Five luminaries explain the concept of ‘environmental justice’ and reveal why, alongside the climate crisis, it is one of the most pressing issues of our time
by Nina Lakhani
Today the Guardian is launching a year-long series, Our Unequal Earth, investigating environmental injustices: how ecological hazards and climate disasters have the harshest impacts on people of color, native tribes and those on low incomes.
The most egregious examples include the lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan, petrochemical pollution in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, and today’s series launch story, about an entire river that stops at the US-Mexico border, leaving ordinary Mexicans without water. Each of these cases has also prompted inspiring community activism.
Our new environmental justice reporter, Nina Lakhani, asked five luminaries of the movement to explain “environmental justice” in their own words. They reveal why, alongside global heating and the extinction crisis, it is one of the most pressing issues of our time.
Q: How did the environmental justice movement begin?
I started working on environment and race in 1978/79 by collecting landfill data for a landmark civil rights lawsuit filed by my wife in Houston, Texas, against the city and the state. This study found that between the 1930s and 1978, 82% of all the waste in Houston was dumped in black neighborhoods, even though only 25% of the population was black. This was not random or isolated; it was targeted and widespread across the southern states and the nation. We lost in court but the concept of environmental racism was born.
The seminal Environmental Justice principles adopted by the National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991 built on this [legal case] and became the foundation for social justice movements across the world. Even so, the same discrimination and racism continues to dictate who gets dumped on and who gets resources to mitigate floods, wildfires and other disasters. Of course those with wealth and political clout do best; if you have money you can buy bottled water or move house. The poor cannot go anywhere.
Q: How are native communities affected by environmental discrimination?
We cannot talk about environmental injustice without understanding the historical context of colonization and capitalism. The federal government put us on reservations on land they believed to be worthless, but many turned out to be rich in “resources”. This means we’re in the way of profits. In most cases we don’t want these megaprojects coming in and destroying our land and water, but it happens anyway. The situation is even worse for our brothers and sisters in the global south where people are silenced, disappeared and killed to make money with no hope of justice.
I grew up in a community full of environmental injustices without knowing it. So many people I knew – young and old, men and women – got cancer, including me during my second year in college. I thought this was normal. Our territory is contaminated by the coal industry, uranium mining, over-fertilization and oil. But environmental injustice is a tangled web, it’s about so much more than pollution. Whenever there’s a new megaproject, the area is overwhelmed by men, there’s an influx of money and a rise in organized crime. After the oil boom in 2007, the number of missing and murdered indigenous women increased, and so did drugs. Gangs came and recruited our young people to sell drugs and many of these young men are now in jail or dead.
Q: What role does the state play in creating environmental inequalities?
Environmental injustice is about [the state] creating sacrifice zones where we place everything which no one else wants. The justification is always an economic one, that it makes sense to build chemical plants on so-called cheap lands where poor people and people of color live, but which are only cheap because all the wealth and economic opportunities have been stripped out. The people who live in these areas are unseen, unheard and undervalued.
Environmental justice is about communities being able to reclaim their power, like Spartanburg in South Carolina, which received a $20,000 EPA environmental justice grant [to help clean up contaminated industrial sites], which it leveraged to almost $300m [from public and private sources, to build housing, a job training facility and health centers on the rehabilitated lands].
Q: The fight for ‘climate justice’ has become central to the environmental justice movement. Why are you and so many young people getting involved?
Climate justice has mobilized young people because there’s something in it for everyone. Whether you care about animals, science, pollution, racism or sexism, all these issues are intertwined with the climate crisis in the worst possible way. Poor people and people of color are much more likely to die in climate disasters than rich people. This means addressing racism, colonialism and patriarchy, because inequalities do not exist in a vacuum, and neither does the climate crisis. It’s the result of all the other societal evils.
For me, the climate crisis has been looming over my entire life – and future. Three things happened in 2017 which motivated me to act: the US leaving the Paris agreement, Hurricane Maria destroying Puerto Rico and the wildfires in Canada, which created a thick layer of smog over Seattle that felt apocalyptic. At the beginning my dream with the #ThisIsZeroHour campaign was to mobilize a lot of people for a youth climate march, but it’s got bigger and bigger and we now have a hundred chapters. So far it has been very US-focused but that’s changing.
Q: What did we learn from the Flint scandal, in which 100,000 residents were exposed to excessive lead from their tap water?
Q: How can people get involved in the struggle for environmental justice?
I was an ordinary citizen compelled to take action after watching my children break out in rashes, scream in agony from taking a bath, unexplained illnesses, losing their hair and being told the problem was specific to my house even though the same things were happening to children all over Flint.
I made the decision to teach myself about how water is treated, about federal laws and about how to properly test water, because listening to governmental officials lie to my face disgusted me. When situations like this happen, everyday people need to protect themselves. They need to follow their gut if they feel something is wrong. They need to unite because together we are stronger.
Sit down in your groups and communities and figure out people’s strengths. You will have defeats – use those as learning experiences. You will have victories, rejoice when those happen. Our environment plays a huge role in our health and future generations’ health, so it is our duty as ordinary people to protect it and fight back. We can make a difference.
To contact Nina Lakhani, the Guardian’s new environmental justice reporter, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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