Opening Salvo: what i bring to the table of environmental justice

There can be no peace as long as there is grinding poverty, social injustice, inequality, oppression, environmental degradation, and as long as the weak and small continue to be trodden by the mighty and powerful. — Tenzin Gyatso, The 14th Dalai Lama

I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion. – Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Nature is what makes us feel alive. From Thoreau to McKibben, Emerson to Van Jones, the ability to escape into nature and discover ourselves is something we recognize as fundamental to the human experience…

The sun warms my arms on a fall morning as I help rake leaves in the front yard and feel the crisp air in my lungs. Pumpkins line our porch, displaying the general range of emotions that seven-year-old me understands: happy, sad, angry, confused. The sun’s already beginning to set. My brother jumps into the pile, shrieking with laughter, both hands raised high in the air.

There’s a lot of stripes out here in the Badlands. Did God paint those? The sky is bruised and gray for miles around. My mom points out a big cluster of clouds flashing with lightning and pouring rain out in the distance. I’ve never seen a storm that wasn’t right above me. We speed on through the desert, bluegrass playing on the stereo and wind whipping at the doors.

The wooden shacks in the community all perch above pitch black trash water. Everyone dumps their extra food, tras, and waste into the trash water. I imagine a lazy summer day at my house: two nice lawns, a backyard tree, anthills forming along the sidewalk cracks. I wake up at midnight and realize with dread that I have to go to the bathroom… I flick on the light switch and, sure enough, one of Thailand’s largest spiders is hanging out on the wall again. He’s brown, juicy and plump, the size of a small plate, and loves to wait up just for me. In the early morning hours, a dull stench rises from the trash water and slowly fades as the sun comes up. In the morning, I force myself to look into the water. I spot several chip bags, plastic bottles, a school of little fish. How can anything survive in this environment?

What reminds me that I’m alive? What makes my mind race and heart flutter? What gives me a sense of positive burden and challenges me to imagine the way things could be? My passion for social justice: to fight on behalf of the poor and give a voice to the voiceless. For me, the environmental justice movement is a holistic approach to the most complex social justice issues that oppress people today.

The concept behind the term “environmental justice” is that all people – regardless of race, color, nation or income – are able to enjoy equal amounts of environmental protection. The EJ movement acknowledges that the world’s poor are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation and advocates for these communities. Research shows that environmental disasters, hazardous land use, and irresponsible pollution affect low-income people of color first and worst around the globe. There are so many “David vs Goliath” stories out there: giant corporations taking over land, toxic spills, mountain top removal. Injustices that ruin the health of a community and displace the vulnerable poor to make room for economic growth. And in most of these stories, Goliath wins. But the defining characteristic of the EJ movement is hope: hope that green jobs, fair land use and grassroots commitment to justice can save us all. In this blog, I hope to discover my personal perspective and passion for EJ by staying informed and getting plugged into valuable resources in the city. I particularly want to highlight some of these David and Goliath stories, particularly from a local (Vanderbilt/Nashville) or current (Election 2012) perspective.

You can read one example of a David vs. Goliath story here, in an article I published in the 2011 Vanderbilt Undergraduate Research Journal. It’s about the horrific use of pesticides on migrant farmworkers and their inability to speak out against the injustice because of their illegal status:

I’m also interested in focusing on the role of race in environmental injustices. I’ve had several eye-opening conversations with white friends here at Vandy who believe we live in a post-racial society, that nobody really treats each other differently based on the color of their skin, that institutionalized and personal racism is a thing of the past. This is just not true. Yes, race has a big influence on socioeconomic class; however, from the built-in biases of the criminal justice system to the overwhelming placement of landfills in communities of color, it’s clear that we’re not as “colorblind” as my friends seem to think.

I’ve taken a few classes at Vanderbilt that addressed the human cost of climate change, and a few years ago I attended a student missions conference in St. Louis where I heard for the first time a Christian perspective on climate change: a combination of stewarding God’s creation, caring for the needs of the poor, and embracing the joys of simple living. My impressions of the stereotypical Republican politician, a Christian who denounces climate change and fights against clean energy bills, didn’t match up with our priorities to serve the poor and live simply. How can we love our neighbor across town or across the globe without caring for his health and wellbeing?

Championing environmental justice is something we all can do, regardless of background, privilege, political beliefs, anything else that divides us and claims that some people deserve to live healthier lives than others. I hope you will join me!


Until next week,


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