Humanity has, collectively, a budget of about twenty more years of carbon emissions at current rates before we pass the threshold of 2oC of global warming, which scientists believe will lead to runaway destabilization of the climate. Should that be a concern of social workers? A child of color in the United States is significantly more likely than a white child to develop asthma due to exposure to polluted air or lead poisoning from drinking contaminated water. Should that be a concern of social workers?
A (Very) Brief History of the Environmental Justice Movement
In 1983, the U.S. Congress’s General Accounting Office (GAO) studied eight states in the American southeast and found three-quarters of hazardous waste landfill sites were located in primarily poor and rural African-American and Latinx communities. An expanded 1987 report by the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice revealed that in every state, the single most important factor in determining the location of hazardous waste disposal sites was race. It turned out that in the 1980s, environmental contamination was just as structurally racist as employment, housing, education, criminal justice, health care…name a sector of modern life.
These reports did not surprise the people of Afton, North Carolina, who in 1982 had lay down their bodies in the roads, blocking trucks from dumping hazardous waste in their local landfill. They knew the government had chosen their community for the dumping site without consulting them because of race. They also knew that their only chance to defend themselves was through direct action and intense media attention, drawing on tactics from the Civil Rights Movement. Though they ultimately lost that fight, they brought national attention to the issue of environmental racism and inspired communities to rise up and fight for their right to a clean environment all across the country and internationally.
In the years that followed, grassroots movements sprung up everywhere, speaking to all kinds of environmental concerns from the siting of landfills and incinerators, to air and water quality, industrial runoff, exposure to pesticides, and the land rights of indigenous peoples. In 1991, these movements coalesced at the multinational People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, where delegates declare a collective vision for a just and equitable relationship to the land, and to the food system. This document, known as the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice, reads just as vibrant and visionary today as when it was written.
In 1994, the concept of environmental justice reached the federal government. President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, which “directed federal agencies to identify and address disproportionately high adverse health or environmental effects of their policies or programs on low-income people and people of color. It also directed federal agencies to look for ways to prevent discrimination by race, color or national origin in any federally funded programs dealing with health or the environment. (NRDC, 2016)”
Problem solved, right? Sadly, 25 years later Flint, Michigan is infamous for racialized disparities in access to clean drinking water. But Flint is only the most public example. Across every category, communities of color are still statistically more likely to live near hazardous waste sites, landfills and industrial facilities, and suffer from lead poisoning and water contamination. As recently as February of this year, the EPA released a report confirming that in the year 2018, dangerous air pollution still disproportionally and overwhelmingly impacts communities of color.
Recognizing Environmental Injustice’s Impact
These statistics call social workers committed to fighting racial disparities and social injustices to action. Exposure to environmental toxins and contaminants are linked to significant birth defects, neurological disorders, chronic illnesses, and shortened life expectancy. Yet, more often than not, the physical environment is omitted from the “person in environment” analysis of our profession. It’s time for social work to rectify that omission.
That said, it’s not enough to simply try to close that gap by relocating our sources of contamination. For some time now, we’ve simply been outsourcing our pollution to the global South, protecting our own health at the expense of people and ecologies marginalized within the larger global economy. Consider Tianjin, China, a city of 15 million people, where only 4.9% of water is considered safe for drinking as a result of industrial processes that mass produce our consumer good. Dr. King wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Toxicity anywhere is a threat to environmental health everywhere.
The most visible illustration is climate change. No matter where greenhouse gases are emitted, their collective impact affects us all through unstable weather conditions, crop failures, droughts, and progressively larger and more destructive “natural” disasters striking globally without discrimination. But even these can be racist, for even if their points of impact are indiscriminant, communities of color tend to bear the brunt of the impact as they often live in marginalized areas (i.e. vulnerable zones like flood plains). They also have the hardest time recovering due to limited access to insurance and government aid (see Puerto Rico, 2017).
Speaking of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, I’d like to take a minute to discuss the numbers because we often talk about it in the abstract, but rarely hone in on details. The general consensus is that we have a budget of about 715Gt (gigatons; 1 = 1 billion tons) remaining that can be emitted and still (hypothetically) avoid 2oC of global warming (the target outlined in the Paris Agreement). Each of the past 4 years, we’ve released a little over 36Gt globally. Meaning, at this rate, we have at most 20 years left before we blow through our limit.
Maybe that sounds like enough time to get our act together. After all, renewable energy is about to be cheaper than fossil fuels and the EV revolution is right around the corner! Sadly, it’s not that simple. Each step along the way will lead to compounding destabilization effects with completely unpredictable consequence: A few weeks ago, the arctic circle was 45 degrees above its average temperature. Immediately after, the East Coast was hit by a “blast cyclone” which caused Boston to experience a 100 year flood for the second time this year.
Making a Difference
Now, racial disparities in fenceline zones and climate change may seem like two separate issues, but they’re really not. The same forces that contaminate our landfills and pollute our air and water are producing the emissions that are warming our planet. By making deep changes to our systems of production, consumption, and social organization, we will solve both problems.
The good news is that solutions to these problems already exist. More often than not, it’s the people on the frontlines that have the best answers. All across the world, marginalized communities have developed localized food systems, community-owned renewable energy production, carbon-free public transportation, strategies for reusing, recycling, and reducing waste, and environmentally sound building practices. It is our responsibility as social workers to gain familiarity with these efforts and support local communities in their efforts to implement them through leveraging our access to resources, media platforms, and political decision-making.
For the challenges that seem less local in scale, like industrial production and powering the electricity grid of big cities, remember that 85% of global warming is caused by fossil fuel emissions and we already have – right now – the technology to transition to 100% renewables. Another huge contributor to climate change is deforestation. Studies suggest that stopping deforestation at its current rate and beginning to restore lost forests would be the environmental equivalent of taking all of the world’s 1.5 billion cars off the road. As social workers, we must understand the science and scope of these problems and advocate locally and at higher levels for policies of swift transition and restorative justice for fenceline communities.
For too long, social work has dissociated from environmental concerns, believing them to be the purview of other disciplines. That attitude has been misguided. Environmental justice intersects with all the daunting challenges the profession tackles: from poverty and food insecurity to access to physical and mental health care. If these environmental problems continue to get worse, every other challenge will also be exacerbated. Conversely, localized solutions to environmental problems can also dovetail with solutions in other sectors. As a profession that cares about real structural change, environmental justice should be at the center of our mission.