July 10, 2020

No Justice, No Earth

Guest Opinion
By Cathye Williams | June 20, 2020

I’m often casting about for environmental writing inspiration. This month, I thought of Northern Michigan exploding into its summer colors, themselves accompanied by the calls of birds, frogs, and coyotes. Working in my garden, I worried about farmers facing uncertainty in the midst of a pandemic. I scanned the news for items that call out for attention and reflection. Let’s see … Line 5 had some important court actions coming up. What about the water? So much water! Lake Michigan was lapping at roads, homes, and businesses; torrential rains overwhelmed dams and drains. Clearly, I had lots of options to cover.

Then, on Memorial Day, the world saw police murder a man on a street in Minneapolis, and everything else shattered and fell away. The brutal killing of George Floyd by a white officer was a tipping point. It sparked an uprising across the United States and around the globe, driven by sadness and anger, demanding justice and the dismantling of systems of oppression.

 Sadly, this murder wasn’t shocking for its rarity. Cell phones, security footage, and body cams tell the stories now, but they have been told throughout time. The history of violence and oppression toward Black lndigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) goes back centuries. Our country was built on stolen lands, genocide, and the broken bodies of enslaved people; our institutions were founded on lofty ideals of equality and fairness that were never intended to include them.

Civil Rights and other social movements might have ended some of the overt vestiges of inequality, but oppression and violence are perpetuated by systemic racism. Whether by practice or design, racial inequities in finance, housing, education, transportation, and law enforcement all operate to maintain the power of the dominant class to this day.

Even the environmentalism movement, so near and dear to the fair liberal heart, was founded by privileged white men whose vision was to preserve wilderness for the enjoyment of people who looked like them. Their style was to dominate the landscape, with no regard for the lives, wisdom, or culture of people who were there first.

Concern about environmental damage having a disproportionate impact on poor and marginalized groups — and even the term “environmental justice” — is relatively new. Explains Dr. Robert Bullard, often described as the father of environmental justice: "It's the principle that all people are entitled to equal environmental protection regardless of race, color, or national origin. It's the right to live and work and play in a clean environment."

Landmark legislation such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts did not acknowledge the greater environmental injuries borne by vulnerable groups, nor did it offer them more protection. Examples of environmental racism include things like building coal plants in close proximity to low-income residential neighborhoods; dumping industrial or agricultural waste near water supplies of low-income communities; building low-income housing on flood plains; and depleting funding for emergency response and preparedness resources from minority neighborhoods. These examples could all lead to poor outcomes in health, education, and economic opportunity in affected communities. In short, they kill. They are the knee on the neck of BIPOC and all marginalized people. 

Like many others, I joined in recent protests against racism and police brutality. I saw many of the same faces I have seen at other marches for climate, water, immigrants, women, and science. As I begin to see how these struggles are intertwined, the idea of intersectionality becomes clearer: We can’t separate environmental work from the work of racial justice. I have tried this, thinking that working on one counted for working on the other. I was wrong.

As Sam Grant, longtime organizer, educator, and head of grassroots advocacy group MN350, said, “Mainstream environmental organizations have bought into the myth that the objective of environmentalism is to protect nature from people. They don’t realize that our objective is to protect people, who are part of nature.”

Many believe that we won’t solve the climate crisis without racial justice or BIPOC. Why? Because marginalized people tend to have more concern about the crisis and will likely see the most harm. Solutions that don’t work for them won’t work. They have knowledge of their communities, and the organizing skills and relationships needed to build coalitions and drive action on the ground. Many environmental groups struggle with diversity and inclusion. Does our focus on goals and data-driven models leave room for dialogue and new ideas? Do we create a welcoming space? Can we accept discomfort and tension when needed to learn?  

 A mother might be worried about the planet, but right now she is more worried that her child has clean air to breathe. If your solution to the problem leaves her homeless or without a paycheck, then it’s not a solution. For BIPOC, it’s is a matter of survival. Death by police brutality or (a slower) death from diabetes, asthma, or lead poisoning, is the same death, rooted in systemic racism. Other BIPOC and marginalized groups face the peril of sinking islands, snaking pipelines, melting permafrost, and hurricanes and wildfires. They might need more immediate relief. Together we should find solutions that will work for all people caught across a range of situations and build the movement needed to see these solutions realized. 

If you want to learn more about the necessary intertwining of minority rights and the environment, please consider reading www.ejnet.org/ej/principles.html.

Cathye Williams serves as a volunteer and media liaison for the Grand Traverse area chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby, www.citizensclimatelobby.com. She writes from Benzie County.

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