What is Environmental Justice?!

February 2007 E-news

What is Environmental Justice?!

Many of us are fairly familiar with the term “environmentalism” (think endangered species, deforestation, and pollution) as well as “social justice,”(think civil rights, labour unions and poverty) but have you ever thought about how these two movements fit together?

Adrienne Maree Brown has!She is a writer, singer, activist and organizer and had this to say: “Overall, too many young people see the struggles of humans as separate from the struggles for a healthy environment.
And unfortunately, the environmental movement has actually helped enforce that disconnect by seeming to draw divisions between the natural world and its human inhabitants — and by seeming to worry more about the former than the latter. If you work on environmental issues, chances are you don’t know me. I represent the other other side. The one outside the greenhouse. I’m young, I’m colored, I’m female, I’m urban — and environmentalism isn’t reaching me like it needs to.

For a long time the two movements have been seen as separate, but we want to bring them together, and when would be better than this month? February has been celebrated as “Black History Month” since the late 1920’s to recognize the struggles, triumphs and contributions of people of colour in America. Slavery existed in Canada as well from 1628 to 1793, with the repercussions of segregation and racism existing to this day, but Black History Month wasn’t officially recognized in Canada until 1995!

What does this all have to do with youth environmental stewardship in Canada you ask? Two simple words: Environmental Justice. It’s a movement that seeks to expose "environmental racism”–racial discrimination in environmental policymaking and the enforcement of environmental protection laws and regulations.” According to Robert Bullard, one of the founding American activists and scholars of this 20 year-old movement, environmental justice is about “trying to address power imbalances, lack of political enfranchisement, and to redirect resources so that we can create healthy, liveable and sustainable communities.”

Bullard noticed that the people who often plan and benefit from human settlement and industrial development are not those who have to bear the biggest environmental costs of these policies. He found that hazardous waste incinerators, toxic dump sites, dams, power plants and other threats to the environment are often located in low income, black communities, and never in middle or upper class white communities. Due to entrenched racial and economic discrimination, poor black communities do not often have the political clout to keep such sources of pollution and contamination out of their communities, nor the money to move away if one was built in their neighbourhood.

In an interview, Robert Bullard said, “environmental justice incorporates the idea that we are just as much concerned about wetlands, birds and wilderness areas, but we’re also concerned with urban habitats. We have had to struggle to get these issues on the radar on a lot of the large environmental groups.”

Adrienne Maree Brown agrees:That is the context for the next stage of environmentalism. You have an oppressed, depressed, furious mass waiting to be mobilized. And sure, some of us eat at McDonald’s and wear leather shoes — but we feel it is possible to demand better from our government and from ourselves for our environment. We feel it is imperative to connect the different survival struggles we are engaged in if we truly hope to sustain a viable movement for change.

So, what can I do for environmental justice?
We need to work hard to be inclusive and diverse, regardless of our age, ethnicity, gender, religion or wealth, or we’ll miss out on important issues and the support of whole groups of potential allies, volunteers, voters, and donors. Children, the poor, the elderly, First Nations, immigrants, people of colour and of course non-human species often have less of a voice and/or increased vulnerability to environmental problems. Next time you want to take on a new project or campaign, ask yourself: who is probably impacted by this issue, but seems silent? How can I work with them to reach more people and create more change? If we really want to be the change, we need to stop repeating the mistakes of the past and dream of something different!

After all, as in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”


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