Last Friday was World Environment Day, but you likely saw the Black Lives Matter movement all over the news. Still, the day was not wasted. Racism is an issue that stems into other problems-even environmental issues. If we cannot respect individuals of our own species, how can we aspire to save others? Part of environmental activism is aimed at giving a voice to habitats and wildlife that do not have one…and black people certainly need to have their voices heard right now. If we think one race is superior to another, we will never come to respect wildlife and plants.
Power and money seem to be the recurring sources in both environmental and racism issues. Leaders want as much of it as possible, no matter how much it costs people or the environment. This is not the way to run our society.
Environmental racism, a concept of environmental justice, is used to explain how minority communities are hit the hardest when it comes to hazardous environmental impacts. Projects like toxic waste sites and oil pipelines are often built in areas where people do not have the power or resources to oppose them.
Environmental justice issues were galvanized by civil rights moments like the Memphis Sanitation Strike in 1968 and the sit-in protest against the poly-chlorinated biphenyl landfill in Warren County, NC in 1982. Aside from the issues that started the movement, one of the most well known cases of environmental justice is the Flint, Michigan water crisis. The government’s slow and ineffective response to the community’s contaminated water was even stated to be “a result of systemic racism.”
Just last week as anti-racism protests were held across the nation, Trump signed an executive order that will limit environmental policies like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. NEPA in particular allows for community involvement when it comes to environmental impacts of proposed projects. If we limit these regulations even more, projects with environmental impacts will likely continue to happen in vulnerable communities, and the voices of these communities will go unheard.
Easing these environmental regulations will supposedly prevent delays to our suffering economy-but some of the areas already affected by water and air pollution are suffering even more due to COVID-19. Why? Because people who have underlying health issues are believed to be more susceptible to the virus, and these issues are prevalent in communities that are exposed to pollution. Other reasons? These communities often hold service jobs that do not allow remote work, which would give the virus an opportunity to spread.
The financial benefits of tossing aside regulations are simply a form of instant gratification. Sure, it might generate more money at first, but what happens when we hear about the communities being impacted by noise and pollution? When we start seeing more communities in the US (a first world country!) without access to clean water? When cancer clusters begin to pop up? If these environmental regulations are minimized now, who is to say they will not be curtailed even further in the future when the economy does pick back up?
Are human lives and health not more important that money?
In addition, many environmental issues have multiple causes and are global. It will require cooperation from many entities to fix them-governments, corporations, communities, nations. Racism only divides us. If our system unfairly treats people based on their culture and the color of their skin, we will not get anywhere. We need the perspectives of everyone-no matter their race, gender, or religion.
Along with division, racism is distracting. If a person of color has to constantly worry about their well-being and safety due to racism, how can they focus their full attention on other issues? If white environmental activist refuse to hear stories and support people of color, how can they lead people to fight against issues like climate change? Environmentalism strives for a better, pollution-free world, but how can we have a better world if it is filled with hate?
I am not saying we should ignore environmental issues to support anti-racism movements or vice versa; I am saying we need to support both. It won’t be easy. They have both been continuously occurring throughout history, but we need to take a stand to protect the people-regardless of race-and the world from being affected by them. Otherwise it may be our downfall.