Environmental Sustainability and “Racial” Equality


Environmental sustainability and “racial” equality:
Can you have one without the other?

Or re-worded: can you separate how poor people of color are negatively impacted by their environment from the bigger problem of climate change?

My answer is no. “People of color”—as we can call pretty much anyone who doesn’t descend from a European, fair-skinned background—will be the first hit by climate change . . . but they won’t be the last.

Race isn’t real…but racism is. Just compare a white, Ivy League athlete caught in the act of raping a woman behind a dumpster—who gets away with a 6-month prison sentence, minus probation—with any number of black men shot and killed by police without question.

But there’s no race chromosome. “Race” is a made-up term that separates human beings based on how we came to appear after adapting to our physical environments over millions of years.

Let’s back up a bit, to the Declaration of Independence. In 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet Thomas Jefferson owned over 600 slaves throughout his life, and only freed nine of them. (Women, who didn’t get the vote until after the slaves did, were also basically seen as the property of men.)

I bring this up because, really, our motivation for arresting climate change is the pursuit of those three things, now and in the future. But we are not including everybody in our crusade.

Do “Black Lives Matter”? Not if we let global temperatures keep rising. Nor do brown lives.

The UN’s Paris Agreement on climate change asks signatories to “attempt” to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius. It was initially set at 2 degrees, which discriminated against people of color. African diplomats had walked out of climate talks then, saying that a 2-degree limit was “a death sentence.” Pacific Islanders who will lose their countries to sea-level rise (fleeing to Australia as jobless refugees) created the motto “1.5 to survive.” With a 2-degree Celsius (3.6°F) increase, the Middle East basically becomes intolerant to humans, between heat, drought, and further desertification. A new technology that’s in development, in which chemicals are sprayed into the atmosphere to cool it down, has the potential side-effect of suppressing monsoon season in India and Africa—putting billions of people’s food sources at risk. But, hooray! Iceland (which was colonized by white Northern Europeans) may become the new California. Without the Mexicans.

Welcome to the world of “Othering.” Othering identifies (i.e., labels) someone as belonging to a category defined as “Other.” It disregards the humanity of another culture, people, or geographical region. It is a core concept in Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism, a critical study of how Westerners’ depictions of Orientals (including Arabs and Muslims) in art and literature were viewed through an Imperialist lens.

Othering involves environmental Sacrifice Zones and Unequal Protection. Othering is easy when people look different and sound different and live in a place we’ve never been.

The meaning of the term “sacrifice zone” is pretty self-evident. Flint, Michigan became a sacrifice zone when the government chose to save money on the water system of its working-class, predominantly black population6, rather than, say, tax the wealthier segment of the population. Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward is still waaay behind the rest of New Orleans as far as recovery7. Whole swaths of the Middle East have been sacrificed for fossil fuels, forming a literal hotbed of discontent.

The atoll island nations of Nauru (in the Pacific) and the Maldives (in the Indian Ocean—I’ve actually been there; gorgeous reef . . . but that doesn’t mean we should make its citizens live under there) will soon be underwater without fanfare. Heck, the native people of our very own soil were sacrificed for our pleasure back in the day.

The out-of-touch ask, “Why don’t people just leave?”
They try. In dangerous boats crossing the Mediterranean.
Or they’re turned away, considered potential terrorists.
Or they can’t. Ask Flint’s 40,000 poor and working-class families.
Or during Katrina: They wanted to, but no one came.
Or they don’t want to leave. Indigenous people in tar sands areas of Canada were promised land rights. But fueling our lifestyles comes first.

Big polluters “were calculating that the loss of life, livelihood and culture for some of the poorest people on the planet was an acceptable price to pay to protect the economies of some of the richest people on the planet,” writes Naomi Klein in a piece for The Nation2. Money and profit has been put ahead of people—or at least other people.

I.e., the people with the money are more important than the people without money.

“White” (Anglo, European) people tend to have the money. America, as a country, has the most money . . . and creates the most emissions. We don’t see how the others live. We think it’s “their fault” that they’re not thriving. Meanwhile we use their cheap labor, and send our waste to their shores, and push their countries to the brink of extinction through climate change with our carbon emissions.

Colonialism may be out of fashion, but U.S. Imperialism is still going strong.

