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What is Environmental Justice?

Let’s start with a story. 

Say that your neighborhood has a trash problem. 

The litter is piling up in yards, plants and trees are getting sick, the trash is even affecting local water and food resources. 

You decide on making some changes!

But the group called in to clean the litter take an odd approach.

Instead of clearing out the trash or teaching people how to avoid making it, they move everything into one area of the neighborhood. 

Now most yards are clean, but some people’s yards are even dirtier than they started. 

Their water is still gross.The growing trash pile brings animals and bugs.

Soon those friends start getting sick

You bring up the issue with a neighbor. Surprisingly, they aren’t too upset.

“It’s not in my yard, so why do I care?” 

What are Environmental Justice issues?

Sadly, this isn't a new response. Everyone knows at a certain level that pollutants and trash are bad for the environment. But do we know that they are bad for us?

If we don't encounter the consequences everyday, they are easy to ignore. 

But some people are carrying the brunt of those environmental consequences, without a say-so.

Environmental Justice is this crossroads. It's a place where human dignity and respect for the planet come together. 

The Us Environmental Protection Agency describes Environmental Justice as

 “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.”

Advocates for environmental justice want to see that all people, regardless of socio-economic class, ethnicity, or resources, have equal access to safe, clean resources and communities.

The neighborhood story above is a really simplified version of the many, nuanced, and continuing examples of injustice that involve environmental factors. 

Here are some real-life examples. Follow the links for even more info! 

Warren County and Chemical Dumps

Though issues have existed for much longer, the term Environmental Justice emerged in the 1980’s when officials in North Carolina decided to relocate a buried stash of PCB, a man-made chemical and known carcinogen.

PCB causes developmental and neurological problems, not only for adults but especially in children. Where did the state decide to move these dangerous chemicals? Warren County — one of the only majority Black counties in the state. 

The communities loudly contested the decision, voicing their non-consent with marches, protests, even physically standing between the trucks with poisonous PCB and their homes.

But in the end, no one had the legal power to stop it. 

Poisoned Resources

Nuclear reactors make cheap power, however they also are more likely to damage the environment nearby with radioactive pollution. 

Cancer Alley is the name given to an 85-mile stretch of factories concentrated around hundreds of low-income communities. One town in Louisiana has 30 chemical plants next-door, pumping toxins into the air that come back down as a golden mist. 

study published in 2009 found that the currently operating nuclear reactors are predominantly concentrated in the Southeastern U.S. and that the reactors are typically found in low-income communities

People have been turning a blind eye to water contamination as well, and the devastating health effects it produces.

Flint, MI water scandal brought nation-wide attention to a water source knowingly tainted with lead and Legionnaires Disease. It took more than four years of new headlines to bring change. 

Not in MY Backyard

If you hear the phrase "NIMBY" think back to our neighborhood cleanup story.

If your town was building a factory, someone must decide where to put it and who has to deal with the noise, the smell, and most importantly, all of its waste.

Everyone will shout, “Not In My Backyard!” ( NIMBY) And usually, the loudest, most powerful voices win out.  

Moving a problem into someone else’s neighborhood makes it easier to ignore. It doesn't make the problem disappear. 

Why does Environmental Justice matter? 

Despite efforts to pass the buck, that which affects one of us will eventually affect all of us.

We believe that everyone has the right to live in healthy homes.

Everyone deserves access to basic necessities like clean drinking water, breathable air, and safe communities. 

In our neighborhood litter problem, a comprehensive solution is one that addresses both the source of the litter as well as the pattern of injustice towards particular homes. 

That solution would aim to give everyone a say in their yard’s protection, while coming together to reduce the waste issue at the source.  

How can you support Environmental Justice? 

Tell people what you think! 

Change doesn’t happen until people feel uncomfortable— usually the people with the power to make decisions. No matter your location, age, or resources YOU can get involved by holding your local representatives accountable. 

Be a sleuth!

Look up where local factories, waste plants, or other toxic waste facilities are located in your area? Where are the vital water sources? Are there communities near-by? Are there vital water sources nearby? Who is profiting and who may be suffering as a result? 

Look outside your own backyard! 

Remember NIMBY. What are problems you may have assumed were necessary, but at a closer look are the result of people being taken advantage of 

In nature, we describe the connection between organisms that depend on each other for survival, symbiotic relationships.

If one creature hurts, other creatures are directly affected. 

Because issues of Environmental Justice affect people and the planet, we can’t pick and choose whether to just protect environments or just protect people. They go hand in hand!  

 If all of us are to flourish together, we have to widen our sights to the most vulnerable communities. If they thrive, we thrive, and the planet thrives!