Why We Need to Address Environmental Racism this Earth Day

The official Earth Day website proudly states that Earth Day is the “World’s Largest Environmental Movement.” The annual holiday — celebrated on April 22nd each year by approximately 1 billion people — commemorates the birth of the environmental movement as many know it today.

In 1970, then US Senator Gaylord Nelson founded the holiday, riding the wave of civil rights and anti-war activism of the time to inspire mainstream environmental consciousness. April 22nd, 1970 saw the rallying of 20 million people across the country — especially burgeoning environmental groups and university students — who protested the deterioration of the environment and the powers enabling it. The movement garnered bipartisan support that ultimately resulted in the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passing of environmental protection legislation in the years to come.

The Earth Day Network’s (EDN) current initiative, launched in 2016, directs its focus to Earth Day 2020, which will mark the 50th anniversary of the movement’s founding. The Earth Day 2020 Prospectus outlines a series of goals and campaigns for the movement approaching the anniversary. These include: planting 7.1 billion trees worldwide, turning to sustainable practices in schools, and broadening environmental literacy through civic education. The latter is specifically an effort to arm the masses against the proliferation of false information about the state of the environment, particularly when it comes to climate change denial.

The seemingly incessant onslaught of natural disasters that struck globally in 2017 heightened my already present concerns about the environment, as well as my consideration about my own impact on it.

Upon first learning about Earth Day’s roots, its grounding in the social activism of the ‘70s, and by browsing its current initiatives, I felt hopeful, albeit hesitantly. I was also quick to identify the glaringly obvious similarity of the present political moment to the paradigm that spurred Earth Day. I scoured EarthDay.org to find anything I could that mentioned the connections of the environmental movement to other social movements, specifically those related to racial justice. But the closest thing I could find was a brief article about the correlation between deforestation and poverty globally — and it wasn’t close to what I was looking for at all.

The 2020 Prospectus features a letter from EDN President Kathleen Rogers, who reflects:

“I am proud to lead an organization founded on the premises that all people — regardless of race, gender, income, or geography — have a moral right to a healthy environment, and that an educated, energized population will act in its own best interests to secure a health present and future for itself and its children.”

Rogers’ sentiment is not lost on me; it resonates strongly, in fact. There are a number of smaller scale organizations whose work focuses on taking to task environmental racism through activism; however, I am interested in how the Earth Day Network — which spearheads the modern environmental movement by virtue of its breadth and recognizability — can bring the intersection of race, class, and environmental analysis into mainstream discourse.

Grassroots environmental organization, Greenaction, gives a pithy definition of environmental racism as “the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color.” Their more specific definition of the phenomenon refers to the role that institutions, governing bodies, and corporate decision-making play in the relegation of communities of color, undesirable land with higher levels of exposure, and environmental hazards. Environmental racism has also come to describe the institutional neglect towards recovery and relief for such communities in the wake of natural disasters.

The catalyst for current mainstream discussions of environmental racism was undoubtedly the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans during August of 2005.

Katrina’s aftermath underscored both of the aforementioned categories of environmental racism. Not only did the poor communities of color in southern Louisiana face governmental neglect in terms of disaster relief, the once contained pollution of “Cancer Alley” — a 25-mile stretch from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, which communities of color shared with petrochemical plants and refineries — was spread by the tropical cyclone. The unsafe conditions of the region and its communities existed decades prior to the storm; Katrina’s damage literally and figuratively unearthed the land, offering a reminder of prior governmental failings in its wake.

The environmental racism evidenced by Katrina is echoed by even more contemporary moments of crisis. Ongoing neglect manifests itself in Flint, Michigan, where the majority of its residents are African American. Here, the fight for potable running water started in 2014, and only at the end of last year were plans announced to complete pipe replacement by 2020. Additionally, active disregard for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation land led to the the bulldozing of supposedly protected Native sites, all in the interest of building the Dakota Access Pipeline. The #NODAPL fight began in 2016, but ultimately resulted in the pipeline’s construction, where several oil spills from the pipeline ensued in the region throughout the rest of the year.

Even more recently, we have seen the disastrous aftermath of natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas, and Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico. Federal restrictions for the allocation of resources prevents Houston’s large undocumented immigrant population from receiving such relief aid after the storm. Puerto Rico’s power took more than five months before it was even partially restored — another glaring exhibition of lackadaisical federal response to US citizens in the territory, nearly half of whom sat below the poverty level prior to the storms.

The Earth Day Network’s mission is to galvanize individuals worldwide to think and act in the interest of preserving the world, and in turn, the quality of life of the people who live in it. I have only addressed instances of environmental injustice in the United States, but it is worth noting that our problem is just a microcosm of similar injustices happening globally. There is room for the intersection of anti-racist activism and environmentalism to be amplified to EDN’s billions of participants — especially given the increasing frequency of such crises due to the changing climate. The sooner EDN takes on environmental racism with nuance as a part of their platform, the better.

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