Race: The unlikely component of environmental justice

Pink & White Flowers

When it comes to standing up against injustice, all activists tend to champion different causes. But the issues we face today hardly ever have rigid boundaries; the inequity and wrongdoings that plague our society are often interrelated. Among these, we can name Environmental Justice, a movement that promotes environmental, economic, and social justice by recognizing the direct link between environmental, economic, and health issues and demanding a safe, clean planet to live in. This movement has broadened the perspective of the environmental cause beyond the scope of conservation and preservation of natural resources and redefined “environment” as “Where we live, work, play, learn and pray.”

But as injustices tend to pile up together, environmental injustice brings up another, well-known, still undefeated social challenge, racism.

Talking about climate change is impossible without talking about racism. While climate change affects the whole world, it is important to realize that there are contributors to destroying the environment, and powerless spectators, who suffer its consequences.

This distinction walks hand in hand with racism and inequality, especially in urban areas, where some communities are burdened with a disproportionate number of facilities that contaminate air, soil, and water, all for the benefit of other, more privileged people. Industrial polluters such as landfills, waste incinerators, power plants, and hazardous waste dumps are typically placed in outskirts, low-income areas, which are also usually black and brown neighborhoods, impacting the well-being of residents. 

The main issue for us is that the close correlation between race and climate change appears incongruous. We generally see climate change as a global problem that scientists and engineers need to sort out. The linkage between global environmental destruction and a local social problem such as racism is not immediately evident; therefore, we are not immediately prone to address such issues and act to resolve them. 

But racism is everywhere in the global system. It burdens people of color and those belonging to low-income communities, taking away their right to be free from ecological destruction.

And perhaps this is more evident and well known, but environmental injustice happens internationally too. Numerous technical advances occur in the global North, while manufacturing processes occur in the global South. Hence a disproportionate amount of emissions and waste collects in southern, poorer countries rather than locally in the northern countries that enjoy the products. 

Our economic structure is set to reduce labor costs and prioritize product manufacturing over workers’ safety and welfare. This surrenders our economic fate to a market that continually underprices environmental impacts and transfers too much of the income to the few who occupy the highest percentiles of the revenue spectrum.

Climate change results from a broader problem that has been going on for a long time but has been overlooked for the sake of wealth production and economic growth. The realities of severe social and economic injustice, both domestically and globally, were considered acceptable by those who benefitted in this historic journey to abundance. Socio-economic and environmental injustices have been ignored.

When we think about climate change and low-income communities’ problems, we need to replace the current charity paradigm that conveniently forgets history. We must shift from viewing governments’ response as a “handout” to helping poor communities; and wealthy and corporate subsidies as “growth.” 

The issue needs awareness of the historical systemic policies that have produced many of the inequalities we see today. Racism may not have caused climate change, but the two go hand in hand, and until large-scale environmental movements acknowledge this, there is no moving forward. 

It is said that we shouldn’t sacrifice the good in pursuit of perfection, but we have already seen that the sacrifices are only made by the indigenous, colored, and poor members of our society. We must realize that robust, long-lasting solutions to the environmental problem must be equitable in order to be fully sustainable.

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