a spot the place folks have suffered sicknesses together with most cancers, bronchial asthma, and pores and skin issues from toxins and, within the Nineteen Seventies and Eighties, ‘mourned neighbors and mates killed by explosions at these amenities’ (2005, 9). The identical trade fueling the local weather disaster makes use of communities’ perceived invisibility due to racism and financial discrimination to pollute with a low danger of attracting exterior concern, making residents’ ‘proper to have rights’ meaningless. Diamond residents demanded Shell purchase their houses at honest costs to fund relocation. Finally, in 2002, Diamond’s residents won—a ‘bittersweet victory’ as a result of by transferring to security, they misplaced their bodily group and left Diamond ‘one other fenceline ghost city’ (Lerner 2005, 284). There are quite a few communities within the US South affected by surprising environmental racism. In Reserve, Louisiana, for instance, the chance of most cancers is fifty times the nationwide common.

In different circumstances, the hyperlink between native environmental racism and local weather injustice could also be much less instantly obvious however is simply as crucial. In 2014, the Metropolis of Detroit disconnected 33,000 households from water for incapacity to pay (and has disconnected tens of thousands more since 2014). The shut-offs had been in the end acknowledged by three UN special rapporteurs as a human rights violation, inserting political strain on the town to cut back shut-offs with out authorized authority to implement an finish to shut-offs (Krakow 2020). (For a quick dialogue of Detroit and the ‘proper to have rights,’ albeit not within the context of environmental justice, see 2018’s The Proper to Have Rights (DeGooyer, Hunt, Maxwell, Moyn).) Catarina de Albuquerque, who on the time was the Special Rapporteur on the human right to water and sanitation, visited Detroit, noting, ‘I heard testimonies from poor, African American residents … who had been compelled to make unimaginable selections—to pay the water invoice or to pay their hire.’

Years of environmental racism in Detroit, a majority-Black metropolis, set the stage for residents to be with out enough water and at better danger throughout the pandemic. Environmental racism has additionally made residents extra vulnerable to the climate crisis due to inequities concerning water entry, healthcare, and infrastructure.

On the shut-offs, Monica Lewis-Patrick, President and CEO of We the Individuals of Detroit, commented, ‘For many individuals, it’s … such as you’re a refugee within the metropolis due to the approaching menace.’ As ‘refugee[s] within the metropolis’ of a developed, rich nation with democratic governance, the experiences of Detroit residents reveal this text’s idea that native environmental injustice is highly effective sufficient—totalitarian sufficient—to render residents de facto stateless whereas they’re nonetheless de jure residents.

Flint, Michigan, a metropolis of 100,000 folks, was collateral injury in 2014 when governor-appointed ‘emergency managers’ usurped elected officers, main the town to change to a inexpensive water supply amid a monetary disaster, exposing residents to poisonous lead and inflicting an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that killed twelve and sickened not less than ninety. (The unrecognized variety of sick is believed to be much higher.) The Environmental Safety Company (EPA) and state and metropolis officers knew and withheld information. Arendt’s conception of totalitarianism as a pressure that dispossesses folks of the ‘proper to have rights’ reveals how, on native and worldwide scales, totalitarian methods deem folks dispensable, prioritizing financial achieve for the elite. This cycle of prioritizing monetary pursuits over civilian security—significantly the security of minority communities—follows the identical template as governmental justifications for delaying significant motion on local weather change. This sample of ‘sacrifice’ aligns with racism laid naked by the COVID-19 pandemic and calls to danger lives for the sake of the economic system throughout the pandemic, an method advocated for by Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.

An Arendtian method crystallizes why we should cease de-linking native disasters from international local weather injustice. Each native environmental injustice and international local weather injustice, at totally different scales and speeds, result in a standard consequence: depriving folks—no matter their de jure citizenship standing—of the ‘proper to have rights.’ In an period of environmental injustice, one needn’t be actually disadvantaged of ‘dwelling and political standing’ to be ‘[expelled] from humanity’ (Arendt [1951] 1968, 297). An individual can retain citizenship, however be so profoundly affected by environmental injustice that they’re rendered, in most ways in which matter, de factostateless.

