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Race; The Unlikely Component to Environmental Justice

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When it comes to standing up against injustice, all activists tend to champion different causes. But the issues we face today hardly ever have rigid boundaries; the inequity and wrongdoings that plague us are often interrelated. One such issue is that of Environmental Justice, a movement that promotes environmental, economic and social justice by recognizing the direct link between economic, environmental and health issues and demanding a safe, clean community and workplace environment. This movement has broadened the perspective of the environment beyond the scope of conservation and preservation of natural resources and has defined ‘environment’ as “Where we live, work, play, learn and pray.”

So where does racism come in?

Talking about climate change is impossible without talking about racism. While climate change affects the whole world, it is important for us to realize that there are those who benefit from the activities that are killing our planet, and those who end up suffering its consequences. What dictates whether a person belongs to one group or the other is, you guessed it, Race. Some communities are burdened with a disproportionate number of facilities that contaminate air, soil, and water. Industrial polluters such as landfills, waste incinerators, power plants, and hazardous waste dumps which are typically placed in black and brown neighborhoods and low-income areas impact the well-being of residents. The well-being of these communities is also impacted by their lack of access to nutritious food.

Upon first glance, the close correlation between race and climate change appears incongruous. We generally see climate change as a problem that scientists and engineers need to sort out. The linkage between global environmental destruction and a profoundly moral social problem such as racism is not immediately evident. Our economic structure is made to reduce labor costs and prioritize product manufacturing over workers’ safety and welfare. This surrenders our economic fate to a market that continually underprices environmental impacts and transfers too much of the income society produces to the few who occupy the highest percentiles of the revenue spectrum.

Racism is everywhere in the system.

Racism is everywhere in the system. It burdens people of color and those belonging to low-income communities, taking away their right to be free from ecological destruction. 2 Environmental prejudice happens internationally, too. Numerous technical advances occur in the global North while manufacturing processes occur in the global South. Hence a disproportionate amount of emissions and waste comes to the South from foreign factories, rather than domestic ones. Climate change is the result of a wider problem that has been going on for a long time, but which has been overlooked for the sake of wealth production and economic growth for the fortunate few. The realities of severe social and economic injustice, both domestically and globally, were considered appropriate by those who benefitted in this historic journey to plenitude. The truth has been ignored and brushed under the carpet.

When we think about climate change and low-income communities’ problems we need to replace the current paradigm of charity that is conveniently ignoring history. We must shift from viewing government response as a “handout” to helping poor communities and wealthy and corporate subsidies, as “growth.” This needs awareness of the historical systemic policies that have produced many of the inequalities that we see today in development, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Racism may not have caused climate change, but the two go hand in hand, and until large-scale environmental movements acknowledge this, there is no moving forward. It is said that we shouldn’t sacrifice the good in pursuit of perfection, but we have already seen throughout history and even now that these sacrifices are only made by the indigenous, colored and poor members of our society. We must all realize that robust, long-lasting solutions to anything must be equitable in order to be sustainable.

Racism may not have caused climate change, but the two go hand in hand, and until large-scale environmental movements acknowledge this, there is no moving forward.

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