Apr 29, 2011

Environmentalism and Social Justice

Today is Stand Against Racism Day. Below is an article written by our board member, Nathan Jackson. We challenge you and ourselves to stand today and everyday against racism- and take actions towards social justice in our work and personal lives.

Environmentalism and Social Justice

by Nathan Jackson, Board Member, Sustainable Seattle

The environmental movement is at a crossroads. The message of protection and stewardship of the environment has penetrated most levels of society with recycling bins in every corner of the nation from the Emerald City to the great state of the Hoosiers. The message of human caused climate change with a few exceptions is generally believed and most people accept at least the concept of climate change. At this time in history environmentalists need to overcome the next and biggest change in their approach to protecting the planet, protecting the people.

Social justice, a sense of equal treatment throughout society, is the biggest challenge and opportunity for environmentalists and other caring people. Climate change, though scientifically proven, is still for most people an idea of future change and damage to the natural environment. However, the effects of climate change are being felt right now by the people that society has forgotten or tried to ignore, minorities, the poor and the working poor.

The disadvantages many people face is a product of what is called institutional racism. Institutional racism is the past unfairness of laws and rules that have made many minorities have a harder time building and maintaining wealth and opportunity. When people are stopped from buying homes, entering higher education or gaining access to good paying jobs because of federal, state or city wide laws they cannot in large numbers be a success. Individuals through extraordinary effort, luck and circumstances may become a success, but if you look at minorities as a group you get a better view of the extra challenges they have to defeat.

So what does this have to do with environmental groups? Environmentalists are missing an opportunity to focus the attention of climate change on the effects to humanity. The same people who face the additional challenges to a successful life are the same people who living everyday with the toxic effects of harmful business practices, pollution, illegal dumping, and industrial waste. Those who live with the effects are the ones with the most to lose and the most to immediately gain. The chance to combat two major problems, inequality and climate change is a chance that environmental groups need to seize in order to make the lasting change necessary to protect the environment and humanity.

Environmentalists should be walking the neighborhoods that are polluted not only to observe but to reach out to the people who have little or no choice in living there. They should be seeking out the neighborhood councils and breathing the air that many people have to breathe every day. They would see that the movement to fight for the planet needs to start with stopping the more local pollution and damage that hurts people right now.

In Seattle, one can predict with surprising accuracy how long someone will live, what they will do for a living and how they will die based on their zip code. In historic Central District across the board those living there have shorter life spans, and more breathing related problems due to air pollution and industrial waste. The rate of asthma amongst children is much higher and adults who live in areas stricken with poverty are twice as likely to have breathing problems.

When it comes to other environmental problems associated with human causes one can do no better than looking at the poisoning and pollution of the Duwamish River that has been going on for a hundred years. Industrial waste and dumpage that includes PCB's, arsenic, and dioxins have made the river one of the most polluted sites in the United States. The fact that the Environmental Protection Agency made it a Superfund recipient proves that the damage has been intensive as only the most damaged areas received federal funding. Fortunately some environmental groups have shown some forward thinking and have partnered with local populations and minority groups affected by the pollution to work towards solutions.

The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition is an organization made up of environmentalists, local Native American tribes, business leaders, and local populations to finally bring about a sustainable change to the river that will allow it be clean for human use, safe for salmon and other animals and be an example of rethinking industrial choices to include environmental and human considerations. The group is reaching out for public comment, meeting groups where they are and listening to ideas from the people most affected by the problem.

Environmental Justice is the term that focuses on the immediate damage that people face if they are in areas where laws and tradition place factories, garbage dumps, toxic waste disposal sites and electrical lines. The idea behind Environmental Justice is that new laws and rules should "even out" environmental damage by making companies and organizations move their factories and dump sites in a regulated way. The idea is that if everyone gets the "benefits" of these services then everyone should "pay the price." The problem with Environmental Justice is that it does not get to the root problem of inequality. Without those hard fought regulations that sometimes take years of court battles to enforce, the factories and dump sites will move right back into the "poorer" neighborhoods where they will stay until another dynamic leader fights again.

The environmental movement has an opportunity to broaden their message and gain valuable allies in their fight to protect the environment from human caused problems and restore the natural habitat. The groups need to reach out a group of people that they have historically ignored and fight by their side to lessen the damage that they are suffering from industrial choices made by the rich and enforced by institutions and instead give real actions to real problems from which they suffer. Health concerns, fewer choices in jobs and careers, lack of quality education, crime and equality are all causes that social justice is concerned about and the environmental movement should broaden its concerns to include the more human side to climate change.

Until the story changes from "Save Mother Earth" to "Save your fellow man" the environmentalists will be fighting a wave against strong and wealthy opponents and many people who simply do not care. By redefining environmentalism in human terms, people will see that they have real here and now reasons to get involved with the environmental movement. People will connect their son and daughter suffering from asthma to our bad business practices. People will see that their cousin's diabetes and heart disease stems from a lack of walkable, breathable neighborhoods and a steady diet of cheap, yet unhealthy fast food. People will see the benefit of clean rivers and streams when the water that comes out of their tap is not poisoned.

Make the fight to save the planet practical and connected to lives here and now and we will have a nearly endless stream of supporters and activists who can make real, life affirming differences in their neighborhood and beyond. We will have a group of dedicated, passionate people who can when their own backyard is stable and safe can broaden their boundaries and their views to include a wider spectrum of challenges.


Environmental Justice Net www.ejnet.org/ej

Environmental Justice Resource Center www.ejrc.cau.edu/convent_report.html

Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project depts.washington.edu/civilr/

Social Justice Fund Northwest www.socialjusticefund.org

Northwest African American Museum http://naamnw.org

The Black Past: remembered and reclaimes http://www.blackpast.org/


  1. Thank you for this post. I've been thinking about social justice and environmental issues a lot recently as an organizer for Countywide Community Forums, which is currently hosting forums on Equity and Economic Opportunity around King County. There's a survey currently available on the CCF website that asks questions about these issues, and the results will be reported back to the King County Council and the County Executive. It's a great way for citizens to share opinions and take a stand: http://www.communityforums.com

  2. There's no question that worst pollution is in the poorest neighborhoods. Working to organize those neighborhoods is important for those communities and informative for the organizer as well.

  3. "Untill the story changes from save mother earth to save your fellow man the environmentalist will be fighting..." Well said! Environmentalist need the human component to foster the general public appeal.