It may surprise you that the two groups of Americans most concerned about climate change are African-Americans and Hispanics. But when you consider that they also live closest to our sickened Earth and environmental hazards like air pollution, waste treatment facilities and coal-fired plants, then the parallels between racism and environmental degradation become clear.
It also makes a clear case for environmental justice—a means to address environmental damage and the populations who suffer the worst consequences of it And in the courts, civil rights prosecution has succeeded where environmental suits have failed. (Sadly, in our Earth cause a human face trumps a green vista every time.)
People working outside in a climate grown too hot for working outside bear the brunt of changes largely wrought for the benefit of those who live in segregated, air conditioned comfort. Market liberalism is the vanilla flavor of oilman’s glee, that extractionist greed which plunders resources, bodies and markets for the benefit of the few.
The environmental justice movement—a legal version of liberation theology—began taking shape in the 1980s. Back in 1979, a Houston waste company announced they were building landfill in a black middle-class neighborhood. A suit was filed by the homeowners, and Dr. Robert Bullard, then a sociologist at Texas Southern University, was hired to look into the move. He says,
When we looked at the data and analyzed it, we found that 5 out of 5 of the city-owned landfills were located in black neighborhoods. Six out of 8 of the city-owned incinerators were in black neighborhoods. And 3 out of 4 of the privately owned landfills were in predominantly black neighborhoods.
Even though blacks only made up 25 percent of the population from the 1930s to 1978 — the period that I looked at — 82 percent of all of the waste dumped in Houston was in black neighborhoods.
— “Dr. Robert Bullard: Lessons From 40 Years of Documenting Environmental Racism” (Tara Lohan, The Revelator, April 17, 2019)
For the first time, a clear connection between racism and environmental degradation was drawn. The lawsuit became the first case in the United States to use civil rights law to challenge environmental discrimination. In the 40 years since, Dr. Bullard has written 18 books on the topic, documenting countless incidents of disadvantaged populations used as dumping grounds for the excess of a wealthy, consumerist nation.
Indigenous people in many other countries are equally challenged with the same. In Canada, oil pipelines and tar sand projects violate the heart of sacred homelands; in Australia corporate irrigation projects for cotton farms threaten the livelihood of Aboriginal tribes along the lower Darling River basin. Most black South Africans continue to live in the most polluted and contaminated conditions in the country. In Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia, plastic waste recycling plants poison crops and emit toxic air pollution into poor communities.
As I wrote for our last open link weekend, the suffocation of a black man beneath a policeman’s knee—captured in eight grueling and harrowing minutes of cellphone video—has sparked convulsive protest around the world. The immense scale of the demonstrations suggest that many things are at play—despair over continuing police violence against black men, economic disparities made worse by global pandemic, despair over an increasingly heating climate horizon and the devastation it is already delivering the most vulnerable populations.
The demonstrations may provide the impetus for an environmental justice movement which will remove anti-environment populists from power and begin to redress decades if not centuries of capitalist and extractionist oppression. Again, the human face of a martyred black man may help deliver a new political establishment capable of passing and enforcing the Green New Deal.
As I write this, a massive rallies are underway today all over my country, some of the biggest yet, in protest of police brutality. Rallies have grown more peaceful and are multi-racial in attendance; but you have to feel the keenness of the anger and despair of black participants to understand that theirs is an exhausted protest. Like the enormous volume of rain now being dumped by Tropical Storm Cristobal as it approaches New Orleans, theirs is a heavy, sad and fraught lament.
After this, rage may be the only alternative. The arc follows the same trajectory of our pending climate catastrophe; address now or deal with enraged elements.
I wondered about this as I attended a “Peace, Love and Unity Walk” this morning down the main avenue of my little Florida town. It was rainy—steady but not heavy, freighted with the angst of tropical storm Cristobal two hundred miles away. The city’s leadership of downtown merchants, city government, police chief and pastors from several churches cooked up the idea to have this “Walk” (instead of “march”) to celebrate (not protest) unity in the face of division. Our town is OK as Southern hamlets go, more progressive than most, with a good recent history of community policing and relatively calm relations with its black population, sequestered mainly on the city’s swampy and flood-prone northeast.