Many of the costs of creating “stuff”3 like iPhones and coffeemakers and super-soakers are externalized—meaning that neither the consumer nor the producer pays the entire cost of the product, because those costs are absorbed by innocents (often foreign) along the production stream. Think about who got paid $1.40 an hour to make your hairdryer when you see “Made in China” or Taiwan or Bangladesh on its tag. And our biggest externalized costs are guess what? Carbon emissions.

Environmental journalist Mark Schapiro writes that “the world’s 3,000 biggest companies, according to a U.N. Environment Program report, cause $2.15 trillion in annual environmental costs, most of which are not accounted for in their profit/loss statements.”4 That’s trillion, folks.

And wealthy whites’ treatment of people of color within America reflect wealthy America’s treatment of countries of color in the world.

Writer Devi Lockwood has put it this way: “Just as the toxic water slowly but inevitably poisoned the Flint community, many feel immobilized by the slow-acting but irreversible impacts of climate change. Corporations and governments prioritize profits now over the life and health of future generations. Climate change is a result of business-as-normal policies. These actions amount to a slow poisoning of our collective future.”8

Yet our corporations still do nothing. And we let them; we think we’ll be okay. At the trajectory we’re on, we’ll start losing our coastal cities—most of which are the world’s largest, capital cities—in as soon as 50 years.5 But we want what we want when we want it. So we continue with our Extractive Economy, removing fossil fuels from the earth, and pumping CO2 into our sky and oceans . . . and we think we’re going to be fine. Because we’re in America.

Then there are those who say environmentalism is a luxury problem, a “bourgeois playground.” How can we talk of two degrees with (heavily armed) barbarians at the gate? On the other side, people wonder, how can we worry about taking care of the poor while our whole planet is about to go Easy-Bake-Oven on us?

Klein also points out that “we rarely make the connection between the guns that take black lives on the streets of U.S. cities and in police custody, and the much larger forces that annihilate so many black [and brown] lives on arid land and in precarious boats around the world.”2

In other words, it’s all related. Environmental racism is how 21.8 percent of children living in New York City public housing have asthma, which is three times higher than those in private housing. That’s less dramatic than the choking death of Eric Garner by police on Staten Island, but the metaphor is there for us.

In a talk she did this January1, Klein says: “We often hear climate change blamed on ‘human nature,’ on the inherent greed and short-sightedness of our species.” I’ve been guilty of that belief myself. But when we think that way, “the systems that certain humans created, and other humans powerfully resisted, are completely let off the hook.”

She continues, “Although climate change will ultimately be an existential threat to all of humanity, in the short term we know that it does discriminate, hitting the poor first and worst, whether they are abandoned on the rooftops of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina or whether they are among the 36 million who according to the UN are facing hunger due to drought in Southern and East Africa.”

For white people (mostly), it’s akin to comedian Eddie Izzard’s imagined WASP-y torture session by the Church of England (the original Anglos) when they threaten their captives with a choice of “Cake . . . or DEATH?!” “Ooh, cake, please,” the captives happily answer.9

Klein says, “If we don’t demand radical change, we are headed for a whole world of people searching for a home that no longer exists.” That’s the pursuit of Happiness we may find ourselves in.

– Debra Castellano
Environmental Justice, Columbia University
June 13, 2016



  1. Naomi Klein “Let Them Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World” http://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n11/naomi-klein/let-them-drown
  1. Naomi Klein, Why #BlackLivesMatter Should Transform the Climate Debate: http://www.thenation.com/article/what-does-blacklivesmatter-have-do-climate-change/
  1. Annie Leonard, “The Story of Stuff” http://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-stuff/
  1. Mark Schapiro, op-ed, “The Carbon Taxes We’re Already Paying” http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-schapiro-high-costs-of-climate-change-20140717-story.html
  1. James Hansen, climate scientist
  1. https://suburbanstats.org/population/michigan/how-many-people-live-in-flint
  1. http://www.npr.org/2015/08/03/427844717/ghosts-of-katrina-still-haunt-new-orleans-shattered-lower-ninth-ward
  1. Devi Lockwood: http://www.alternet.org/environment/we-cant-address-climate-change-without-tackling-environmental-racism

9. Eddie Izzard, “Cake or Death”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMMHUzm22oE