Environmental Sustainability and Anti-Racism

An essay that explains how care of the environment, climate change, and anti-racism are linked and benefit from being taken on together.      Click here for a printable PDF of this essay.

Environmental Sustainability and Anti-Racism

The destruction of the environment of our planet, and global climate change in particular, are a threat to all of us and to our species. People of color, both in the United States and around the world, are disproportionally targeted by the degradation of the environment. In short, the situation is that huge profits are being made, mostly by white men, through enterprises that are destroying the environment, while people of color pay a large percentage of the costs of those endeavors.

Taking a stand

Because people of color bear such a large percentage of the burden of the effects of the degradation of the environment, a full stand against racism requires standing against the destruction of the environment and against climate change. Because the ideology and distresses of racism underlie the enactment of environmental destruction, and because peoples of all backgrounds must unite to preserve and restore the environment, a wholehearted effort to save the environment requires building a united, multi-racial environmental movement that stands fully against racism as an integral part of its work to create the conditions for sustainable life on our planet.

What it will take

A full solution will require ending divisions among people, including those created by racism. The restoration and preservation of the environment must take precedence over any group of humans having material advantage over others. The nearly universal feeling of always “needing more”, and of willingness to obtain more even if it comes at the expense of others, must be replaced by a deep commitment to the common good of all humans. Such a commitment is impossible with racism in place. In most cases we will also need to be willing to live with less, in order for all humans to live sustainably on the Earth.

People of color are environmental leaders

It is a myth that caring about the environment and seeking sustainable ways of living on the earth is a “white thing”. Although widely ignored and underreported, indigenous people and other people of color, both in the U.S. and around the world, have been leaders in protecting and restoring the environment. A few examples include the Latino farm workers in Kettleman City, California and the African American families in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Augusta, Georgia organizing successfully to fight against toxic chemicals from polluting industries affecting their communities; Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan woman who won the Nobel Prize for establishing the grassroots Green Belt movement that has planted over 40 million trees across Africa; and Van Jones, the contemporary African American environmental advocate and civil rights activist who co-founded Color of Change, Green for All, and Rebuild the Dream.

Environmental racism in the U.S.

In the United States, “environmental racism” includes such common practices as locating landfills, trash incinerators, coal plants, toxic waste facilities, and polluting factories in poor communities of color all over the country. These affect the air, water, and food, and have major harmful health effects on the people of color living in these communities.   People of color in every part of the United States bear a disproportional burden of the nation’s environmental problems. For example three out of every five African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans live near toxic waste sites. African Americans are 79 percent more likely than white people to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of causing significant harmful health effects.

How climate change affects people of color

With super-storms, record-breaking flooding, devastating droughts, out-of-control wildfires, and record-breaking temperatures, climate change is affecting our world dramatically already. The rapid increase in carbon in the atmosphere (especially from the burning of fossil fuels) threatens to drastically change conditions everywhere and eventually to make our planet uninhabitable by humans. This is a worldwide problem and all of the world’s peoples are truly “in this together”.   However, climate change, too, is disproportionally affecting people of color and poor people world-wide.

  • In 2012, 31.8 million people were displaced from their homes by catastrophic climate and weather-related events, nearly twice as many as in 2011. The vast majority of these were people of color in Asia and Africa.
  • As Hurricane Katrina showed us, and Superstorm Sandy reinforced,  people of color living in neighborhoods with the fewest resources have a harder time escaping, surviving, and recovering from climate change driven disasters.
  • When temperatures soar, heat-related deaths among urban blacks occur at a 150 to 200 percent greater rate than for whites people due to black population density in urban areas with an abundance of concrete and asphalt.
  • Global warming is already expanding the range of disease-bearing insects and parasites and infecting new populations, disproportionally of people of color, with deadly diseases such as malaria, dengue, and cholera.

Subsidizing the profits of the wealthy

Usually when a company makes something, its profit is the money left over after it pays all the expenses of making the product. In the case of industries that pollute or sell products that pollute, they don’t pay all the expenses. They don’t pay the cost of the harm their product does to people’s health. They don’t pay the cost of cleaning up the air or the water that they pollute. In the case of the fossil fuel industries, they don’t pay the many costs of the climate change being caused by their products. Even though those costs are part of the cost associated with the product, these costs are not being paid by the producers. These costs are paid by the whole society, and disproportionally by the people of color who are impacted by them. In that sense the profits of the polluting industries, including the fossil fuel industries, are being subsidized by all of us, and disproportionally by poor people of color. This is systemic racism and it’s not only targeting people of color, it’s destroying the planet on which we all live.

The ideology of racism and the degradation of the environment

The underlying ideology of racism is that some groups of people can be defined as “other” and labeled “inferior” by a dominant group that sees itself as “superior”.   As the age of colonization began in the 16th and 17th centuries, white Europeans developed the ideology of racism to justify the theft of resources, degradation of the land, the enslavement of people, and genocide directed at dark-skinned people and indigenous people all over the world.   Greed was the primary driver of these practices.   Disregard for the effects of these practices on the targeted populations was (and is) central to the operation of the system.

Practices and enterprises today that contribute to the degradation of the environment and to climate change are rooted in the same features – greed, a feeling of being “superior” to those most affected, and seeing prioritizing one’s own profits and comfort as completely legitimate, regardless of the effects on others or on the environment.   Racism has long provided a justification for such perspectives, as enacted through colonization, genocide and slavery, extending into the present. Only through dismantling racism can we remove these perspectives and the practices that result from them.

We are in this together

Racism, and environmental degradation and climate change are intertwined. Trying to make a significant difference in dismantling either racism or the environmental crisis can be a daunting, even overwhelming, prospect. To suggest that they need to both be taken on together could lead some to feel despairing or discouraged. Some may feel that including a “second” issue dilutes the attention given their primary issue. However, knowing these issues are linked can create opportunities for anti-racists and environmental activists to form broad coalitions and work together as allies.   It can be a source of hope to realize that action taken on either of these issues can move things forward on the other as well.   It becomes clearer and clearer that we are all in this together, and that ending racism and preserving and restoring the environment are in our common interest. There are no limits to the possibilities for bringing people together to address these crucial issues.

Russ Vernon-Jones
Copyright 2014