Why the environmental movement should stand up for Black lives
Protesters in front of the White House on Monday, June 1st. When we arrived around 3 PM, fewer than thirty people were gathered with signs. By the time we left just before the 7 PM curfew, H street was filled with hundreds of protesters and echoed with chants of “I can’t breath,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “No justice! No peace! No racist police!”
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was killed by Minneapolis police. In a video of the event, Chauvin’s knee pressed on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, while the other officers looked on. Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder and the other officers have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. Protests have swept hundreds of cities across the country to denounce structural racism in the criminal justice system that led not only to the death of George Floyd, but that of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless others. Getting shot by the police is a leading cause of death for Black men in America. Black men are almost 2.5 times as likely to die from encounters with law enforcement than their white peers. Similarly, the criminal justice system as a whole discriminates against African Americans. American policing originated in Slave Patrols and has continued to terrorize communities of color throughout the Jim Crow era, and now during the present era of mass incarceration. The ‘War on Drugs’ has contributed to massive disparities in the criminal justice system. For example, while African Americans and whites use and sell drugs at similar rates, the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is 6 times that of whites.
Such disparities in the criminal justice system reflect larger disparities in our society. Environmental racism is “the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color.” Policies such as redlininghave concentrated poverty, pollution and lack of resources in communities of color. People of color, including African Americans, Latinos and other races (Asian American, Pacific Islander, Native American) live with 66% more air pollution. Air pollution has been linked to higher coronavirus death rates because of exposure to fine particulate matter (PM 2.5). We have seen that COVID 19 has hit racial and ethnic minorities harder due to unequal access to health care, pre-existing conditions, and living and working situations. Environmental injustice has real consequences. For example, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, “black children are 4 times more likely to be admitted to the hospital for asthma, as compared with white children.” According to Greenpeace, air pollution costs the world $8 billion per day and fossil fuel production causes 4.5 million premature deaths per year. These costs and mortality are not evenly distributed. Those who live in majority African American communities have greater risk of premature death due to exposure to particulate matter.
I will begin by underscoring that environmentalism is not a uniquely Western idea. In contrast, Western societies have actively destroyed the planet and inhibited peoples and nations across the world from preserving and benefitting from their land. Since I am a student in the Europe-Africa program at Sciences Po, I will focus on examples from the African continent. Next, I will return to the United States and highlight a movement that seeks to integrate racial justice in the broader fight for climate and environmental justice. Finally, I will conclude by explaining how you can get involved in advocating for an end to police violence and an equitable and sustainable future.
While many attribute the rise of the modern environmental movement to Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking 1962 book ‘Silent Spring,’ documenting the consequences of the indiscriminate use of pesticides, such an analysis is ethnocentric. Western countries’ lack of concern for the environmental consequences of their empires have destroyed (and continue to destroy) communities. The United States and the European Union, for example, have emitted nearly half of all the world’s carbon emissions. The West’s sudden shift to wanting to ‘preserve nature’ displaced (and continues to displace) Indigenous peoples (that are often far better custodians of nature than their Western counterparts). It is true that Carson’s work increased public awareness about environmental issues, leading to the First Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Protesters decrying rivers that were so saturated with oil that they literally caught fireled to substantial changes: the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the passage of the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. However, we must first acknowledge the age of ‘environmental imperialism’ that preceded ‘Silent Spring’s’ publication in addition to the fact that it is only after decolonization that we coined the term ‘World Heritage Site.’