‘Banished’ by Environmental Injustice

On exclusion as a step en path to tyranny, Arendt writes, ‘Banishment banishes solely from one a part of the world to a different a part of the world, additionally inhabited by human beings; it doesn’t exclude from the human world altogether’ ([1951] 1968, 444). Environmental injustice has devastating impacts on well being to the extent that individuals are successfully ‘banished’ from the system of legal guidelines and protections that purport to make sure that susceptible populations not solely have fundamental rights, however reside with dignity. This state of ‘banishment’ applies not solely to folks Arendt acknowledges as missing the ‘proper to have rights,’ together with refugees, however usually manifests in its most insidious kind in circumstances the place rights are enshrined legally via citizenship, however are denied in apply—even when individuals are not bodily forcibly relocated. Individuals affected by environmental injustice might be made simply as rightless as displaced folks or victims of a totalitarian society. That is evident in Iraq, the place years of compelled toxic saturation brought on by the US navy have left civilians trapped and with out the ‘proper to have rights.’ 

Giorgio Agamben describes the refugee because the ‘distinctive determine’ who permits us to ‘understand the kinds and limits of a political group to return’ (1995, 114). Environmental injustice reveals the citizen as a determine who stretches the bounds of de facto statelessness to incorporate communities like these in Flint, Detroit, and ‘Most cancers Alley.’ This determine—the citizen subjected to environmental injustice—permits us to ‘understand the kinds and limits of a political group’ already in existence, however severely deformed concerning fundamental rights protections. Just like the stateless particular person Arendt or Agamben describe, environmental injustice leaves the citizen unable to show to both the state or humanity to assert the ‘proper to have rights.’

‘Authorized id doesn’t assure an excellent life, however its absence is a critical obstacle to it,’ writes Jacqueline Bhabha (2011, 1). These formally missing ‘authorized id’—stateless individuals—are disadvantaged of fundamental rights, akin to entry to secure air and water. Individuals with authorized citizenship who exist on the furthest margins of society—or are abruptly pushed past the margins, as in Flint and Detroit—are made de facto stateless by environmental injustice, though they keep citizenship and are technically members of a robust, sovereign state.

Robert D. Bullard, main environmental justice scholar and advocate, defines environmental justice because the precept that ‘all folks and communities are entitled to equal safety of environmental and public well being legal guidelines and laws’ (1996, 493). This text demonstrates that environmental injustice is so extreme as to require that de factostatelessness be acknowledged as a too commonplace or inevitable consequence of environmental injustice. De facto statelessness precipitated or worsened by environmental injustice is ‘not the exception however the rule,’ to quote Walter Benjamin ([1968] 2007, 257).

Members and Strangers

On twentieth-century genocide, Arendt writes, ‘When no witnesses are left, there might be no testimony’ ([1951] 1968, 451). Systemic racism has made it attainable for governments and companies to enact environmental injustice whereas relying on communities’ subjugated positions as assurance that there can be no ‘witnesses’ to offer ‘testimony.’ Group group and activism rejects these unequivocally false, racist assumptions. Group actions towards environmental injustice within the US and worldwide have confirmed these racist techniques in the end ineffective in numerous circumstances together with in Flint, Detroit, Diamond, St. James, and within the circumstances of Indigenous resistance to the Keystone XL and Dakota Entry pipelines.

Even when group members bear ‘witness’ and communicate out to offer ‘testimony’ about environmental injustice, governments and the personal sector usually flip this visibility towards them, positioning them as ‘witnesses’ who should not sufficiently credible to offer legitimate ‘testimony’ of their experiences. In Flint, residents started talking out months before metropolis officers acknowledged the disaster, however their complaints had been ignored. Now Michigan’s former governor Rick Snyder lastly faces prosecution, years after contaminated water first started flowing into Flint houses. 

Seyla Benhabib notes, ‘Democracies needs to be judged not solely by how they deal with their members however by how they deal with their strangers’ (1998, 109). Environmental injustice necessitates a reconsideration of how we outline the bounds between ‘member’ and ‘stranger.’ Environmental injustice requires that we consider worldwide methods and states by how they defend, or fail to guard, ‘strangers.’ Estranged residents of states unable or unwilling to defend residents’ rightsmust be acknowledged as a part of this ‘strangers’ class. As Arendt writes,

The conception of human rights … broke down on the very second when those that professed to imagine in it had been for the primary time confronted with individuals who … misplaced all different qualities and particular relationships—besides that they had been nonetheless human. The world discovered nothing sacred within the summary nakedness of being human ([1951] 1968, 299).

Arendt makes clear that totalitarian forces ‘banish’ folks from the realm of rights protections. Because the examples mentioned present, environmental injustice possesses this similar harmful energy. Irrespective of how systematic, nonetheless, environmental injustice doesn’t essentially emanate from a single authoritarian or totalitarian motion or determine.

