How to save our cities, revive the economy, and green the planet—all at the same time
Manuel Pastor ran bus tours of Los Angeles a few years back. These weren’t the typical sojourns to Disneyland or the MGM studios, though; they were expeditions to some of the city’s most environmentally blighted neighborhoods—where railways, truck traffic, and refineries converge, and where people live 200 feet from the freeway.
The goal of the “toxic tours,” explains Pastor, a professor of geography and of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California (USC), was to let public officials, policy makers, and donors talk to residents in low-income neighborhoods about the environmental hazards they lived with every day and to literally see, smell, and feel the effects.
“It’s a pretty effective forum,” says Pastor, who directs USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, noting that a lot of the “tourists” were eager to get back on the bus in a hurry. “When you’re in these neighborhoods, your lungs hurt.”
Like the tours, Pastor’s research into the economic and social issues facing low-income urban communities highlights the environmental disparities that endure in California and across the United States. As stories about global warming, sustainable energy, and climate change make headlines, the fact that some neighborhoods, particularly low-income and minority communities, are disproportionately toxic and poorly regulated has, until recently, been all but ignored.
A new breed of activists and social scientists are starting to capitalize on the moment. In principle they have much in common with the environmental justice movement, which came of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when grassroots groups across the country began protesting the presence of landfills and other environmentally hazardous facilities in predominantly poor and minority neighborhoods.
In practice, though, the new leadership is taking a broader-based, more inclusive approach. Instead of fighting a proposed refinery here or an expanded freeway there, all along trying to establish that systematic racism is at work in corporate America, today’s environmental justice movement is focusing on proactive responses to the social ills and economic roadblocks that if removed would clear the way to a greener planet.
The new movement assumes that society as a whole benefits by guaranteeing safe jobs, both blue-collar and white-collar, that pay a living wage. That universal health care would both decrease disease and increase awareness about the quality of everyone’s air and water. That better public education and easier access to job training, especially in industries that are emerging to address the global energy crisis, could reduce crime, boost self-esteem, and lead to a homegrown economic boon.
That green rights, green justice, and green equality should be the environmental movement’s new watchwords.
“This is the new civil rights of the 21st century,” proclaims environmental justice activist Majora Carter.
A lifelong resident of Hunts Point in the South Bronx, Carter is executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, an eight-year-old nonprofit created to advance the environmental and economic future of the community. Under the stewardship of Carter, who received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 2005, the organization has managed a number of projects, including a successful grassroots campaign to stop a planned solid waste facility in Hunts Point that would have processed 40 percent of New York City’s garbage.
Her neighborhood endures exhaust from some 60,000 truck trips every week and has four power plants and more than a dozen waste facilities. “It’s like a cloud,” Carter says. “You deal with that, you’re making a dent.”
The first hurdle Carter and a dozen staff members had to face was making the environment relevant to poor people and people of color who have long felt disenfranchised from mainstream environmentalism, which tends to focus on important but distinctly nonurban issues, such as preserving Arctic wildlife or Brazilian rainforest. For those who are struggling to make ends meet, who have to cobble together adequate health care, education, and job prospects, who feel unsafe on their own streets, these grand ideas seem removed from reality.
That’s why the green rights argument is so powerful: It spans public health, community development, and economic growth to make sure that the green revolution isn’t just for those who can afford a Prius. It means cleaning up blighted communities like the South Bronx to prevent potential health problems and to provide amenities like parks to play in, clean trails to walk on, and fresh air to breathe. It also means building green industries into the local mix, to provide healthy jobs for residents in desperate need of a livable wage.
Historically, mainstream environmental organizations have been made up mostly of white staffers and have focused more on the ephemeral concept of the environment rather than on the people who are affected (see “Global Warming Is Color-Blind,” p. 47). Today, though, as climate change and gas prices dominate public discourse, the concepts driving the new environmental justice movement are starting to catch on. Just recently, for instance, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman dubbed the promise of public investment in the green economy the “Green New Deal.”
