During our Friday sessions, some of our time has been set aside to discuss issues of social justice. Each of us will have the opportunity to lead the conversation on a matter that’s important to us, and Madi continued the series by sharing about Environmental Justice.
In February, Madi presented on the topic of environmental injustice. Many people think of environmental justice as passing policies for cleaner oceans or signing the Paris Agreement. In actuality, environmental justice deals exclusively with the intersection of race, class, and public health.
Environmental injustice takes many faces:
Toxic waste sites
Lack of natural resources sovereignty
Garbage dump and incinerator siting
Air and water pollution
All of these different types of pollution and access to environmental resources are disproportionate when the majority race or socio-economic level of a community is considered. Households of color and those that are labelled as low income are more likely to live beside sources of pollution and health risks, like toxic waste sites, while also more likely to lack access to clean water, air, and land rights.
The history of environmental injustice is rooted in land access. When Europeans colonized America, they stole land from the Indigenous peoples. This land was then co-opted by wealthy white men, some of whom forced slaves to work it. Even when slavery was abolished, black Americans did not have the wealth to own land and were forced to work it again through sharecropping. When black soldiers returned from WWII a few generations later, they too were not allowed to participate in the benefits of the GI Bill (free education, access to a good home, etc.) like their fellow white soldiers were.
While the Civil Rights Movement and the Environmental Movement diverged in the 1960s, the fight for environmental justice was quickly growing in the latter half of the twentieth century. Cesar Chavez and the rest of the United Farmworkers fought for fair wages and the banning of certain deadly pesticides while Memphis garbage workers, led by Dr. King, went on strike to demand safer working conditions and wages paid for hours worked. Lois Gibbs brought attention to the severe health risks of living beside toxic waste dumps in Love Canal, NY while an African-American community in Warren County, NC protested a landfill proposal marked for their backyard. Even up until today, we still see high rates of asthma in black children living in urban neighborhoods, the fight to stop the building of pipelines running through water sources of marginalized communities, and the bombing of Pagan and Tinian. The fight for environmental justice is not a chapter of American history that is about to close—in fact, it is only just beginning.
The Church has a huge role in this fight. Genesis 2:15 tells us, “And Jehovah God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and keep it.” We often forget that in the Creation story, we were created second. God created the rest of the earth and saw it as good. Our first task as humans was to be stewards and caretakers of the garden—and God never told us that our job was finished. We also need to “Rescue the poor and needy: deliver them out of the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:4). This is not equivalent to the paternalistic holier-than-thou tone that the Western church has often had. Rather, this requires working side by side with our neighbors who are suffering, giving them the mic so that they can be heard, and choosing to do what’s best for the health of all of our collective future generations.
If you’re interested in learning more about environmental justice, check out the writings and work of Berta Cacares, Dr. Robert Bullard, Wangari Maathai, and Winona LaDuke.
If you have any comments or questions, be sure to start the discussion below. We will be continuing our social justice session next week with a discussion led by Elisabeth about ethical consumption of clothing and other items.
Above image by Lorie Shaull, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.