In On Violence,Arendt writes, ‘Forms is the type of authorities by which everyone is disadvantaged of political freedom, of the ability to behave; for the rule by No one isn’t no-rule, and the place all are equally powerless we now have a tyranny with no tyrant’ (1970, 81). The concept of ‘tyranny with no tyrant,’ when utilized to environmental injustice, reveals a system of injustice and racism so ingrained that it doesn’t require a single catalyst. The wrongdoer is likely to be the federal government on the metropolis and state ranges (Flint and Detroit) or the federal degree (Keystone XL and Dakota Entry Pipelines), or an organization (Shell in Diamond), or a mixture of all these forces. The commonality is that when the ‘proper to have rights’ is violated domestically, the repercussions are inevitably international. It is because 1) a lack of rights domestically undermines the validity of worldwide human rights protections; and a couple of) a lack of rights domestically on account of environmental injustice makes that very same local people profoundly susceptible to the worldwide local weather disaster, and different international challenges—most just lately the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s important to notice the wealthy physique of literature complicating and critiquing Arendt’s work. Kathryn T. Gines (2014) supplies a key evaluation of racism in Arendt’s work, and Ayça Çubukçu (2020) addresses Arendt’s method to race and civil disobedience. Çubukçu importantly notes Arendt was not ‘immune from the racism of her time’ (2020, 48) and was ‘profoundly restricted’ by the notion that america ‘is an distinctive land of freedom and democracy’ (2020, 33). A dialogue of those critiques in their very own proper is critical, however past the scope of this text. Right here, nonetheless, it’s value noting not solely how Arendt’s work adjustments how we perceive environmental injustice, however how the evaluation of environmental injustice reveals insights—in addition to gaps and flaws—in Arendt’s writing. Acknowledging this allows Arendt’s theories to be utilized in new methods, at occasions transcending the bounds of the time by which she was writing.

Injustice That’s ‘International in its Political Aspiration’: Can Worldwide Regulation Ameliorate Environmental Injustice?

Can environmental injustice be considered, like totalitarianism, as a pressure that’s ‘international in its political aspiration’ (Arendt [1951] 1968, 389) due to the extent to which the modern capitalist context promotes the exploitation of pure sources on the expense of some people? And, if the lack of the ‘proper to have rights’ in numerous native contexts demonstrates the ineffectiveness of worldwide legislation, what’s worldwide legislation’s future function within the battle towards environmental injustice? Though worldwide agreements are a elementary element for dealing with the local weather disaster, examples mentioned right here reveal why accountability on a neighborhood scale, and insurance policies pushed by native communities, are important for real environmental justice and safety of the ‘proper to have rights.’ On this level, there’s a poem by the nineteenth-century author Stephen Crane (1899) that gives a becoming sentiment:

A person mentioned to the universe:
‘Sir, I exist!’
‘Nevertheless,’ replied the universe,
‘The actual fact has not created in me
A way of obligation.’

Crane’s provocation might be curiously utilized to serious about worldwide legislation. Environmental injustice may recommend that worldwide legislation is an detached universe refusing to really acknowledge the existence of its struggling human topics.Alternatively, is worldwide legislation the lone determine that Crane describes, begging to be acknowledged, in a ‘universe’ of politics and worldwide relations that doesn’t really feel obliged to answer worldwide legislation’s calls for for cover of people and the setting?

B.S. Chimni argues, ‘worldwide legislation is the principal language by which domination is coming to be expressed within the period of globalization’ (2003, 47). Antony Anghie poses the questions, ‘What does it imply to say that “worldwide legislation governs sovereign states” when sure societies had been denied sovereign standing?’ and ‘What persevering with results observe from this exclusion?’ ([2004] 2007, 7). Anghie additionally writes, ‘sovereignty was improvised out of the colonial encounter’ ([2004] 2007, 6). As I have written regarding denial of the human right to water, modern manifestations of environmental injustice are, in lots of circumstances, examples of the ‘persevering with results’ of excluding sure teams from sovereign standing—excluding them from citizenship, and by extension, from worldwide legislation. Environmental injustice’s dominance in marginalized communities is related to historic patterns. A group needn’t be legally denied sovereign standing, at current, in an effort to endure from the harms Anghie describes. ‘Legacies of colonialism, slavery, and apartheid persist, even when communities previously topic to illegality have since been granted authorized standing’ (Krakow 2020).

