The harmful effects of pollution show no partiality when it comes to income, race, class or ethnicity. But statistics and demographic analyses clearly show that communities of the poor and “communities of color” are overwhelmingly likely to be located next to toxic landfills, polluting industrial plants, excessive truck and rail traffic and other pollution sources. This injustice has been labeled “environmental racism” by community advocates.
In response to environmental racism, a community-based effort known as the environmental justice movement (or, “EJ” for short) has been raising its voice in protest for more than 30 years. The impact of the EJ movement is continuing to grow, and the U.S. EPA has designated February as “Environmental Justice Month.”
The environmental justice movement traces its roots to the early 1960s, when farm workers began fighting for protection from pesticides in California farm fields. The movement’s defining moment came in 1982, when the mostly African-American residents of a community in Warren County, North Carolina, rose together to resist a hazardous waste landfill planned for their neighborhood. Though their protests failed to halt the landfill, a movement was launched.
Thinking locally and globally
Since then, environmental justice groups have continued to work in communities across the U.S. to increase awareness of environmental injustice and stop the development of new sources of pollution in what are already some of the most heavily polluted neighborhoods in the U.S. For example, in Southeast Chicago, where soot and lead levels are among the highest in the nation, local EJ groups have successfully fought against new power plants that could have made matters much worse. Similar efforts have produced similar successes throughout the U.S., from California to the East Coast.
The concept of environmental justice is also spreading on a worldwide scale. Communities throughout the world are embracing environmental justice as they begin to understand its deep global context. Global problems include industrialized nations exporting toxic waste to poorer, developing nations. Pesticides pollute rivers that flow into neighboring countries. Air pollution from incinerators crosses borders to affect any communities or nations downwind.
Environmental justice leaders gathered at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., in 1991 to develop and affirm a set of principles that apply globally. They affirmed that all people have the right to be free from ecological destruction, and called for public policy across the globe that is based on mutual respect and justice for all people, free from any form of discrimination or bias.
What you can do to help
Community-based groups play an important role throughout the world in leading the effort to achieve environmental justice. These groups identify local issues and mobilize local action. But every individual can also have an impact by joining in the effort to fight environmental racism and work for environmental justice for all. Here are a few ideas:
- Be an informed voter. Take a stand on environmental racism by researching candidates’ positions on environmental protection and supporting those who want to protect the environment for everyone, regardless of race or economic status.
- Support local community-based environmental justice organizations. Consider giving of your time, talents and pocketbook to help support local community groups that are defending environmental justice.
- Give kids a chance to breathe. Another way to make a difference is by supporting IQAir’s Clean Air for Kids. Poor classroom air quality affects the health of students and can impact academic performance and average daily attendance. Clean Air for Kids provides air filtration to schools in areas disproportionately affected by air pollution.
- Become part of the solution. Buy less, consume less, and shop consciously. Buy products that are made responsibly and with a minimum of environmental damage, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere. Research companies’ environmental justice policies and reputation before buying.
By taking action to help environmental justice today, we can each play a role in a fairer environmental future for everyone.
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