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Overlooking Environmental Injustice in America: A Marxist Interpretation of the Distracting Power of Capitalism

Overlooking Environmental Injustice in America: A Marxist Interpretation of the Distracting Power of Capitalism

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Published by Cynthia Bateman
Written for the 2011 SIUE College of Arts and Sciences Colloquium. Presented 03/24/11
Written for the 2011 SIUE College of Arts and Sciences Colloquium. Presented 03/24/11

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Published by: Cynthia Bateman on Mar 28, 2011
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Bateman 1
Cynthia Bateman11 March 2011Overlooking Environmental Injustice: A Marxist Interpretation of the Distracting Power of CapitalismWithin the last week, all of the following major news websites have ran with front pagestories covering the public devolvement of actor Charlie Sheen:
BBC News, CNN, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post,
and even France¶s news site
France 24/7.YahooNews
posts seemingly daily updates on the actor¶s health, employment, and financialstatus. Yesterday I overheard a woman ask her teenage grandson what he thought poor Charlie¶s³problem´ was as she stood in the checkout line at the supermarket, perusing a myriad of tabloids that flashed headlines like ³How Stars Battle Cellulite´ and ³Charlie¶s Public Downfall´but made no mention of rising HIV rates in Mississippi.
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 An epidemic of distraction has seized America. Evidence of such can be witnessed firsthand by a stroll through the main floor of the library at my university on any given afternoon.There, sitting just inches away from flat-screen computer monitors, will no doubt be a roomful of students occupying the library¶s limited number of computers with the dire tasks of updatingtheir Facebook statuses, attempting to top their latest scores at Bejeweled, or watching YouTubevideos. If a student comes along who wants to use the computers for actual academic research,she must wait for a seat to become available, or more accurately, she must wait for one of the
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³US: Mississippi Policies Fuel HIV Epidemic.´ Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch, 9Mar. 2011. Web. 8 Mar. 2011. This article compares the rate of untreated HIV positivepeople in Mississippi (one of the poorest states in America) with those in Botswana,Ethiopia, and Rwanda. The article argues that the state has consistently failed to takeadvantage of federal funds available to it (because of its poor status) that could be used tosupport HIV education, housing, and healthcare.
 
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current users to get aphone call or a text message that requires more immediate attention than theuser¶s task at hand.We have become a people paralyzed by a projection of images, a permeation of electronics, and a pervasion of superficial issues that convey unity (Marcuse 93) and divert our attentions away from more pertinent causes²causes that serve to illuminate contradictions longthought to be resolved and that serve as symptoms of a corrosive system of production. Thisessay will focus on causes that are environmental in nature, specifically ones that representissues of environmental injustice, that is, environmental issues that demonstrate that suchdistinctions of race and class are not just relevant in contemporary America but are essential for the preservation of capitalist production. Because we are so distracted by celebrity causes andpervasive technologies, we cannot see the unjust distribution of environmental burdens withinour own country nor can we address vital issues of environmental degradation at home or abroad.And, even if we are fortunate enough or determined enough to see through the web of distractionthat has been woven by big business, the media, and government officials alike, we still findourselves without a voice that can make any kind of meaningful difference regarding such issues.Yes, the outlook does seem grim. I offer no solutions that say otherwise. The purpose of thisessay is not to posit unrealistic goals of changing the world but to attempt to understand why weare the way we are. To that end, I purport to examine Lenin¶s theory of imperialism andMarcuse¶s theory of the one-dimensional man as two possible hypotheses for the current state of the American citizenry
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. I suggest that either theory offers an adequate explanation of America¶sepidemic of distraction but that the best results are achieved when the two theories areconsidered in tandem.
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For the sake of a concise argument, I am focusing on the American citizenry, however, I suggestthat my evaluation may be extended to the citizenry of any capitalist nation.
 
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Lenin¶s Theory of ImperialismThe spread of global capitalism has been a double-edged sword. Lenin writes,³«imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism´ (153). In capitalist imperialism, developednations like the United States engage in exploitation of poorer countries by ³creating large-scaleindustry and forcing out small industry, replacing large-scale by still larger-scale industry, andcarrying concentration of production and capital to the point where it has grown and is growingmonopoly«´ (Lenin 153). Lenin claims that capitalism becomes capitalist imperialism whenadvanced capitalist industrial nations export financial capital to less developed countries toexploit those countries¶ resources and labor (154-155). As a result, poorer nations bear the bruntof capitalism¶s environmental devastation while workers in advanced industrial societies arerewarded with a slightly higher standard of living. Basically, we¶re bought off, distracted by aplethora of cheap goods and services that we are constantly reassured we need. In exchange for our complacency, less advanced societies must pay our ecological debt.
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 Take, for example, the textile industry in Vietnam. O¶Rourke writes that the DonaBochang Textile factory in Vietnam, a factory that has been operating since 1990, is oneexample of export-oriented industrialization. The company imports cotton and polyester fibersand then spins, weaves, knits, and dyes them into low-value exports like towels. O¶Rourke writesthat the factory answers to no governmental or local non-governmental organizations about itslabor practices or regulation policies (or lack thereof). The dyes used are dumped in the localriver and local groundwater is now too polluted to drink. Toxic emissions are released from the
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Foster defines ecological debt as ³the debt accumulated by Northern industrial countries towardThird World countries on account of resource plundering, environmental damages, and the freeoccupation of environmental space to deposit wastes, such as greenhouse gases, from theindustrial countries´ (Foster, 2009, 243).
 

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