Why We Should Care About Environmental Justice

Deep Green Philly
4 min readDec 24, 2019

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Originally posted in By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) Volume 1: Issue 4

When we think of the challenges facing Black people in this country it’s easy to see why climate change and the environment often slip down to the bottom of the list. Police murders, lack of quality education, mass incarceration, homelessness, unemployment and underemployment, gun violence — these issues and many more grab the headlines and people’s attention, and rightfully so. However, we should realize that even though environmental issues often receive less attention, it doesn’t make them less important.

There’s a great Instagram page called Philly Housing Projects that exposes the harsh environmental and social conditions many urban Black people are forced to live in. The decrepit streets and sidewalks, the illegal dumping and litter, the vacant lots and abandoned houses — this is what many of us wake up to and see every single day. The question we must ask is why some people live in clean, well maintained and greenery filled spaces while others live in polluted and violence ridden places that look straight out of a horror movie.

Our environment is not only far away forests and ice caps, it’s the literal environment surrounding us that we live in and move through day to day. The quality of our environment determines the quality of our lives.

In the summer of 2019 there was a massive explosion at an oil refinery in south Philadelphia that released thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals into the air. Guess who lives near that refinery? Mostly working class and poor Black people, many of whom have suffered health problems from the refinery’s decades long history of toxic emissions. If the worst case scenario had occurred, tens of thousands of people would have been killed as a result of the latest explosion.

In big cities, who is more likely to live near airports, highways and congested traffic corridors? Most so-called ghettos and public housing are placed near pollution spewing infrastructure. Daily exposure to high levels of smog, car exhaust and other air pollution can cause or aggravate conditions like heart disease and asthma. Air pollution has also been linked to miscarriages and birth defects.

Many of us are familiar with Flint, Michigan, but lead contamination is a problem in many Black communities across the country. Recently, residents of Newark, NJ were ordered to stop drinking tap water and switch to bottled water because of high levels of lead. Lead contamination can cause brain damage that contributes to a lack of self control and learning disabilities.

The origins of today’s environmental injustice and inequality can be traced back to the time of chattel slavery. Most enslaved people lived a distance away from their captors’ home in run down shacks not far from the outhouses. Enslaved people were essentially housed in the worst possible conditions on plantations just a step above farm animals. We’re all familiar with how enslaved people were given leftovers like pig intestines to eat, but that’s part of a bigger story about how our ancestors were forced to live in degraded and run down circumstances from the very beginning.

A 1982 sit-in protest against a planned chemical landfill in a majority Black North Carolina county is viewed as part of the foundation of the environmental justice movement. Organizations like MOVE have been talking about the issue of environmental racism since the 70’s. Poor people in general, but especially Black, Latinx and Native Americans are often subjected to environmental racism — the institutional practice of either incidentally or intentionally exposing communities to environmental harms. Notice how you will almost never find a waste burning power plant, a trash dump, or an oil refinery in a wealthy, white suburb. The owners and managers of our society know these things are toxic and harmful and don’t want them in their communities. Why should we accept them being placed in ours?

Environmental racism is affecting communities all over the world, from South Africa to Bangladesh to Australia. Everywhere we find capitalism and settler colonialism, environmental racism is always close by. The Central American refugee fleeing to the United States has much in common with the oppressed inner city dweller. The dysfunction we see in poor and working class communities across this continent and across the world is caused and perpetuated by the same individuals and institutions who see people of color as “less than” and expendable. This is one reason why we must work together in coalitions to defeat our common enemies.

Climate change and environmental disruption will have severe impacts for communities that are already facing environmental racism. If you think gentrification is bad now, wait until climate refugees begin pouring into the big cities as they flee sea level rise and more frequent hurricanes and other disasters. Who do you think will be the first ones to be displaced? Do you or loved ones struggle to put food on the table? Climate change will wreak havoc on our natural seasons, making it more difficult to grow crops. Those who are already poor or struggling will suffer most from rising food prices and shortages. This is why we must begin preparing now and planning for how we will live and thrive in a world that is rapidly changing. Urban gardens, housing co-opts, communal living, and political agitation for environmental justice/reparations are things we can do today to prepare for an uncertain tomorrow. All organizations working towards Black liberation should have a strong program in place to address both current and future environmental justice concerns.

Further reading:

Philadelphia Explosion One in String of ‘Near Miss’ Accidents at Refineries Using Deadly Chemical

African-Americans, Hispanics exposed to more air pollution than whites

Air pollution ‘as bad as smoking in increasing risk of miscarriage’

It’s Not Just Flint. There’s an Ugly History of Lead Poisoning and the Poor in the US.

‘Climate Gentrification’ Will Deepen Urban Inequality

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Deep Green Philly

Environmental activist and community organizer: ronwhyte.com; on facebook: Deep Green Philly