How Action Circles Can Address Toxic Pollution

Anthony Biglan
3 min readMar 18, 2021

The idea of an action circle is that it can produce a single useful product at the same time that it lays the foundation for subsequent action circles to build on that foundation.

Consider the problem of pollution in disadvantaged neighborhoods and communities. In her excellent book, The Sum of Us,1 Heather McGhee documents the fact that poorer people, Black, Indigenous, and people of color are more likely to live in areas that have high levels of pollution. It is one of the reasons for poorer health among people in these communities.

When Matt Walton joined Values to Action, he indicated that his wife, Mira, wanted to do something to address the fact that the part of Eugene, Oregon they lived in has higher rates of pollution than other parts of the city. Although Values to Action currently does not have Action Circles working on this problem, I could immediately see how it could be approached.

The first thing we need to do in addressing a problem we haven’t worked on is to create an Action Circle that lays the groundwork for further efforts. Here are the steps I can think of that the first Action Circle would need to address:

Summarize the evidence on the degree to which there are disparities in exposure to pollution.

  1. For example, a google search on “Research on disparities in exposure to pollution” yielded 78,000 results. The first page of results will likely give you an accurate analysis of the degree to which this is a problem. (Just reading the titles indicates that is it is.) The summary would indicate not only the extent to which there are disparities but the specific kinds of pollution and the diseases that they cause.
  2. An analysis of the policies that have enabled companies to pollute without consequences. These will include federal policies down to the level of individual communities. They include the many policies that McGhee describes that segregated poor people into neighborhoods that were polluted. This analysis would enumerate policies that seem most likely to begin to correct the problem; although it should point to how further research could refine these policies.
  3. Search for examples of efforts to combat the problem. It is unlikely that there are experimental evaluations of strategies for reducing pollution in disadvantaged areas, but if there are, these would be particularly valuable. In any case, there are examples of successes, such as the efforts in Richmond, California to reduce the pollution produced by a Chevron installation there.
  4. A database of organizations working on this problem would be a resource for subsequent action circles to partner with or get help from these organizations. This would not only help action circles but would also lay the groundwork for Values to Action to collaborate with these organizations to the mutual benefit of V2A and these organizations.
  5. Provide a summary, of what a local action circle could do to address the problem, with links to organizations and communities that appear to be making progress.
  6. If it chose, this action circle could then turn to the effort of bringing about change in a particular community. But even if it did not, it would be laying the groundwork for action circles around the country.

You may think you don’t have the competence to carry this off. However, Values to Action can provide the support that is needed. And in working on this we will preach that “We do not need to make the perfect the enemy of the good.” You do not need to be a Ph.D. to make a difference. Indeed, if we do not mobilize thousands of people to devote some of their time to reforming society, we will continue to live in an unequal society.

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1. McGhee, H., The Sum of Us. One World: New York, 2021.



Anthony Biglan

Anthony Biglan, PhD, is the author of Rebooting Capitalism: How we can forge a society that works for everyone.