The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.
– Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day
There is a sufficiency in the world for man’s need but not for man’s greed.
– Mohandas K. Gandhi
We drove for an hour, weaving through chaotic traffic and crashing down bumpy roads, to the edges of Mexico City. On the way, we passed miles of slums and shantytowns stacked high on the mountainsides. Our driver and guide reminded us that the vibrant splashes of pastels painted on the walls hid a very dark existence; each mountain contained hundreds of thousands of Mexico City’s poorest, crammed in the slums with little likelihood of leaving. After an hour of carsickness, we let out a collective sigh of relief as the van screeched to a stop. We pried the door open and savored the first breath of cool, fresh air as it drifted into the stuffy van. We spilled out of the open doors like fresh pastries poured from a basket, ten empanadas scattered on a giant plate of asphalt and rubble. We had reached the destination for today’s house visit: Las Esmeraldas, a flat, desolate neighborhood that looked even bleaker under the gray sky. It was quiet except for the occasional bark of a stray dog.
Thirteen other university students and I came on a missions trip working with a local community center, Armonía Ministries, playing and loving on kids in the slum community. That day we drove out to Las Esmeraldas to visit the family of Brenda, my favorite girl from the center. Brenda was a very mature 8-year-old with an adorably dopey younger brother, and we had latched onto each other from the very first day. It was our first house visit, so I had no idea what to expect. In fact I hadn’t had much experience with poverty in general; my parents worked hard and sacrificed their whole lives to give me and my brother much easier childhoods than they had in China. Even from the mission trips I took with my church to Navajo reservations in Arizona, where the water runs brown and big families live in teeny adobe homes, I was not prepared to see the level of poverty that pervades everyday life in Mexico City.
Brenda bounded toward us, taking special care to greet me with an enthusiastic “Maestra! Maestra!” She took me by the hand and led us all into her home. Along with a second car, we packed eighteen people into the one room home, smaller than a standard dorm on the Vanderbilt freshmen campus. The solid cement walls had been painted a sickly bright orange and covered with dozens of religious icons like the Mother Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and various depictions of Christ. They had also taped cartoon characters, American celebrities, even glossy full-color magazine ads that I wouldn’t have thought twice about throwing away. A small TV with a crooked antenna sat in the corner showing the news in black-and-white. Flies swarmed around some food and garbage left outside the entrance. There was no bathroom, no kitchen. There wasn’t even a real door. Brenda showed off the metal twin-size bunk bed that she, her mom, her brother, and another child all shared. Just then her mom squeezed in behind us with two 1-liter bottles of warm orange soda and a roll of plastic cups that she had gotten from a store down the street. She was buying us drinks? Yet Brenda beamed with joy and excitement at the chance to host her American friends. She was proud of her home. With a translator, her mom told us the story of how Armonía Ministries helped her when she didn’t have anyone to turn to.
We were only in the city for three weeks, but many things from the trip will stick with me forever. I think of Brenda often and wonder what she’s doing, what she looks like, where she is. I couldn’t accept that such a sweet, wonderful child could grow up in Las Esmereldas. Nor could I imagine myself ever feeling happy in her situation, unless it was all I had ever known.
In Dr. Seuss’ classic tale of advocacy and conservation, the Lorax speaks for the trees. We have associations and federations and agencies dedicated to protecting the most vulnerable parts of nature that don’t have a voice: endangered species, biodiversity, wildlife, land preserves, air quality. These are all good and essential components of taking care of the Earth. But who speaks up when people are voiceless? This is what makes environmental justice the definitive human movement, for nothing connects us all to such a complete degree and magnitude as the world in which we live. The environment is not just nature, but it encompasses all aspects of life: where we live, work, play, learn and grow. Environmental justice combines social justice for all with care for sustainability and an eye to the future.
The inseparable connection between human quality of life and the environment first drew me to the EJ movement. Just as the environment encapsulates everything, every social justice issue is exacerbated by the way we use the environment. Traditional environmentalism stood up for the birds, the wilderness and the wetlands. Now, EJ is the movement that stands up for the poor. We realize that people need environmental advocacy in both urban and rural habitats. Toxic poisoning, landfill use, extractive energy industries and contaminated water supplies all demonstrate the human piece of environmentalism, and the principles of EJ are global in scope. EJ pulls together a million different pieces of the puzzle to find a comprehensive solution for the most devastating problems we face.
