Environmental Justice: Towards a Unified Environmental Movement

From the May 2014 PNL #834

by Nikeeta Slade

A wide array of groups—Green Parties, socialist organizations, human rights groups, the Hip Hop Congress, amongst others—have endorsed the Global Climate Convergence’s Earth Day to Labor Day campaign. According to the website, the campaign seeks to “build a unified movement that can link climate justice to … economic inequality, the racism of mass incarceration and mass deportations, the sexism of the ongoing attacks on women’s reproductive rights, systemic oppression of LGBTQ people, [and] attacks on working people’s living.” Campaigns like these are especially important considering that the mainstream environmental movement has largely failed to take into account how issues such as racism, sexism, and class inequality are integral to the fight to save the planet. Despite the failings of the mainstream environmental movement, communities of color have long connected their fights against environmental degradation to other forms of oppression through the framework of environmental justice.

Two activists at the 1982 anti-PCB protests in
Warren County, NC. Source: U of Carolina

Environmental Justice

The concept of environmental justice emerged in the 1980s in communities of color. While air and water pollution, nuclear waste and other hazards were certainly major focal points of the mainstream environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s, communities of color connected their experiences of these environmental hazards to institutionalized racism, poverty, and inequality. Though struggles against industrial pollution and environmental hazards certainly occurred in communities of color prior to the 1980s, the environmental justice movement received widespread attention in Warren County, North Carolina in 1982.

In 1982 the state of North Carolina decided to create a landfill in the poor, rural, and predominately black community of Afton in Warren County. A few years earlier, 60,000 tons of soil contaminated with Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), a dangerous toxin, had been illegally dumped along the highway, and the landfill was created to deposit the contaminated soil. Completely appalled that the state would knowingly create a toxic landfill in their community, the people of Afton resorted to direct action. More than 500 residents and activists were arrested for lying down in front of the trucks to keep them from making the deposits. Despite their committed efforts, the residents of Afton were unable to keep the soil from being dumped in the landfill. However, in the years following the protest, a number of studies were conducted to demonstrate the relationship between race and the placement of hazardous waste sites. A 1987 study found that three out of five African-Americans lived near dangerous toxic waste sites compared to 51% of whites. The situation has hardly changed, considering a 2008 study found that 71% of Black Americans live in counties in violation of federal air pollution standards. The struggle in Warren County highlighted the connections between the environment, race, and class on a national scale.

By connecting racism, inequality, and poverty to environmental struggles, environmental justice activists have also broadened the very concept of “the environment” itself. Environmental activist and chemistry and physics professor Chris Williams points out that in the 1980s the environmental movement split, with one side consisting of mainstream organizations and NGOs focusing on wilderness issues, preservation, and conservation, and the other side comprised of environmental justice activists focusing on how environmental racism, poverty, and inequality affected the human environment in urban and rural settings. According to Dr. Robert Bullard, the man dubbed the “father of environmental justice,” the “environment is everything: where we live, work, play, go to school, as well as the physical and natural world.” In this sense, it is not just natural habitats that are destroyed by corporations’ destructive drive for profits, but whole human communities which are polluted and destroyed. For instance, in major urban cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, communities of color not only bear the brunt of chemical pollution and other hazardous wastes but because of economic exploitation and disinvestment, whole communities are turned into wastelands. As current Deputy Associate Administrator for Environmental Justice for the Environmental Protection Agency Charles Lee points out, in many of these cities, the “built environment” has obsolete mass transit, sewage, and water systems and dilapidated infrastructure. The social environments in these communities are plagued with issues such as residential apartheid, state-sanctioned and interpersonal violence, underfunded education, and lack of access to nutritious and healthy food.  Addressing the systemic issues that adversely affect the overall health and well being of communities of color must be at the center of fights for environmental justice.

Gender and Environmental Justice

This concern about quality of life and the wellbeing of their families and community has been a driving force for The Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA), an environmental justice organization consisting primarily of Latina mothers. MELA was initially founded in 1984 to stop the construction of a prison in East Los Angeles, but they also went on to successfully fight the construction of an oil pipeline and a hazardous waste incinerator. Aurora Castillo, a MELA founder and activist, remarked, “Because we are a poor Hispanic community they think we will accept the destructive projects if they promise us jobs. But we don’t want our children working as prison guards or in incinerators.” MELA is but one of many organizations that points to the fact that women of color have been and continue to be on the front lines of the fight for environmental justice here in the US and across the globe, especially in the Global South. This is certainly not a surprise considering that 70% of people living under the poverty line are women, and countries and communities with high resource exploitation and poverty are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Despite the fact that women are more susceptible to the effects of climate change, they are often blamed for its cause. Overpopulation is often cited as one of the main causes of climate change and environmental degradation. The argument often goes that there are too many people on Earth consuming too many resources and that this is the cause of ecological degradation. For instance, the Sierra Club created a Global Population and Environment Program because “[t]he combination of rapid population growth in the developing world, with unsustainable consumption in developed countries, is threatening the health and well-being of families, communities, and our planet.” In reality, as professor and activist Betsy Haartman notes, “Population growth rates have come down all over the world so that the average number of children per woman in the Global South is now 2.75 and predicted to drop to 2.05 by 2050.” Blaming the reproductive choices of women in the Global South obscures the fact that corporations that plunder the planet for profit within the broader capitalist system that is predicated on incessant growth and expansion is the main driver of climate change.

Women of color are not only blamed for the causes of climate devastation but they also become the targets of punitive policy measures after “natural disasters,” despite needing the most help. For example, in 2008, in the wake of the destruction from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, instead of researching how to increase access to things like medical care or affordable housing, Representative John LaBruzzo’s office researched a policy plan that would pay $1,000 to women on public assistance if they “volunteered” to be sterilized. According to John LaBruzzo, Louisiana was headed towards economic disaster if more women continued to have “babies they could not take care of.” LaBruzzo conveniently failed to mention that after the hurricane, Louisiana lost 180,000 workers and 103,000 of those workers were women. Additionally, prior to Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana had already been ranked worst in the nation for women living in poverty. Instead of trying to blame and regulate the reproductive choices of poor women of color, the aim should have been to provide these women and their communities with jobs with good wages,  access to child-care, and other services that would greatly improve their quality of life.

Indigenous women in Idle No More, the recent protest movement in Canada and US,  have been linking indigenous land rights to environmental rights and have been highly critical of those in power that try to use the bodies of women of color as scapegoats for exploitative and punitive policy measures. As Erin Marie Konsmo, a young woman involved in Idle No More stated, “Canadian government and extractive industries have often seen women’s bodies and land as empty things available for laws to be put on. Our bodies are not terra nullis [empty land]…We must have self-determination of our bodies and also self-determination of our lands.”  Indigenous women’s connections between body autonomy and communal autonomy are crucial points to consider in the fight for environmental justice. In places like Afton, North Carolina, Chicago, New Orleans and countless other locales, the people most affected by the ransacking of our environment are fighting for the right to have a say in the political, social, and economic wellbeing of their communities. It is sometimes argued that issues like reproductive justice and racial justice either “divide” the movement or are tangential to the movement, but the contrary is true. Building a unified and diverse movement that fights alongside and for those that are the most affected is exactly what it is going to take to stop the destruction of our communities and our planet as a whole.

Nikeeta is working on her Master’s in Pan-African Studies at Syracuse University. She is also a member of the International Socialist Organization.