Dion-Kirschner: This Earth Day, take time to consider environmental inequities

Hannah Dion-Kirschner, Columnist

On April 22, the U.S. will celebrate its 48th Earth Day. This day to celebrate and advocate for our planet was established in 1970 by former U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.), who organized environmental teach-ins in collaboration with universities across the country. As a result, the first faces of this national holiday were predominantly white, liberal and upper-class.

The first Earth Day helped set into motion a mainstream environmental movement in which these privileged identities have prevailed. Many of the movement’s goals reflect privilege: Mainstream environmentalists typically focus on preserving pristine wilderness, but not on improving conditions in urban or impoverished areas; and campaigns against chemical pesticides tend to address effects on ecology and consumers, but not on the farm workers who are exposed to the pesticides on a daily basis. The strategies used to achieve these goals are often exclusive, involving primarily litigation and lobbying efforts rather than more accessible grassroots forms of activism.

These characteristics run counter to the fact that underprivileged populations are the most affected by environmental issues. Globally, climate change disproportionately affects poorer nations. A 2012 World Bank climate change report stressed that the poorest countries “have the least economic, institutional, scientific and technical capacity to cope and adapt.” Already bearing these disadvantages, poorer regions will also generally experience more severe climatic conditions. Climate modelers predict equatorial countries, many of which are some of the world’s least well-off, will face more intense storms and drought than those at higher latitudes. Changing weather patterns will threaten global food supply, and the greatest burden will fall on already food-stressed regions, particularly in Africa. Sea level rise is a frightening prospect for residents of America’s coastal cities, but it poses a much greater threat to citizens of small island nations, who will encounter severe erosion, saltwater pollution of drinking water and loss of land without an inland region to which to retreat.

But in the American mainstream environmental movement, the inequalities that seem to most often go unmentioned are those here at home. Researchers continue to find that exposure to environmental contaminants, including lead, agricultural wastes and polluted air, water and land is highest among working class and poor, non-white communities. The ongoing lead crisis in Flint, Michigan is probably the most well known example of how predominantly non-white, low-income areas are at greater risk of environmental harms, in this case from polluted river water and outdated lead pipes.

Flint is far from the only community where poverty, institutional racism and environmental crises go hand in hand, but it is the only one to have entered national discussion. In Baltimore, where racial and economic inequality are pronounced, industrial wastes were historically concentrated in areas of low-income and low-educational attainment with largely non-white residents. Recently, a Baltimore student was recognized for organizing against the planned construction of the largest incinerator on the East Coast, which would otherwise have been built in what is already the most polluted zip code in Maryland and, unsurprisingly, a low-income neighborhood. From Washington, D.C. to New Orleans to New York to Appalachia, environmental injustices are concentrated in impoverished areas, many (but not all) of which are also home to large communities of color.

These are the issues that are often forgotten in the environmental movement’s efforts to preserve untouched land and protect at-risk species. These initiatives are of course important, and advancements that benefit vital habitats benefit all of us, even if indirectly. But equally important is the protection of land that has been developed, where people live and work, breathe the air and drink the water. Why should the environmental protection of habitats, endangered species and human beings be considered separate goals? Stewardship of the Earth should include care for the people living on it — wealthy and impoverished; privileged and minority races; urban, suburban and rural.

This broader conception of environmentalism is currently the domain of the environmental justice movement, which drew attention during the NoDAPL protests led by indigenous activists at Standing Rock last year, yet remains on the fringes of the mainstream movement. But it’s time to bring environmental equity into mainstream discussion. Environmentalism should be accessible and beneficial to everyone, not just the wealthy elite.

This Earth Day, crowds will gather in over 500 locations to march for science, and no doubt many marchers will carry signs with environmental messages. It should come as no surprise if many of these crowds are saturated with the liberal, white elite. But whether your local march (or the photos in your newsfeed) represents diverse groups, remember that environmental advancement should be just as much for those less privileged as it is for the elite who first founded Earth Day 47 years ago.

Hannah Dion-Kirschner is a junior in Weinberg and Bienen. She can be reached at ha[email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.