Reshaping My Understanding of Environmental Justice

Hello! My name is Reece Daniels. I’m a junior at Tisch, majoring in Film & Television Production. The movie Annie Hall opens with the protagonist as a young child, refusing to do his homework or chores because he found out that the universe is expanding. “What’s the point of doing anything?”

When I was younger, I had grown up outdoors; camping, hiking, beach days were all activities I was raised doing, as I fortunately grew up in an ecologically-diverse area. But upon discovering about “global warming” as a kid, I developed a similarly cynical outlook. Nature was so important to me; hearing that nature was dying was like a bullet to the chest. From then until now, I’ve always been direly concerned with the health of this planet and the causes and effects of climate change. As a filmmaker, my platform is communication; I wish to break into branded content and documentary, tell stories of underrepresented communities, and create compelling pieces that highlight the need for climate change initiatives.

Exposure to environmental injustice is not something with which I’m entirely unfamiliar. Before attending NYU, I attended Syracuse University, and I found that Syracuse, New York is a city whose policies and development are rooted in environmental racism. Currently, residents, majority people of color, are battling for structural reparations due to the catastrophic community destruction that occurred from the construction of the I-81 Highway.

“In 1960, approximately 11,000 Black people lived in the City of Syracuse, with as many as 90 percent living in the 15th Ward. That neighborhood became the focus of an urban renewal project that included the construction of the I-81 highway, which ripped through the heart of the 15th Ward. The result was displacement and the destruction of what had been an under-resourced, working-class, but still vibrant neighborhood. In all, 1,300 residents were displaced by the original construction of the 1.4 mile stretch of the I-81 viaduct.” This is a summary by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), which has developed a plan to restore the community displacement and build a better future for Syracuse. When initially learning about the NYCLU’s initiative, this movement to revive Syracuse and its communities, I was elated. But through the reading of this course and having a newly contextualized understanding of what environmental justice truly is, I see this motion as great — but they could still do more. The plan is a 40 page PDF, and though it is thorough and efficient, I’m reminded of David Pellow’s What Is Critical Environmental Justice, in which he describes “distributive” environmental justices, which is “focused on issues of equity regarding the distribution of environmental harm and risk.” Pellow goes on to describe “procedural justice,” which “shifts the lens from distributive outcomes to decision-making processes and the importance of recognition excluded and/or aggrieved groups.” In my opinion, is the missing piece of the change for which they are advocating.

The I-81 plan was good, but having learned more from this course, I’ve come to realize that distributive environmental justice fails to incorporate the affected communities; it merely places a band-aid on their quarrels. Recognition needs not to be on behalf of the communities but given directly to them. Beyond tearing down the highway, and the city’s sewage plant predicaments, which are plenty, the city, and the state, need to go further, somewhere along the lines of reparations. That’s what this course has taught me thus far — these initiatives are great, and helpful, but we can always do more for the people affected. After all, they have innocently suffered at the hands of neglectful city planning.

Reference: Pellow, David N. 2018. What Is Critical Environmental Justice? Cambridge: Polity Press.

This post is part of the Writer of the Week project for Professor Carly A. Krakow’s Spring 2022 NYU Gallatin course Environmental Racism and Environmental Injustice: Rights, Citizenship, and Activism. Read our course publication for more work from students in the course.

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