Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Maybe We Should Talk About Environmental Racism

The Oregon Environmental Council's twitter account (full disclosure: I sit on the emerging leaders board of the council, a major reason I decided to even talk about this) recently retweeted this piece from Grist. I saw the piece making its rounds at varied environmentalist sites and generally ignored it, but when I saw OEC tweet it out, I felt compelled to respond. I won't get into the details of the argument here, if you're curious you can probably find it still on my tl from last Saturday. My general critique was that the overall framing of the article, that black people need to talk about climate change and we need to move beyond "narrow" conceptions of environmental policy, was entirely incorrect. In the near 40 odd years that we've formally recognized environmental racism as a thing black communities have been at the forefront in fighting environmental degradation and demanding radical reformations of society that are not only environmentally sensitive but economically, socially, and politically just. This work has drawn attention not only to the racially discriminatory siting of unwanted land-uses (like coal power plants), but have also drawn attention to the existence of terrible health disparities, and the kinds of policies and institutions that continue to make black communities sick.

My critique was, and remains, that an environmental justice framework, remains a stronger, and more coherent, political and intellectual frame for understanding and fighting climate change than the way many traditional environmental orgs are currently going. Environmental justice advocates have spent years bringing attention to environmental health issues such as asthma (some examples here from EPA, here from the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, and here on the NAACP's climate justice program). But beyond making a simple correlation between proximity and chronic disease, environmental justice organizations and scholars have worked to identify and subvert the underlying values of unchecked capital accumulation and racism that drive environmental degradation. In fact, what environmental justice advocates have said for years, and that is utterly ignored in the Grist piece, is that environmental degradation is fundamentally tied to the same systems of oppression that render black people disposable. Why worry about making a cleaner coal plant or moving away from coal at all when the only people who ever actually pay for it are poor or of color? We see this kind of attitude operate at multiple scales from the developed world's indifference to disappearing islands in the Pacific to the siting of regional recycling and power plants in poor and minority neighborhoods. As a result, the largest consumers of these resources are largely insulated from the ill effects of collecting and distributing them.

This indifference to these overlapping systems of oppression and focusing primarily on disparate impact follows a particular kind of liberal approach to race that is more obsessed with counting and tracking the various ways race determines an individual or community's fate without actually asking why or how this is the case. Sea level change is another issue that is often stripped of any real political force or analytical rigor by framing its ill effects as simply having disproportionate impacts on communities of color. The piece mentions how the people of the Ninth Ward suffered due to rising seas and more intense storms. That's all entirely true, but as Neil Smith so eloquently demonstrated that there are no such things as natural disasters   . Smith focused on how vulnerability is differentially distributed across space and shows how New Orleans's Jim Crow urban logics placed blacks in the most vulnerable, flood-prone areas of the city. In other words, vulnerability in the Ninth Ward was produced. Mainstream climate change advocacy has very little to say on this  and, in turn, had very little to say to black folks from New Orleans before Katrina and certainly had nothing to say to folks after the hurricane hit. The massive appropriation of people's homes, the take over of the public school system, and other forms of revanchist urban policy are entirely impenetrable if one were to rely solely upon a mainstream climate change approach. But an environmental justice approach that logically links segregation with differentiated vulnerability has no problem extending this analysis to the state of people and institutions after "natural" disasters.

So, no, I categorically reject the notion that blacks somehow need to start talking about climate change. Hell, even Grist recognized as such last year when Brentin Mock published this piece entitled "Yes, black people talk about climate change". What Mock effectively points out is that talking about climate change is hard precisely because it cuts so many ways and he feels a special responsibility to explain to other black people how the issues they're suffering right now are intimately linked to a changing climate. But where Mock falls short is that while he is able to identify the multiple disproportionate impacts suffered by black communities, he does not actually attempt to explain how this racially differentiated vulnerability is created in the first place.

The question of how is what we all should be focusing on because it is entirely possible for a world that miraculously averts a climate disaster that maintains multiple systems in place that expose blacks to premature death and suffering. It is time we stop assuming that a climate safe world means a climate just world. And it is time that we abandon a frame that is so intensely de-politicized (or even post-political) and truly embrace the challenge of creating an environmentally just world.

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