Risk Avoidance, Cultural Discrimination, and Environmental Justice for Indigenous Peoples

58 Pages Posted: 12 May 2013

Date Written: 2003


This article begins with the recognition that environmental justice for Native peoples requires attention to the interrelated cultural, spiritual, social, ecological, economic, and political dimensions of environmental issues. It observes, moreover, that “environmental justice requires an appreciation of each tribe’s particular historical circumstances and contemporary understandings, including each group’s aspirations for the flourishing of its culture.” It contends that some environmental decision makers and commentators have increasingly come to embrace “risk avoidance” – strategies that call upon risk-bearers to alter their practices in order to avoid the risk of environmental harms – in lieu of risk reduction – strategies that require risk-producers to cleanup or eliminate contamination that gives rise to risks. After noting the perils of a shift to risk avoidance from the perspective of the general population, the article focuses on the environmental justice implications of such a shift. It explores the resulting injustice in terms of distributive inequity and cultural discrimination. It argues, first, that the burden of having to undertake avoidance measures, such as reducing one’s fish consumption to avoid mercury contamination or staying indoors to avoid ozone pollution, is likely to fall disproportionately on American Indian tribal members and other indigenous peoples, as well as on other communities of color and low-income communities. It argues, second, that risk avoidance is only likely to be the strategy of choice when the practice or lifeway to be altered is not valued or thought indispensable by members of the dominant society. Yet the values and cultural understandings of the dominant society will often be different, sometimes profoundly so, from those of indigenous peoples. Environmental policy that is inattentive to this observation, the article contends, will continue to perpetuate cultural discrimination.

Keywords: risk, risk assessment, risk policy, risk avoidance, cultural discrimination, cultural flourishing, self-determination, environemental contamination, fish consumption, environmental standards, water quality, air quality, toxic, pesticides, herbicides, risk regulation, American Indian tribes

Suggested Citation

O'Neill, Catherine, Risk Avoidance, Cultural Discrimination, and Environmental Justice for Indigenous Peoples (2003). Ecology Law Quarterly, Vol. 30, 2003. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2263470

Catherine O'Neill (Contact Author)

Seattle University School of Law ( email )

901 12th Avenue
Seattle, WA n/a 98122
United States
206-398-4030 (Phone)
206-398-4036 (Fax)

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