In the big picture, there are many reasons for the difficulties.
The big environmental groups are pursuing their traditional vision of environmentalism. There is still no prominent national spokesperson or group for environmental justice.
Environmental justice also doesn't have effective overarching federal laws like the Endangered Species Act, which can be used to apply pressure anywhere. Consider how difficult it would be to restore wolves if the progress had to be made county commission by county commission.
A tenet of environmental justice is that it should remain decentralized, Rodriguez says, with the locals themselves stepping up to solve problems. But even Rodriguez sees the drawbacks. "Local groups are not good at reaching out to a national level and seeing the big picture" well enough to drive national policy, he says.
When the traditional groups do try to work on environmental justice, they often appear clumsy and territorial, Rodriguez says. "The mistake a lot of big environmental groups made was implementing their own environmental justice programs, instead of partnering with environmental justice groups that were already on the ground. It becomes a competition for resources (meaning funding)." It isn't as simple as hiring a designated team of Chicano or black or Native staffers, in his view. Painter agrees. "There's a big difference between hiring people of color and caring about communities of color," she says.
Foundations and donors face a similar dilemma. They can steer their money to a group to save all the wolves or millions of acres of wilderness, where success is relatively easy to document -- simply count the wolves or acres. Or they can fund a group working on behalf of a single neighborhood, where success often hinges on documenting and acting on chronic health problems. That can be extremely difficult, often impossible. "We have a lack of technical expertise in the communities," says Encinias, while "industry has its technical experts who get paid $300 to $500 an hour" for permit applications and battles over ordinances.
Environmental justice is often compared to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. That's a hopeful view, implying that some kind of overall success will materialize soon, but it's also a stretch. Not only did civil rights have the support of strong federal laws, such as the Voting Rights Act, but the society as a whole was far more supportive of people on the lower rungs. Back then, unions and popular artists such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez got involved. Today, unions are almost gone and popular culture tends to be superficial and self-centered. Poor people have less political power than wolves.
"We have more paid community organizers than in the 1960s, but they're nowhere near as effective as the civil rights movement was," Encinias says. "Environmental justice is not the primary issue in people's lives in these communities. Their primary issues are survival, having enough money to pay the bills, and food, and health insurance. How can you be there trying to make all these technical connections (between pollution and health) when people are just trying to feed themselves? That's been the challenge for us."
The first black president, Barack Obama, indicates that he wants to help. He's filled high positions in his administration with people of color who claim to understand the problems in the nation's many Mountain Views, and he and his appointees have tried to revive dialogues that fell silent under Bush. His pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency -- Lisa Jackson, the first black person in that job -- has vowed to make environmental justice a priority. She has a top adviser on it and has held frequent meetings with leaders of environmental justice groups. She's also called on traditional environmental groups to do more, and told the Associated Press a few weeks ago that she wants to use the agency "to speak to people of color, to speak to the poor … (and) to hear … folks who don't feel heard … to make sure their issues are taken into account."
"With Obama, there is unprecedented access," Rodriguez says. "We get e-mails from (an EPA list-serve), open letters, opportunities to participate on policy-level discussions." Rodriguez remains uncertain what will come of it, though, because of what happened to Obama's highest-profile environmental justice appointee, Van Jones. Jones, a black activist from San Francisco, was slated to be in the White House advising Obama on bringing green jobs into poor communities of color and addressing climate change without higher energy costs in the communities. But when right-wing commentators and some congressional Republicans smeared Jones as a communist, Obama allowed him to withdraw. "His departure from the administration sends a frightening message," Rodriguez says. "With Obama's election, we think we're post-racial. This is a stark reminder that we're not."