Written by Salina Gray
A society’s level of social, physical and emotional well-being are directly proportional to the persistence of racial and economic inequality. In other words, wherever we see greater inequality we will also find less opportunity, access, education and economic stability. The same holds true when we consider the environment. In the U.S, for example, we see how rural and BIPOC communities are more likely to suffer from the effects of environmental degradation, and the effects of global warming and climate change. As ever, these communities are the least resourced in spite of being the most impacted by droughts, floods, contamination, pollution and other environmental concerns. Persistent inequality demands robust and critical conversations to find meaningful solutions.
In the U.S, the early environmental movement was made up primarily of affluent White men. Women, BIPOC, and people from lower socioeconomic statuses were excluded. For example, as a result of the legacy of settler colonialism, the indigenous people, who cultivated and maintained a sacred and profound relationship with the environment as this land’s original stewards, had been excluded from the early stages of the environmental movement. Early focus of this environmentalism was on nature, sustainability, and wildlife preservation for the sake of recreation and play, rather than respect for the environment. To these affluent men, the U.S was seen as a playground for the wealthy, white, and often racist.
Over time, the increasing social movements for racial, ethnic, economic and even gender justice intersected with the conversations around the environment. The marriage of ideas from the social justice movement and concerns about sustainability have given way to environmental justice.
At its core, environmental justice is the idea that all communities have the right to live, work, and play in clean, safe and healthy spaces. Marginalized groups and communities are more likely to be in spaces where the land, air and water quality are unsafe and unhealthy. There is a greater likelihood for these communities to be housed near, commercial, waste and other industrial facilities.
These same communities are also most impacted by the effects of climate change. One of the effects of climate change is extreme weather such as heatwaves, drought, storms and floods. People living in underserved communities are less likely to have the resources to handle the impact of these weather events.
According to an Environmental Protection Agency Report (EPA) from 2021:
“Black and African American individuals are projected to face higher impacts of climate change for all six impacts analyzed in this report, compared to all other demographic groups. For example, with 2°C (3.6°F) of global warming, Black and African American individuals are:
- 34% more likely to currently live in areas with the highest projected increases in childhood asthma diagnoses. This rises to 41% under 4°C (7.2°F) of global warming.
- 40% more likely to currently live in areas with the highest projected increases in extreme temperature related deaths. This rises to 59% under 4°C of global warming.
- Hispanics and Latinos have high participation in weather-exposed industries, such as construction and agriculture, which are especially vulnerable to the effects of extreme temperatures. With 2°C (3.6°F) of global warming, Hispanic and Latino individuals are 43% more likely to currently live in areas with the highest projected reductions in labor hours due to extreme temperatures. With regards to transportation, Hispanic and Latino individuals are about 50% more likely to currently live in areas with the highest estimated increases in traffic delays due to increases in coastal flooding.” EPA 2021
As I write this blog, this last day of Earth Month, I am realizing that I can no longer separate my belief in Environmental Justice from my belief in personal healing. I imagine that I can not treat the Air, Land and Water any better or worse than I treat myself. The same atoms that compose the air, land and water are the very same atoms that make up our bodies. Environmental Justice isn’t just about creating safe, healthy spaces for all of us–it is also about BEING safe, healthy spaces for all of us. For me to actively participate in ANY justice movement, I must first develop my personal capacity. This includes recognizing and remembering that the Earth provides, sustains and heals–and we are of the Earth.
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