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The Environmental Justice Movement Is a Voice for Underserved Communities

Sustainability News
by Tim Wenger Jun 12, 2020

This is The Climate Win, the most positive sustainability news around the world every week.

This week’s Climate Win column focuses on one of the most overlooked aspects of conservation: the environmental justice movement. The keyword here is justice. What separates the environmental justice movement from mainstream environmentalism is the fact that it was born out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, instead of evolving solely from the modern environmental movement that began during the same time period.

Environmental justice focuses on the impacts of environmental degradation on minority and underserved communities. The movement as we know it today began at a sit-in organized by the NAACP in Warren County, NC, in 1982. In search of somewhere to dump vast quantities of hazardous materials, the state singled out a landfill in the majority-Black county to host hazardous waste containing polychlorinated biphenyls, known then to contain a multitude of threats to a person’s health. The protest, which ultimately proved unsuccessful in preventing the waste from being dumped in Warren County, did manage to launch the environmental justice movement and shine light on a different aspect of systemic racism in the United States. For more on the incident, the US Office of Legacy Management has information on the sit-in and the launch of the environmental justice movement.

The environmental justice movement slowly gained steam in the ensuing decades, but it wasn’t until nearly 20 years later that it, and the undeniable correlation between environmental action and social justice, reached the mainstream. It is impossible to discuss the environmental justice movement without talking about Dr. Robert Bullard. In October of 1990, the first edition of Bullard’s book Dumping in Dixie was published, which documented the efforts of five Black communities to maintain their environmental dignity. Bullard’s book and ensuing life work not only provided a voice for unheard activists, but his research and writing also made starkly clear the connection between environmental degradation and disadvantaged populations.

Also in 1990, Black justice advocates submitted a formal letter to a coalition of largely white environmental groups known as the “Group of 10,” citing the group’s lack of diversity in its leadership and action planning. These advocates succeeded in disrupting the agenda of the Group of 10, and many of its members began incorporating environmental justice into their work.

These efforts, combined with other BIPOC movements, helped to spur the formation of the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, which took place in Washington, DC, in 1991. From the 1990s until today, the environmental justice movement has worked to address systemic racism in both environmentalism and social policy. In 2019, climate leaders and environmental justice advocates came together to push for an Equitable and Just National Climate Platform. In addition to addressing mainstream climate action agenda efforts like moving toward renewable energy and reducing transportation emissions, the platform hopes to push for clean air and sustainability-related technological advancements to be delivered to all of American society, not just wealthier areas where residents can afford solar panels and rooftop gardens.

To get involved with the movement, consider supporting the following organizations and advocates:

  • WE ACT is a national nonprofit whose mission is “to build healthy communities by ensuring that people of color and/or low income residents participate meaningfully in the creation of sound and fair environmental health and protection policies and practices.”
  • The NAACP hosts an Environmental and Climate Justice arm as part of its advocacy efforts.
  • In Texas, Tejas Barrios educates citizens and advocates for environmental justice in minority and underserved communities across the state.
  • And no matter where you live, make environmental justice a priority in your voting decisions. Both national and local elections this fall will have a massive impact on environmental issues in the coming years. This list ranks all members of Congress on their environmental action, and a quick Google search for eco-advocate politicians should turn up information on how to vote green in local elections.

This week’s good news from the climate fight

  • The New York Times reported this week on advancements in offshore wind turbine technology that are allowing wind power to be generated in waters deeper than the traditional 200-foot maximum depth. Installed on floating “islands,” moving wind turbines further from land will not only help power to be captured from previously inaccessible high-wind areas but they also give producers an answer to residents’ complaints about “eyesores” off the coast.
  • Animal conservation is making a giant leap — into space. A massive antenna and other technological advances are being installed on the International Space Station to track and manage wildlife, a move that will give scientists and conservation advocates more data on herd population numbers, movement, and risks.
  • Bicycling is thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is great news on many fronts. For icing on the cake, CSS Composites has taken a massive step forward in the evolution of environmentally friendly bike products: the recyclable tire rim. Its FusionFiber rims don’t use the epoxy that normal carbon fibers necessitate, meaning they can be recycled. Revel Bikes, a partner of CSS Composites, has already turned scrap from the rims into tire levers.

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