“It’s the Whole Earth Catalogue for politicos.”Wes “Scoop” Nisker, author of Crazy Wisdom
“As a black person in America I am twice as likely to live in an area where air pollution poses the greatest risk to my health. I am five times more likely to live within walking distance of a power plant or chemical facility, which I do. Fortunately there are people like me who are fighting for solutions that won’t compromise the lives of low-income communities of color in the short term — and won’t destroy us all in the long term.”Majora Carter
By exposing the connections between social justice and environmental issues we can most effectively challenge abuses of power that disproportionately target indigenous and other economically and politically disenfranchised communities.
Hazel Johnson, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, Charles Lee, Robert D. Bullard, the self-organization of impacted communities.
In the United States today, race and class composition are the most reliable indicators of where the wastes that industrial society creates are dumped. Invariably, they have been shown to accumulate in and around poor and racialized communities. Environmental racism refers to this tendency to burden marginalized groups with environmental problems. The movement for environmental justice is the organized response, seeking to redress the inequitable distribution of waste through both community development (greening) and political empowerment (petitioning for development and enforcement of environmental law and policies) in poor communities and communities of color.
After four little girls in from the South Side Chicago Altgeld Gardens housing community died from cancer in the early 1980s, Hazel Johnson, longtime resident and founder of People for Community Recovery, put two and two together: their 190-acre community was home to over fifty documented landfills, and also to the highest incidence of cancer in the city. Her organization went on to win many grassroots struggles for environmental justice on behalf of their predominantly poor, predominantly black community, and then began networking with other organizations across the country. By the mid 1990s, the environmental justice movement had made significant strides in publicizing such issues, with organizations such as the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice staging numerous acts of civil disobedience.
Globally, powerful corporations have been able to spread the practice of exploiting politically vulnerable communities. As Lawrence Summers, Secretary of the Treasury under Clinton and director of the National Economic Council under Obama, argued in a 1991 memo while employed at the World Bank, “the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that… I’ve always thought that under populated countries in Africa are vastly underpolluted.” A Summers aide later claimed that the memo was intended sarcastically. Sarcasm or no, the statement accurately reflects the way waste is handled under capitalism.
What is at work here is not only racism, but a widespread and devastating ethic that withholds compassion from the environment and denies the humanity of ninety-nine percent of the world’s people, treating them as resources to be exploited at best, or as entirely external to the economic calculations at worst.
It is not by chance that the civil rights movement sparked a process that, in recent decades, has culminated in a veritable explosion of environmental activism. It is because of the insidious form that racism takes under the geographical development of capitalism that an utterly unsustainable way of life was allowed to evolve to the point of global climate catastrophe. Only by confronting as one the environmental and social manifestations of the crisis can we hope to replace this system with something more equitable for all.