Environmental Injustice Makes Me Sick

For our toolkit topic, my group, John and Lizzie and I, chose environmental justice. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t totally sure what environmental justice was at first. I did know, however, that issues with the environment are becoming more relevant. I had watched Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” as a little kid when it came out in 2006 and even then I knew that what he was saying was accurate and that no one had really thought about the environment that much before then.

Al Gore’s documentary doesn’t really touch on environmental justice but it does speak to the fact that the way we have been treating the environment and that the ignorance about it has to change. The United States’ government has created laws and has tried to do its part to protect the environment. By protecting the environment, citizens won’t suffer negative health effects that occur from being exposed to pollution, emission, and other harmful toxins that hurt the environment. Starting around the 1970’s Congress has passed laws that protect the environment. In addition, they created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) whose job it is to oversee these laws. Laws like these are enforced by court orders which ceases activities that violates such laws.

While doing research on environmental justice, it was hard for me not to notice all the information out there on environmental injustice. I couldn’t help but look into the topic and I found some really interesting facts about the injustices that people face regarding the environment that I think most of my peers hadn’t thought about or realized. For this reason, I have picked the topic of environmental injustice to write about in my third blog post.

Another way to look at environmental injustice is environmental discrimination. The organization, “Environmental Justice Organization, Liabilities and Trade” (E JOLT), has a cite where they educate citizens on “Environmental (in)justice.” They start their article with the definition and background of environmental injustice: “The concept arose from the fact that some communities or human groups are disproportionately subjected to higher level of environmental risk than other segments of society.” This is the E JOLT definition of environmental injustice but I want you, as my readers, to come up with your own definition and think about how the environment has positively or negatively effected you. Have you been ever been a victim of environmental injustice? How have environmental laws, either good or bad, effected you?

Personally, I never really thought about the environment in that way until I did some research. I’m glad to say I have not been a victim of environmental injustice. As a little kid, I grew up with asthma (thankfully I grew out of it) and it was a hard thing to live with. I took puffs of an inhaler everyday and even more when I played sports. I remember running so hard and that my lungs couldn’t take it and I would throw up (my apologies for the bad mental image). The reason I say this is because air pollution can cause asthma as well as other sever heath problems. It is crazy to me to think that kids of color or people who live in poorer neighborhoods could develop asthma when they otherwise wouldn’t just because they live in an area where pollution is worse. In an article by Ryder Diaz, “Can Air Pollution Cause Asthma in Kids? How About Autism,” she references a study which found that African American and Latino infants living in communities with high automobile exhaust are more likely to develop childhood asthma than those living with less pollution. She goes on and tells the significance of these findings: “…minority communities are more likely to love near congested roadways.” This doesn’t seem fair, does it?

Although the preceding findings suggest there is environmental injustice going on, some would disagree. Diaz’s article, which was referenced above, does admit that although they found a correlation between nitrogen dioxide (found in car emissions) and asthma, they were exposed to what the government would consider to be an acceptable level of air pollution. This poses the question that maybe there is no discrimination and maybe everyone, regardless of race, is exposed to an unhealthy amount of air pollution.

After reading the above, one might think there is no environmental injustice. I did, however, notice majority of my findings leaned towards people of color being exposed to more air pollution than white people or people who live in wealthier neighborhoods. The University of Minnesota found people of color are exposed to 38 percent more of the deadly chemical, nitrogen dioxide, which can cause heart disease and other health problems. Emily Badger, of the Washington Post, took a look at the University of Minnesota’s findings here and wrote, “Studies dating back to the 1970s have pointed to a consistent pattern in who lives near the kinds of hazards- toxic waste sites, landfills, congested highways- that few of us would willingly choose as neighbors. The invariable answer: poor people and people of color.” The Washington post article points out, while minorities may contend with disproportionate health risks, these risks are harder to quantify than, for example, the number of power plants in a city.

Now that I’ve shared with you all a little bit of my research, its up for you to decide. Does environmental injustice really exist? How are people effected by it? What can we do to stop it? These are not easy questions to answer, nor do they have a single answer. To me, looking at how people of color are disadvantaged because of their skin, it reminds me of the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1960’s the Civil Rights Movement brought to light the public health dangers for African American community. Things like global warming and other environmental concerns seem to just now be arising, but in 1968, the Memphis Sanitation Strike, showed the world that Civil Rights Movement demanded environmental justice. The Memphis Sanitation Strike was an action taken against unfair treatment and environmental justice concern in Memphis, Tennessee. The incident was investigated by activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a major leader in the Civil Rights Movement. The strike advocated for fair pay and better working conditions for Memphis garbage workers. It was the first time African Americans mobilized a national, broad-based group to oppose environmental injustices.

Before today, I had never heard of environmental injustice or the Memphis Sanitation Strike. Did you? I think a big reason for this is because we hear about the environment through dominant narratives- the lens in which history is told by the perspective of the dominant culture. Al Gore told us to protect our environment from global warming. But what about the pollution people of color live with everyday. He didn’t seem to mention that. Environmental injustice goes back to the Civil Rights Movement, yet a lot of us don’t even know what environmental injustice is. It’s either that or we don’t care enough to try and fix it. For this issue, I would say the dominant narrative is given to us by White people or people who have money. At this point, I feel that White people know people of color are at a disadvantage, but do White people know to what extent? Environmental injustice means that people of color can’t even breathe the same are as White people. Something as simple as the air we breath isn’t even equal. I think the sources I mentioned today don’t fall into the dominant narrative. After doing just a little bit of research, it became apparent that African Americans and Latinos are at a disadvantage even in regards to air and sanitation.

Environmental justice is 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. The EPA put out a statement stating its goals which stand for all communities and citizens in the United States. Their goals are as follows: 1. The same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and 2. Equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work. I think the EPA has done a good job of acknowledging environmental injustice because they admit their goals have not been reached yet. Although the EPA knows equality for a safe environment has not been reached yet, I think most White people take for granted the environment they live in because the dominant narrative doesn’t really talk about environmental injustice. I think the dominant narrative talks about global warming and how it is a threat to all of us, but it doesn’t mention the people who suffer from poor air pollution now.

I hope this blog post has strayed from the dominant narrative in regards to environmental justice. Environmental injustices have been around since the Civil Rights Movement but it seems as though it is not a widely talked about topic. Maybe if children in rich neighborhoods were being exposed to toxins that cause autism, the issue might be more prevalent. You tell me?

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