Environmental imperialism proposes that “colonization was not only a form of cultural and political tyranny, it was also a form of environmental terrorism” (see Impérialisme écologique by Professor Dr. Abdoulaye Gassama who teaches at Université Assane Seck Zinguinchor in Senegal). Slavery, for example, created a racialization of society in the form of a hierarchy that places Black people at the lowest rung of the social, economic, and political ladder. Due to their presupposed inferiority, colonial and later imperialist countries (in which I include the United States) argued that ‘colonized’ peoples and nations were incapable of caring for their own land. This idea reinforced the supposed superiority of Western societies, most notably in the scientific and technological domains. The ‘inferiority’ of the Congolese people, for example, led King Leopold II of Belgium to dispossess them of their land, massacring more than 10 million people, and injuring countless others often through mutilation. Gassama underscores a ‘political ecology of famine’ that led (and continues to lead) to unprecedented ecological crises. He points to, for example, three devastating droughts from 1876 to 1902 in the tropical regions of Africa, the Asia-Pacific, and Latin America that led to the death of millions of people. Such droughts, he argues, were the result of the political choices of colonial powers seeking to maximize their gains in the new capitalist system. Introducing European-style agricultural practices, invasive species and diseases in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have had drastic environmental, social, and economic consequences.
Dr. Guillaume Blanc is a professor at l’Université Rennes 2 in France and an expert on Ethiopia. He explains the creation, in the Euro-American imagination, of an ‘African Eden,’ the perception that the African continent is home to untouched nature that is constantly under threat from those who live there. Such an idea puts forward the necessity of ‘protecting Africa’ from its many nations who are ‘intent on destroying the environment.’ We see evidence of such eco-racism from the first report of the UNESCO’s John Blower in 1969 who called the inhabitants of the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia “retarded and primitive,” recommending their expulsion for the creation of the Simien Mountains National Park. John Blower’s report was preceded by the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Leslie Brown, who concluded that “the Ethiopians are the most destructive humans that I have ever seen.” Thus, in 1969, the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority informed WWF of its intent to expel the populations living within the 130 km of the newly created park. Residents were banned from agro-pastoral activities in 1969 and in 1978, UNESCO declared the park a natural World Heritage Site. It is important to recognize that nearly half of the world’s cultural heritage sites (431) are found in Europe. Sub-Saharan Africa, meanwhile, has only 53 cultural heritage sites. 40% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s World Heritage sites (38) are natural heritage sites, compared to only 8% (43 sites) in Europe. Such a disparity reinforces the aforementioned racial hierarchy by implying that the ‘global North’ possesses culture and intelligence, while ‘the global South’ boasts only natural beauty. In Ethiopia, environmental imperialism has continued in the Simien region. In 1990, WWF recommended ‘the displacement of villagers [living in the park]’ and between 1995 and 2012, the region’s courts condemned more than 2,000 people for cultivating their land, around one in five habitants of Simien.
Environmental imperialism extends far beyond Ethiopia. The Ango-Norweigan company Shell has committed decades of human rights abuses in Nigeria poisoning water in the Ogale community by the Niger delta. An investigation recently found that WWF ‘eco guards,’ supposed to protect against poaching have tortured and killed communities in Nepal, Cameroon, and the Republic of Congo. In Latin America, Chevron, an American oil company, has refused to pay after an Ecuadorian court found it responsible for $9.5 billion in damages due to the destruction it inflicted from drilling projects in the Ecuadorian rainforest from 1964 to 1990. In Brazil, coronavirus coupled with President Jair Bolsanaro’s encouragement of deforestation could amount to a genocide of indigenous people. Canada has long brutalized indigenous people, highlighted recently in the country’s military response to Wet’suwet’en protesters of the Coastal GasLink pipeline project. In the United States, Native American nations such as the Crow, Blackfeet, and the Kiowa were forced to leave their ancestral lands for the creation of Yellowstone National Park. White park rangers expelled ‘primitive savages’ for the creation of parks such as Glacier, Badlands, Mesa Verde, the Grand Canyon, and Death Valley (for more information, read Ethnic Cleansing and America’s National Parks).
In addition to ecological imperialism, environmental racism continues to harm communities of color. Exxon Mobil has continued to pump toxins into a Black community in Texas 17 years after the community filed a civil rights complaint with the EPA. In the United States, race is the “single biggest factor” in determining whether you live in close proximity to a hazardous waste facility. To address structural racism and the climate crisis, we must favor proposals that decarbonize our economy, while addressing the many inequalities that exist in our societies.
