Friday, November 2, 2012

Becoming Aware of Environmental Justice: Part 2

By Josh Gross, Outreach Coordinator

Well friends, it's time for the second part of my series on environmental justice. For those of you who haven't read "Becoming Aware of Environmental Justice: Introduction", on October 13 Earth Ministry held its fall 2012 colleague consultation at University Lutheran Church. The theme of that event was environmental justice. I believe this to be an incredibly important topic, since far too many Americans are unaware of how disproportionately environmental degradation harms communities of color and those with lower socioeconomic status.

In order to call attention to this dilemma, I'm posting the talk I gave at the October 13 colleague consultation to this blog. Due to the document's length, I'm adding one section per week. Since last week's post was the first one, it only included the introduction paragraph. This section, however, contains the main body of the talk. It gives a brief overview of the historical roots of the Environmental Justice movement in the United States. These paragraphs contain information about the event in 1982 that started it all, and the United Church of Christ's study that showed the nation how dangerous it is to mix racism with irresponsible environmental practices. If that sounds interesting to you, read on:
       Environmental justice has almost certainly been a concern for as long as resources have been unfairly distributed. However, the modern Environmental Justice movement in the US was kick-started in 1982. That was the year authorities decided to build a toxic waste landfill in the predominantly African-American community of Afton (Skelton and Miller, 2006). The citizens were outraged. The people, initially led by members of a Baptist church, took to the streets. They literally laid down in the road to block trucks from reaching the landfill (Chavis, 1993). Civil rights leaders such as Dr. Benjamin Chavis and Dr. Robert Bullard also got involved, drawing national media attention to Warren County (Skelton and Miller, 2006). The resident of Warren County put up an admirable fight, but in the end landfill was completed.
       Six weeks of nonviolent protests and over 500 arrests weren’t enough to prevent toxic wastes from being deposited in Afton, but it was enough to start a movement (Skelton and Miller, 2006). The protests prompted the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ) to examine the demographics of areas with toxic waste sites in 1987. The results were astounding. The report, titled Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, found that race was the single most important factor in determining the location of hazardous waste facilities. This was true even when the study controlled for influences such as socio-economic status. For instance, they found that three out of every five Black and Hispanic Americans lived in communities with unregulated toxic waste sites (United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, 1987).
       Findings such as these prompted Environmental Justice pioneers to convene at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991. This meeting resulted in the creation of the Principles of Environmental Justice (Pacific West Community Forestry Center). Guided by the Principles, the Environmental Justice movement continued to gather momentum. President Clinton appointed Reverend Benjamin Chavis and Dr. Robert Bullard to his Natural Resources transition team in 1992. More importantly, in 1994 he signed Executive order 12898. This order instructed federal agencies to make sure their environmental policies didn’t disproportionately harm marginalized populations (Skelton and Miller, 2006). This was an important milestone for the Environmental Justice movement, but it wasn’t the end.
There you have it folks, the entire history of the Environmental Justice movement condensed to three paragraphs. Obviously there's far more to environmental justice than that, but due to time constraints the best I could do was highlight some of the most important milestones.

Don't forget to tune in next week, when I'll be posting the last two paragraphs of my talk! They'll focus on the current picture of environmental justice in the US. I'll also include a list of all the references I used in case you're interested in learning more. Until then, may God bless you.

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