Through this blog, I have aimed to find my own voice in this broad movement and make the connections between environmentalism and people. Why? Because EJ declares that it’s reprehensible for Brenda’s family to live in a one-room cement room, and to have another billion people in the world living with even less.
I want to stand with the movement and declare the same.
I want to speak up about something that matters.
Well, what I actually want to do is steal Brenda away and adopt her and sell all my stuff and give the money to her family and put her through school. But I can’t. So instead I’ll remember her and talk about her to all who will listen. And if I close my eyes and force myself, I can still taste the distinct flavor of fizzy Mexican orange soda, both syrupy and bitter with carbonation, as I tried to wash away the lump in my throat.
Can blogs change lives? Just ask then-Senator Obama as he stepped onto the platform in McCormick Place on Election Night, in front of a roaring crowd of thousands to deliver his first acceptance speech as President of the United States. Do words have the power to transform? Look to the authors of Common Sense, who, through a few dangerous ideas in a few pamphlets, provided the spark that ignited a revolutionary war. Does my blog matter? A thousand times yes. I may not have turned the world of environmental justice on its head or sparked a revolution, but I contributed my voice to a current issue of unparalleled relevance and scope. EJ represents the essence of the greatest challenges of our time, and it’s up to all of us to raise our voices, start putting together the pieces and coming up with solutions. My way of participating in the movement this semester has been through blogging, and I’ve learned so much from the experience.
First, environmental justice is a movement in the grassroots: people protesting environmental harms and demanding not just equality, but justice. As EJ champion Dr. Robert Bullard states, “The environmental justice movement isn’t seeking to simply redistribute environmental harms, but to abolish them.” In the same spirit, blogs are a great representation of a local movement, localized to the point of individuality. Blogs are a form of “citizen journalism” where everyone can get involved and report their own experience from the field, wherever they are: cities, countryside, overseas. Bloggers report their own perspectives and interactions to make their voice heard. EJ blogs like 350.org (350.org/about/blog) and EJ Food (ejfood.blogspot.com) report environmental justice issues in real time with lots of human stories and first-hand witnesses.
This semester we’ve also seen the importance of blogs and social media in today’s globalized world. We spread ideas faster than ever in history, and EJ blogs like mine are the new Delano grape boycott, Little Rock Nine sit-in, Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s probably irreverent to compare something like a blog, a mere collection of mostly anonymous thoughts posted on a website, to these monumental acts of civil disobedience and intense personal risk. But for the blogs that take this issue seriously, for those that spread awareness of the topic with conviction and urgency, they share the same spirit with these towering historical figures of social justice. EJ is, first and foremost, a civil rights issue. We’re all on this planet together, learning and advocating and solving problems together.
Doing research for this blog and delving deeper into EJ issues also helped me see just how complex the factors involved are; this blog is just the beginning of a lifelong process of understanding the web of forces at play that lead to incidental and systemic environmental injustices. Like a giant jigsaw puzzle, EJ has many influences, factors and stakeholders that make it such a universal issue. First, one of the biggest forces at play in environmental hazards is governmental bodies and institutions. We have unjust laws, more explicitly on a local level, that allow systemic environmental injustice and even environmental racism against people of color (“the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color, closely tied to socioeconomic class”, EJNet.org). Some examples of institutionalized and systemic environmental racism are toxic waste sites and landfills built disproportionately in communities of color. I examined the election hoping to hear mention of sustainable living and climate change fight (and therefore, climate justice: the idea that certain people groups will be disproportionately impacted by climate change). Yet #ClimateSilence2012 showed that we’re not ready to make any real changes. With a sharply divided House and Senate, any possibly helpful legislation will be shut down by conservatives and lost in gridlock. Climate change played an ominously minor role in the presidential race this year and may reveal a growing acceptance, apathy or unwise deprioritization on the part of the American public towards climate change. Attitudes like these make EJ blogs even more important in educating others and spreading awareness.