Van Jones, whom Friedman celebrated in print last October, is president of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, California (see “A Leader Is Born,” p. 96). To help put things in context, Jones briefly sketches the history of environmentalism:
The first wave was conservation, led first by Native Americans who respected and protected the land, then later by Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, and other Caucasians who sought to preserve green space.
The second wave was regulation, which came in the 1970s and 1980s with the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Earth Day. Increased regulation brought a backlash against poor people and people of color, Jones says. White, affluent communities sought to prevent environmental hazards from entering their neighborhoods. This “not-in-my-backyard” attitude spurred a new crop of largely grassroots environmental justice advocates who charged businesses with unfairly targeting low-income and minority communities. “The big challenge was NIMBY-ism,” Jones says, noting that more toxins from power plants and landfills were dumped on people of color.
The third wave of environmentalism, Jones says, is happening today. It’s a focus on investing in solutions that lead to “eco-equity.” And, he notes, it invokes a central question: “How do we get the work, wealth, and health benefits of the green economy to the people who most need those benefits?”
There are a number of reasons why so many environmental hazards end up in the poorest communities.
Property values in neighborhoods with environmental hazards tend to be lower, and that’s where poor people—and often poor people of color—can afford to buy or rent a home. Additionally, businesses and municipalities often choose to build power plants in or expand freeways through low-income neighborhoods because the land is cheaper and poor residents have less power and are unlikely to have the time or organizational infrastructure to evaluate or fight development.
“Wealthy neighborhoods are able to resist, and low-income communities of color will find their neighborhoods plowed down and [find themselves] living next to a freeway that spews pollutants next to their schools,” USC’s Manuel Pastor says.
Moreover, regulatory systems, including the EPA and various local and state zoning and environmental regulatory bodies, allow piecemeal development of toxic facilities. Each new chemical facility goes through an individual permit process, which doesn’t always take into account the overall picture in the community. The regulatory system isn’t equipped to address potentially dangerous cumulative effects.
In a single neighborhood, Pastor says, you might have toxins that come from five different plants that are regulated by five different authorities. Each plant might not be considered dangerous on its own, but if you throw together all the emissions from those static sources and then add in emissions from moving sources, like diesel-powered trucks, “you’ve created a toxic soup,” he says.
In one study of air quality in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area, Pastor found that race, even more than income, determined who lived in more toxic communities. That 2007 report, “Still Toxic After All These Years: Air Quality and Environmental Justice in the San Francisco Bay Area,” published by the Center for Justice, Tolerance & Community at the University of California at Santa Cruz, explored data from the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, which reports toxic air emissions from large industrial facilities. The researchers examined race, income, and the likelihood of living near such a facility.
More than 40 percent of African American households earning less than $10,000 a year lived within a mile of a toxic facility, compared to 30 percent of Latino households and fewer than 20 percent of white households.
As income rose, the percentages dropped across the board but were still higher among minorities. Just over 20 percent of African American and Latino households making more than $100,000 a year lived within a mile of a toxic facility, compared to just 10 percent of white households.
The same report finds a connection between race and the risk of cancer or respiratory hazards, which are both associated with environmental air toxics, including emissions both from large industrial facilities and from mobile sources. The researchers looked at data from the National Air Toxics Assessment, which includes estimates of such ambient air toxics as diesel particulate matter, benzene, and lead and mercury compounds. The areas with the highest risk for cancer had the highest proportion of African American and Asian residents, the lowest rate of home ownership, and the highest proportion of people in poverty. The same trends existed for areas with the highest risk for respiratory hazards.
According to the report, “There is a general pattern of environmental inequity in the Bay Area: Densely populated communities of color characterized by relatively low wealth and income and a larger share of immigrants disproportionately bear the hazard and risk burden for the region.”
Twenty years ago, environmental and social justice activists probably would have presented the disparities outlined in the 2007 report as evidence of corporations deliberately targeting minority communities with hazardous waste. That’s what happened in 1987, when the United Church of Christ released findings from a study that showed toxic waste facilities were more likely to be located near minority communities. At the 1991 People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, leaders called the disproportionate burden both racist and genocidal.
