The environmental movement hasn’t always been known for its diversity. But promoting care for the earth in a consciously inclusive manner isn’t just important—for many people, it’s a matter of life and death.
In May 2014, The Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform published a report called Who’s in Danger? A Demographic Analysis of Chemical Disaster Vulnerability Zones. This report is about the areas immediately surrounding American facilities that use and store large amounts of toxic or flammable chemicals. These so-called “vulnerability zones” contain housing developments and established communities, in immediate proximity to plants that conduct wastewater treatment, bleach and chemical manufacturing, electric power generation, petroleum refinery, and pulp and paper production.
The closer you are to the “fenceline” of these factories, the more in danger you are to the terrible effects of chemical pollution.
But this isn’t mere coincidence: If you live in one of these vulnerability zones, you are more 75% more likely to be black, and 60% more likely to be Latinx. Also, your household income is 22% below the national income. You are more likely to be poor, and less likely to have a high school diploma.
If you don’t have the societal ability to fight for legislation to keep chemical plants out of your neighborhood (or to move somewhere else), you are more likely to get sick. And that’s just what’s happened.
With less access to services that can help fight back against climate change (and fewer resources to spend on these problems), it’s clear that climate change is more than an issue of the environment itself. This is a systemic issue of race, access, poverty, and education—and without action, the problem will get worse.
In 2014, America came face-to-face with the realities of racial violence and police brutality. Communities all over the country cried out for justice for Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Antonio Martin, and the black lives they represent. Since as a black person, one is more likely to live in any of these vulnerability zones, environmental issues such as the quality of your water, food, and air, are in fact, also racial issues.
Everything is connected.
When NYPD Commissioner Bernie Kerik referenced that Eric Garner had asthma in defense of officer Daniel Pantaleo killing him with a chokehold, people leapt to the conclusion that it wasn’t Pantaleo’s fault. Asthma is not what killed Eric Garner—but as Grist justice editor Brentin Mock was quick to point out, racial injustice takes many forms, including the form of poor health.
In his post on environmental justice in the Garner case, Mock shares this comment from Eddie Bautista, director of the New York Environmental Justice Alliance:
“Limiting the conversation about racism to just about how [black people are] policed is a lost opportunity. Folks should care not only about how racism kills quickly (via the police), but how racism also kills slowly and insidiously. ”
There are several ways in which Environmental Justice can take root in 2015.
Environmental groups and agencies need to focus on increasing diversity. Coalitions must form between environmental groups and social justice groups—both can collaborate to create events, messages, and movements that have similar and interrelated objectives.
We ourselves must work to improve access to socially responsible services, products, and activities. Many of us take access to information and resources for granted—but we cannot support the environment without supporting all people in accessing ways to improve the environment.
We must create and support legislation that strengthens the EPA, workers’ rights, and civil rights. We must also call for legislation that requires that companies that use and store hazardous chemicals switch to safer alternatives whenever possible, and develop strong chemical safety and security requirements in order to prevent disasters. All companies can do more to live consciously and thoughtfully—and it is up to all consumers to support the companies already making clear steps to improve their impact.
But most importantly, we need to be talking about it—acknowledging that Environmental Justice is extremely relevant, especially in the contexts of racial justice.
If you are looking for a resource to guide your EJ path in 2015, look no further than the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Climate Justice Initiative. Take a look at their list of “10 Things You Can Do To Advance Climate Justice.”
Thalia Patrinos is known as Tippy to her friends, because she is light on her feet (and it’s easier to pronounce). She is a writer by day, fire dancer by night. Tippy floats between NYC, DC, and Baltimore—constantly trying to find ways to make her impact on the world small and sweet. Check out her performance troupe, or examine her other artistic creations via her blog or her Tumblr.