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On white privilege and environmental justice

Individual action counts for something too

Thoughts on Earth.    Erica Bjelland
Thoughts on Earth. Erica Bjelland

As you probably know, February is Black History Month. For me, this means learning from the past, but also addressing what is happening in the present in regard to race. In some ways, we haven’t gotten very far in addressing racial issues in the United States since the civil rights movement, and we’ve even perpetuated more systems of inequality. Some of these equalities can be seen side-by-side with environmental issues. Environmental issues surrounding race tie to the idea of environmental justice. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” The lack of fair treatment of people based on race, then, is called environmental racism. An example of this would be putting a large, polluting factory next to a predominantly black community. It can even be said that some of the water pollution in Flint, Mich., can be tied to environmental racism since there was lack of action taken and the community is predominantly a community of color.

I’ve written in the past about the white privilege that some brands of sustainability can turn into if a community is not all inclusive. If you support organic, wear eco-clothing and stand with a sign on the side of the street you’re considered a cool hippie. I probably fit this stereotype in some ways. I do all three of the things I mentioned and I think all of them are worthwhile actions. Just doing them, though, doesn’t get at the root of the big issues we face. In some ways, I think it also can perpetuate a negative, non-welcoming stereotype of the white, rich eco-hipster. The big issues like the placement of large air polluting industry next to black communities, the complex and polluting food system we’re a part of or the global issue of climate change should be brought up beside individual actions and be fought against more vigorously.

When thinking about the complexities of such large issues, however, it can at times be overwhelming. The polluting industry that facilitates environmental racism might create the gas that I put in my car that also then emits greenhouse gases and then facilitates global warming. Plus the carrots I’m eating while I’m driving probably came from really far away and had to be driven to me with the same gas that was produced by the same company polluting the air. Therefore I should never drive again and only eat food from the town I live in or grow my own vegetables. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had those thought processes go around in my head. In some ways, yes, that might be exactly what we (collectively) need to do, but don’t carry that burden on only your shoulders.

That’s where community comes in. Instead of just taking shorter showers or buying organically because you know it’s the right thing to do, buy organic carrots and take shorter showers and then talk to people about it. Instead of thinking about all the material things we’re going to give up to make the world more environmentally friendly and frowning upon the people that don’t buy Patagonia pants or organic carrots, look at how much you have and the beauty of what you have. Instead of just thinking about environmental racism, ask people in the community what their experiences are and work to help them fight for justice. Think about where all that stuff you have came from and how it might be part of a damaging system of pollution and then talk about it with someone else or a group of people. That’s how the most meaningful actions come into fruition.

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