In their 2007 book Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, authors Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger take issue with this strategy (see “The Temperature Transcends Race”). They argue that some of the research conducted in the name of environmental justice was too narrowly focused and that activists have spent too much time looking for conspiracies of environmental racism and not enough time looking at the multifaceted problems facing poor people and people of color.
“Poor Americans of all races, and poor Americans of color in particular, disproportionately suffer from social ills of every kind,” they write. “But toxic waste and air pollution are far from being the most serious threats to their health and well-being. Moreover, the old narratives of intentional discrimination fail to explain or address these disparities. Disproportionate environmental health outcomes can no more be reduced to intentional discrimination than can disproportionate economic and educational outcomes. They are due to a larger and more complex set of historic, economic, and social causes.”
Today’s environmental justice advocates would no doubt take issue with the finer points of Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s criticism—in particular, that institutional racism is a red herring. Activists and researchers are acutely aware that they are facing a multifaceted spectrum of issues, from air pollution to a dire lack of access to regular health care. It’s because of that complexity, however, that they are now more geared toward proactively addressing an array of social and political concerns.
“The environmental justice movement grew out of putting out fires in the community and stopping bad things from happening, like a landfill,” says Martha Dina Argüello, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility–Los Angeles, an organization that connects environmental groups with doctors to promote public health. “The more this work gets done, the more you realize you have to go upstream. We need to stop bad things from happening.”
“We can fight pollution and poverty at the same time and with the same solutions and methods,” says the Ella Baker Center’s Van Jones.
Poor people and people of color have borne all the burden of the polluting industries of today, he says, while getting almost none of the benefit from the shift to the green economy. Jones stresses that he is not an environmental justice activist, but a “social-uplift environmentalist.” Instead of concentrating on the presence of pollution and toxins in low-income communities, Jones prefers to focus on building investment in clean, green, healthy industries that can help those communities. Instead of focusing on the burdens, he focuses on empowerment.
With that end in mind, the Ella Baker Center’s Green-Collar Jobs Campaign plans to launch the Oakland Green Jobs Corps this spring. The initiative, according to program manager Aaron Lehmer, received $250,000 from the city of Oakland and will give people ages 18 to 35 with barriers to employment (contact with the criminal justice system, long-term unemployment) opportunities and paid internships for training in new energy skills like installing solar panels and making buildings more energy efficient.
The concept has gained national attention. It’s the cornerstone of the Green Jobs Act of 2007, which authorizes $125 million annually for “green-collar” job training that could prepare 30,000 people a year for jobs in key trades, such as installing solar panels, weatherizing buildings, and maintaining wind farms. The act was signed into law in December as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act.
While Jones takes the conversation to a national level, Majora Carter is focusing on empowerment in one community at a time. Her successes at Sustainable South Bronx include the creation of a 10-week program that offers South Bronx and other New York City residents hands-on training in brownfield remediation and ecological restoration. The organization has also raised $30 million for a bicycle and pedestrian greenway along the South Bronx waterfront that will provide both open space and economic development opportunities.
As a result of those achievements, Carter gets calls from organizations across the country. In December she traveled to Kansas City, Missouri, to speak to residents, environmentalists, businesses, and students. She mentions exciting work being done by Chicago’s Blacks in Green collective, which aims to mobilize the African American community around environmental issues. Naomi Davis, the collective’s founder, told Chicago Public Radio in November that the group plans to develop environmental and economic opportunities—a “green village” with greenways, light re-manufacturing, ecotourism, and energy-efficient affordable housing—in one of Chicago’s most blighted areas.
Carter stresses that framing the environmental debate in terms of opportunities will engage the people who need the most help. It’s about investing in the green economy, creating jobs, and building spaces that aren’t environmentally challenged. It won’t be easy, she says. But it’s essential to dream big.
“It’s about sacrifice,” she says, “for something better and bigger than you could have possibly imagined.”