It was surprising how many turned out for the walk, and I’d say the composition was maybe two thirds white. Lots of couples, families with kids, older folks and neighbors amid the more vocal and sign-brazen young. (I didn’t see any septuagenarians holding up Black Lives Matter signs.) At 10 am the procession rolled down Donnelly Street blocked off by smiling policemen, turned left at the cop station and proceeded into the black area of town, stopping at a small park where there was a tent with a podium. Various members of the city leadership spoke, with impassioned appeals to unity and sensitivity and the largest rounds of applause in response to calling out the citizenry to vote in the fall.
Yay to all that, but even though the size of the turnout was impressive for our little town—I’d say around 500—it was a little laid back and too congenial. A white folks’ march for unity without the higher simmer of anger and exhaustion still has the ambience of whitewash. Something we’ll never be fully able to relinquish, I’m afraid, before it is taken from our hands.
AMERICAN SONNET FOR MY PAST AND FUTURE ASSASSIN
Rilke ends his sonnet “Archaic Torso of Apollo” saying
“You must change your life.” James Wright ends “Lying
In a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island,
Minnesota” saying “I have wasted my life.” Ruth Stone ends
“A Moment” saying “You do not want to repeat my life.”
A minute seed with a giant soul kicking inside it at the end
And beginning of life. After the opening scene where
A car bomb destroys the black detective’s family, there are
Several scenes of our hero at the edge of life. A shootout
In an African American Folk Museum, a shootout
In the middle of an interstate rest stop parking lot,
A barn shootout endangering the farm life. I live a life
That burns a hole through life, that leaves a scar for life,
That makes me weep for another life. Define life.
There is a cycle of energy in the current moment; protest leads to voting which enables future protests to provide an even greater volume of energy for the next election. I liken it to stepping incrementally back from nuclear annihilation or climate devastation: Tides are turned with signs and voting booths and regulations and signs and more voting booths and stronger, more effective regulations. I’ll venture that my country has a more progressive center than it did six months ago.
Without George Floyd’s brutal murder in plain sight of the world by a cop with too much brutality in his testosterone, where would we be now? Still forgiving the power ploys of a government which has renounced its first duty to serve all of its citizens? Getting back fast to our comfortable consumer privilege, heedless of the darkening climate horizon? We are paused at this moment and told—loudly, vociferously and with a keen edge of danger—that slumber is no longer permissible.
Soon it may be no longer possible.
James Baldwin got at this in a 1968 address to the World Council of Churches, later condensed into an essay titled “White Racism and World Community” published in Ecumenical Review, Oct. 1968:
We all know, no matter what we say, no matter how we may justify it or hide from this fact, every being knows, something in him knows, and this is what Christ was talking about; no one wants to be a slave. Black people have had to adjust to incredible vicissitudes and involve in fantastic identity against incredible odds. But those songs we sang, and sing, and our dances and the way we talk to each other, betray a terrifying pain, a pain so great that most Western people, most white Westerners, are simply babbled by it and paralyzed by it, because they do not dare imagine what it would be like to be a black father, and what a black father would have to tell a black son in order for the black son to live at all.
Now, this is not called morality, this is not called faith, this has nothing to do with Christ. It has to do with power, ad part of the dilemma of the Christian Church is the fact that it opted, in fact, for power and betrayed its own first principles which were a responsibility to every living soul, the assumption of which the Christian Church’s basis, as I understand it, is that all men are the sons of God and that all men are free in the eyes of God and are victims of the commandment given to the Christian Church, “Love one another as I have loved you.” And if that is so, the Church is in great danger not merely because the black people say it but because people are always in great danger when they know what they should do, and refuse to act on that knowledge.
Baldwin delivered that address in 1968, the most convulsive year of demonstrations previous to this one; and though some of the language may have evolved (women are, we know now, are similarly daughters of God), the tooth of the message is unchanged. And the environmental justice movement has merged the face of racial oppression with that of capitalist extractionism: injustice is equally doled out to humans and Earth, all of us being of the same essential tribe.
In an old Irish tale, a Christian holy man late in life finds his faith taking a radical when a fellow monk is sacrificed in the belly of an oak tree for refusing to renounce the green Earth for Heaven. Love breaks his wooden dogmatic heart, and he is flooded with the awareness of so much heaven all around him, in this life. The monk, whose name was Molios, is changed.