A second factor of the EJ movement is personal choice and sacrifice. One way that I explored this topic in my blog was by eating as vegetarian as possible this semester! I didn’t want to stop eating meat just to save animals or protect grazing land or for health reasons, which are of course all great and valid reasons for this lifestyle choice. However, I made a conscious choice to broaden my veggie and bean palate primarily because I want to live with integrity. As I quoted previously, if we fed the grain we feed to livestock to the 1.4 billion people living in abject poverty, each of them would get more than half a ton of grain, or about 3 pounds of grain/day, twice the grain they would need to survive. The planet couldn’t support all 7 billion of us if we all ate meat on a daily basis, and this is one way to stand in solidarity with the majority of the world while lowering the amount of pollution in our planet. Of course, if the whole world consumed as much as an average American in any other way (drove cars, ate food, used electricity, tossed waste) the world also could not support us all. The human cost of eating meat led us to give thanks over the dead body of a happy organic turkey for Thanksgiving.
Another piece to the EJ puzzle I investigated was the role of faith and organized religion in the EJ movement. I come from a strong Christian family (my dad is a pastor, and my mom a social worker at a Christian non-profit), so the beliefs, language and customs of Christianity have always been taught as second nature. In that, it’s sometimes hard for me to step back and see how our actions are perceived by others and what is the heart behind the laws our Republican conservative representatives push. Some Christians claim that God gave us dominion over the earth to use resources for our benefit. However, He also commands us to care for the poor, the orphans and the widows; to care for His creation; to “live justly and walk humbly and love mercy”. All these things lead me to believe that the Christian Church is not doing enough to advocate for EJ in our local communities nor speaking up to our political representatives to protect minorities and vulnerable populations. So much of conservative politics is affected by the financial support of huge corporations and donors that want to maximize their profits, and for now environmentally safe and just practices with low carbon production and fair trade values are generally less profitable. This will change as technology improves, but for now people of faith and so-called Christian conservatives need to support environmentally just measures. Corporations must consider the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit. Environmental degradation, on the local and global scale, is an urgent matter that the Bible indirectly addresses when we’re called to love our neighbors as ourselves. In the future I would love to do more research on other faiths’ approach to the environmental crisis and EJ.
In addition to religious institutions, I explored the efforts of my school, Vanderbilt University, to “go green”. I hadn’t known just how much of an intentional effort Vanderbilt makes to stand out from the crowd in terms of environmentally-conscious initiatives. That said, from a student perspective it just doesn’t really feel like Vandy cares enough about environmental or social justice to sacrifice profit. For example, there’s a giant coal plant in the middle of campus. I also need to further investigate Vandy’s employment and purchasing practices, particularly in dining: where we get our food, what’s in it, how it’s prepared, and how the workers are treated. Vandy’s treatment of workers has been a controversial topic lately, even sparking an “Occupy Vanderbilt” movement last spring where students and activists moved into tents by Kirkland Hall to protest low wages, unstable work hours and irresponsible endowment investment in Africa land grabs.
In the future, I’d like to fish out some local Nashville stories. The injustices in Nashville are well hidden and rarely discussed: food deserts, exploitation of preserved land, educational inequity and homelessness to name a few. At least in passing discussion Mayor Karl Dean has addressed the environmental aspect of EJ: “Nashville needs to be a leading city for sustainable living with clean air, clean water and plenty of preserved open space. This is important for the livability of our city for current residents and for our future economic growth. Businesses and individuals are attracted to cities with strong environmental practices and transportation options.” But I haven’t yet explored the justice piece. Is Nashville really committed to equal access to our city’s resources for all? If so, why do residents of the Edgehill community (right next to Vanderbilt) lack access to fresh food for miles? What’s at the heart of the city’s educational inequality? And what’s going on with our water and air?
To conclude, this blog has given me the chance to personally wrestle with EJ and forced me to really ask myself how I can live a life of integrity. After seeing the magnitude and breadth of EJ, the change that EJ can bring to poor communities, how can I turn my back and pretend that I do not know? I realize now that recycling plastic bottles really isn’t the answer to securing the safety of the world’s vulnerable, it’s EJ: fighting against multinational corporations, toxins, hazardous wastes, unhealthy work environments…anything that threatens the fundamental rights of others to clean air, land, water and food. If the EJ wave is what lifts the kids at Armonía out of the slums, I have no choice but to get stoked and hang ten.
If I had one take away from my exploration of EJ, I would say that it’s never too late to change course. And what a journey it’s been so far! I’ve learned so much and practiced the art of blogging in the process. But this is not the end. I’m on the cusp of graduation, leaving Nashville with my bachelor’s degree in tow, and there’s no telling what my next step is. I do know that, wherever I end up and whatever I do, I want to live a life of vision: to dream of what could be fueled by the conviction of what should be.
Until next time,