Environmental justice: From our ancestors to our children

More than ever before, the Biden administration has put environmental justice on the national agenda. In January, President BidenJoe BidenBipartisan lawmakers press Biden to ‘immediately’ evacuate Afghans who helped US forces Chris Wallace: Backlash over Fauci emails ‘highly political’ Democrats claim vindication, GOP cries witch hunt as McGahn finally testifies MORE outlined plans for the Justice40 Initiative, which would direct 40 percent of the benefits of a sustainable economy to marginalized communities like mine, in Albuquerque, N.M. 

To some, this may sound like a new and radical idea. But in fact, it grew from decades — if not centuries — of struggle. Environmental justice is an idea that connects the wisdom of our ancestors with the dreams of our children. It is central to a future of health, abundance and opportunity for all.

I got involved in environmental issues a half century ago, almost by accident. I was working as a community organizer in a working-class Chicano neighborhood in Albuquerque. When we asked people to name their top three or four major issues, they would say that water doesn’t taste very good.” Or, “There’s a terrible smell from the sewage plant.” They couldn’t have barbecues outside because the air was thick with dust from nearby particle board factories. So gradually, we turned our focus to environmental issues, though we wouldn’t have called it that at the time.

For us, environmental issues were — and are — inseparable from the larger struggle for social justice. That’s because marginalized communities like South Valley are targeted for everything that more affluent people don’t want in their backyard. Coal-fired power plants and landfills pollute the air, so our people struggle with high rates of asthma and other respiratory problems. And our drinking water supply is contaminated by radon and arsenic, raising our risk of cancer.

The problem is when people rise up to fight the poison in their neighborhood, the polluters find another marginalized community to dump on. Years ago, we won a battle to clean up a hazardous waste site in South Valley. When we asked the cleanup company where they were planning to take the contaminated soil, they wouldn’t say. So some of our neighbors followed the truck all the way to Louisiana, where the soil was being dumped in a neighborhood that was predominantly African American. We made contacts with the local community and helped them fight the dumping. 

We don’t want this poison in our backyard, or in anyone’s backyard. 

As long as any communities are dumped on, the poisoning will continue. Low-income Black and brown communities get hit first and worst. But ultimately, no one is spared. The coal-fired power plants may be in my community, not yours, but the greenhouse gases (GHG) they spew are changing the climate for everyone. 

That has never been clearer than in the last year. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the threats we face cross boundaries of race, class and nationality. And the racial reckoning that followed the police brutality that led to deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others, laid bare the history of injustice that compounds those threats.

The fight for a livable planet and the fight for social justice are one and the same. The struggle for a stable climate, for clean air and water must begin in places like South Valley that have long paid the price for others’ wealth and comfort. And its success depends on building the power and prosperity of people in marginalized communities — so that no one’s home is a dumping ground.

The Biden administration gets it. The administration has appointed prominent environmental justice activists to key positions, including Cecilia Martinez as senior director for Environmental Justice at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and Shalanda Baker as senior adviser at the Department of Energy. I am involved with the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform, which works to ensure that our communities are heard in policy spaces and in the highest levels of government. And I am honored to serve on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC), which recently offered recommendations on how the administration can effectively implement Justice40 and the president’s other environmental justice commitments in ways that deliver real benefits to low-income communities and communities of color.

The WHEJAC’s recommendations are the product of bringing the expertise and perspectives of environmental justice communities to the table. Communities of color and low-income communities — both urban and rural — have suffered the most from our country’s intersecting health, economic, racial and climate crises. We must continue to dismantle the systemic racism that perpetuates these crises, and ensure our communities are being heard at the highest levels of government.

The administration’s Justice40 initiative is an important step forward. The initiative would begin to repair decades of harm by investing in renewable energy, pollution-free transportation, health initiatives and clean air and water. It would monitor and clean up legacy pollution in communities like mine. And it has promised that those who have borne the greatest environmental burdens are first in line to reap the benefits — good jobs and sustainable development — from a greener economy.  

Now it is time for Congress and the administration to make good on those promises.

Remember, environmental racism is the issue and environmental justice is the goal. This is part of the larger struggle for justice that was fought for by our elders and our ancestors before them. It will continue long after I am gone, led by our children and grandchildren. But in this moment — in a nation that is beginning to understand the compounding brutality of racism, and the invisible ties that bind us all — it is an idea whose time has come.

Richard Moore is the co-coordinator of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance and the co-coordinator of Los Jardines Institute (The Gardens Institute) in Albuquerque, N.M. Moore formerly served as chair of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) and as executive director of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice. He currently serves as a co-chair for the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC). 

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