Fiona MacLeod picks up the story in “Annir Choille” (second volume of his collected works)
That night Molios could not sleep. Hearing the loud wash of the sea, he went to the mouth of the cave. For a long while he watched the seals splashing in the silver radiance of the moonshine. Then he called them.
“O seals of the sea, come hither!”
At that all the furred swimmers drew near.
“Is it for the curse you give us every year of the years, O holy Molios?” moaned a great black seal.
“O Ròn dubh, it is no curse I have for thee or thine, but a blessing, and peace. I have learned a wonder of God, because of an Annir-Coille in the forest that is upon the hill. But now I will be telling you the white story of Christ.”
So there, in the moonshine, with the flowing tide stealing from his feet to his knees, the old saint preached the gospel of love. The seals crouched upon the rocks, with their great brown eyes filled with glad tears.
When Molios ceased, each slipped again into the shadowy sea. All that night, while he brooded upon the mystery of Cathal and the Annir-Coille, with deep knowledge of hidden things, and a heart filled with the wonder and mystery of the world, he heard them splashing to and fro in the moon-dazzle, and calling, one to the other, “We, too, are the sons of God.”
My blog’s patron saint is St. Oran, victim of another sacrifice so Christian walls might stand, his bones the mortar of mission, his ghost regent of the Iona abbey cemetery. He was also of the seal tribe, and his death also kept alive in the new faith a vital connection with the old—a greener sustainable existence which we are still trying to find our way to, freed from economic and racial bondage.
We, too, are sons and daughters of the mystery! Let that inform our work this week as we see what poetry has to say about environmental justice.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading your essay. It was informative and I appreciate the spiritual perspective you give it. Thank you.
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Thanks Myrna, really appreciate that. – Brendan
So well said, Brendan. In Canada racial and environmental issues go hand in hand. We have reservations across Canada that have not had clean drinking water for 15 years. The government has moved some indigenous communities off their homelands and onto rocky, barren places where they could no longer live traditionally to sustain themselves. In Canada, there is racism across the board, but I believe it is most strongly felt and experienced by the First Nations community – who have been the caretakers of this land for ten thousand years. They should be leading us in restoring the earth, because they know how. In Tofino, we are marching today too, protesting the shooting (five shots fired) of a 26 year old First Nations woman from our community. Sje was shot in the east, where she had just moved to be with her small daughter. The policeman was making a “wellness” check, as she was frightened. Sending an armed man in was likely not the right call. Now she is dead; he didnt try de-escalating, talking, backing out of her space, calling for a woman officer; he fired. I just watched 13th, an expose of the prison “industry” in the U.S., which swallows up African Americans, disproportionately; prisons are privately owned and they want to keep the jails full, keep the profits coming. The other side of this is, once convicted of a felony (even if innocent, as many are), they are not allowed to vote; that is a lot of disenfranchised voters. What an eye opener that film is. For sure, social justice and environmental justice go hand in hand. And if we dont start fixing the climate crisis pretty quick, the social justice issue will be moot, because the whole planet will be saying “I Cant Breathe.”
Thanks Sherry, deeply and thoughtfully put. I think the worst racism has been against indigenous tribes, theirs has been an environmental throttling, evicting them from their homeland’s heart and lungs. And the violence against native women is the ultimate disregard of nature, akin to the femicide culture in Mexico. And yet, some of the soundest legal victories for the environment have come through protecting the legal rights of native people — protecting them means protecting their land as well. – Brendan
WOW! The African American police chief of Toronto has announced he is stepping down. That is sad. I am sure he was a fine officer during his 35 years of service.
NIMBY has been around forever it seems. It starts with housing segregation. If neighborhoods included all social groups, all social classes, every backyard would be “mine”–all groups would be included in the pollution, and the privileged might take the problems more seriously. They couldn’t escape it.
Although as a middle class white person, I can’t understand anyone approving of or ignoring what we are doing to the earth. Do they not care about their children, the world they are leaving them?
“When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money.”–Native American saying
Thanks — that concluding quote is perfect — I think voices from the grave put our comfortable suburban assurances in stark relief — Reading folks like Colson Whitehead and Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, or simply observing the magnitude of protest around the world right now, does much to penetrate and dissolve the blanket calm of the privileged. We’re all in this burning boat. – Brendan
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We are. Not everyone has noticed yet.