Arendt writes that propaganda is central to totalitarianism however ‘at all times makes its attraction to an exterior sphere—be it the nontotalitarian strata of the inhabitants at dwelling or the nontotalitarian nations overseas’ ([1951] 1968, 342). Can strategic efforts to disregard or masks environmental injustice domestically, akin to the federal government and EPA concealing harmful lead ranges regardless of residents’ documentation in Flint, be understood as propaganda in an Arendtian sense? The fossil gas trade’s propagandistic efforts to deny and under-report its impacts on local weather helped stall motion on local weather change. These types of propaganda contribute to environmental injustice as a totalitarianism of our time.  Can worldwide legislation itself be seen as ‘propaganda’? When there’s a proliferation of non-enforceable treaties, do these developments propagandistically produce an look of worldwide authorized motion to masks a actuality of inaction?

Arendt was not solely within the course of by which totalitarians come to energy, but in addition within the aftermath of totalitarian devastation. The largest local weather threats loom forward as environmental disasters together with unprecedented flooding, wildfires, and droughts are quickly turning into extra extreme and frequent. What can studying Arendt inform us about not solely how all-encompassing environmental and local weather injustice have emerged and dominate our lives, however about how we will fight these injustices and picture dwelling via local weather emergency?

Arendt’s conceptions of the ‘proper to have rights’ and totalitarianism present us that in an effort to reside via the local weather disaster whereas centering environmental justice, we should acknowledge that environmental injustice skilled domestically isn’t divorced from international local weather injustice. Worldwide legislation, and worldwide human rights, solely have which means when justice is achieved domestically. Group experiences and voices have to be centered to drive insurance policies on environmental injustice. That is the way in which ahead for addressing rightlessness and de facto statelessness brought on by environmental injustice, and the way in which ahead for combatting environmental injustice as a totalitarianism of our time.


Agamben, Giorgio. 1995. “We Refugees.” Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Fashionable Literatures 49,no. 2: 114–119.

Anghie, Antony. (2004) 2007. Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of Worldwide Regulation. Cambridge: Cambridge College Press.

Arendt, Hannah. (1951) 1968. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Arendt, Hannah. 1970. On Violence. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Benhabib, Seyla. 1998. “On European Citizenship: Replies to David Miller.” Dissent 45, no. 4: 107–109.

Benjamin, Walter. (1968) 2007. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Edited by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books.

Bhabha, Jacqueline, ed. 2011. Youngsters With out a State: A International Human Rights Problem. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Bullard, Robert D. 1996. “Environmental Justice: It’s Extra Than Waste Facility Siting.” Social Science Quarterly 77, no. 3: 493–99. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42863495.

Chimni, B.S., 2003. “Third World Approaches to Worldwide Regulation: A Manifesto.” In The Third World and Worldwide Order: Regulation, Politics and Globalization edited by Antony Anghie, Bhupinder Chimni, Karin Mickelson, and Obiora Okafor, 47–73. Leiden/Boston: Martinus Nijhoff.

Crane, Stephen. (1899) 2016. “A Man Stated to the Universe.” In Conflict Is Type and Different Poems, 36. Mineola: Dover Publications. First revealed by Frederick A. Stokes Firm (New York). Additionally obtainable by way of Poetry Basis: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44049/a-man-said-to-the-universe.

Çubukçu, Ayça. 2020. “Of Rebels and Disobedients: Reflections on Arendt, Race, Lawbreaking.” Regulation and Critique 32, no. 1: 33–50.

DeGooyer, Stephanie, Alastair Hunt, Lida Maxwell, and Samuel Moyn. 2018. The Proper to Have Rights. London: Verso Books.

Gines, Kathryn T. (Now Kathryn Sophia Belle). 2014. Hannah Arendt and the Negro Query. Bloomington: Indiana College Press. 

Krakow, Carly A. 2020. “The Worldwide Regulation and Politics of Water Entry: Experiences of Displacement, Statelessness, and Armed Battle.” Water 12, no. 2: 340. https://doi.org/10.3390/w12020340.

Lerner, Steve. 2005. Diamond: A Battle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana’s Chemical Hall. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Solnit, Rebecca. 2014. Males Clarify Issues to Me. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Somers, Margaret R. 2008. Genealogies of Citizenship: Markets, Statelessness, and the Proper to Have Rights. Cambridge: Cambridge College Press.

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