Integrating racial justice in our response to the climate crisis: The Green New Deal
One proposal that seeks to address social justice and the climate crisis is the Sunrise Movement’s Green New Deal. The Resolution (H. Res. 109) was introduced in February of 2019 by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey with 95 House Co-Sponsors and 14 Senate Co-Sponsors. The resolution cited key findings from the IPCC’s “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 ℃,”emphasizing that increased severe weather from climate change could cost the US economy more than $500 billion in lost annual economic output by 2100. The Resolution highlights racial wealth inequality such as the fact that the net worth of a typical white family ($171,000) is nearly ten times that of a Black family ($17,150). According to the Sunrise Movement, the Green New Deal has five main goals: “achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers; create millions of good, high-wage jobs; and ensure prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States; invest in the infrastructure and industry of the United States to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century; secure clean air and water, climate and community resilience, healthy food, access to nature, and a sustainable environment for all; promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing the historic oppression of frontline and vulnerable communities.”
On June 4, The Sunrise Movement’s Executive Director Varshini Prakash held a virtual call, attended by more than 1,800 people, to discuss “Taking Action for Black Lives.” She stressed that there is no climate justice without racial justice and hosted Charles Booker, a Kentucky state legislator who is running for Mitch McConnell’s seat in the United States Senate. Booker has been in the streets since the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Taylor was a resident of Booker’s hometown of Louisville and a friend of his family. After calling Greg Fischer, the Mayor of Louisville, Booker was able to convince police to lower their weapons as the he and his neighbors sang “We Shall Overcome.” Protesters locked arms and sang to mourn the death of ‘BBQ Man’ David McAtee who recently died at the hands of police. Mr. McAtee’s body lay on the street for 12 hours. In talking to Sunrise, Booker illustrated the generational poverty experienced by residents of ‘the West End’ and the devastating consequences of the criminalization of poverty by law enforcement. He also shined light on the environmental injustices such as polluted water experienced by his community and communities of color across the country. The Sunrise Movement has so far signed up more than 200 people to phone bank for Charles Booker and Jamaal Bowman, another African American legislator from New York who also supports the Green New Deal. As the situation continues to evolve here are some actions you can take to support the movement.
Amplifying Black voices: How you can take action during this moment
On the subject of police violence, you can contact your representative and ask them to enact legislation based on Campaign Zero’s 8 evidence-based solutions that if enacted can reduce police killings by 72%. Only 5% of the arrests in this country are for violent crime, so Campaign Zero also proposes diverting money from police forces to investments in education, health, and jobs in communities of color. Such policies work. After the 2014 protests, Newark’s mayor Ras Baraka prioritized police reform, working with activists to create an independent citizen-led review board of police activities. The city also hired more police from minority communities and trained officers based on American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) standards. Such efforts led Newark’s crime rate to drop to an unprecedented low. Michael Tubbs, the current mayor of Stockton, California and the city’s first African American mayor transformed Stockton from what Forbes rated in 2010 as ‘one of the three worst places to live in the United States’ to an All-American City two of the last three years. He did this by implementing programs to aggressively fight poverty, mass incarceration, crime, and educational inequities. Tubbs’ administration reduced homicides by 40% and created more than 3,500 jobs in the city. Another act you can take is donating to the many organizations fighting for racial justice in this country.
On the environmental front, you can integrate environmental justice in your organization, business, community, and family. That means talking about racism, reading Anti-Racist literature, and ensuring that everything you do promotes an equitable, sustainable, and just future. As a white person, it has been uncomfortable for me to acknowledge that I benefit from racist structures, hold racist ideas, and ignore racial injustice. I imagine that such a reckoning may be difficult for other white people as well. However, it is something that must occur. The first step to solving a problem is admitting that the problem exists. The second is understanding its scale. It is undeniable that the problem exists and we have the data to understand its scale. We also have the data to understand the climate crisis and the disproportionate impact of environmental issues on communities of color. All that is left is for us to do something about it.
This blog was previously published by Leaders in Energy, June 7, 2020.