I grew up in a small town in rural western Pennsylvania. My father was the first African American born in our town, and he was the first to graduate from high school. My parents managed to raise seven children on my father’s hourly-wage job as a sanitation worker on my town’s only garbage truck.
For low-income families, reusing and recycling isn’t something you choose to do – it’s just your way of life. As the youngest child, I grew up wearing my siblings’ hand-me-downs. At Christmas, sometimes I received a used toy that one of my older siblings had grown tired of, wrapped up and perched under the tree for me to discover on Christmas morning. We reused and recycled a whole host of things, from aluminum foil and plastic wrap to furniture my father rescued from other people’s garbage.
The story of my childhood is hardly a fairy tale. My story does, however, illustrate an essential premise: To a great degree, poor people shaped the values that we espouse in our contemporary environmental movement. Reusing, recycling, and conserving out of necessity, low-income families across the nation created the blueprint for behavior that is mainstream and admirable today. But earlier in its history, the environmental movement largely left behind the very people whose every day values it embraced. The challenge since then has been to make sure that all people, regardless of race or income, equally benefit from the environmental movement’s gains. And that’s where the concept of environmental justice is derived.
The environmental justice movement was born out of a system of institutional racism. As slavery ended and the Jim Crow south laid its roots, towns and neighborhoods established by freed slaves became the places where noxious land uses were sited. This model of discrimination was parroted in Latino and immigrant communities across the country for decades. By the late 1970s, federal litigation challenging discriminatory land use using the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the U.S. Constitution began to pop up. Then, in 1982 a watershed moment arrived when a landfill intended for the disposal of PCBs (poly-chlorinated biphenyl, a highly toxic and bioaccumulative pollutant) was sited in Warren County, North Carolina, in a town comprised of 75 percent low-income African Americans. The siting decision was marked by non-violent protests, with over 550 arrests. The protests were followed by several damning studies confirming the overwhelming disproportionate siting of toxic landfills in people of color communities.
In fact, a 1992 National Law Journal study of every federal environmental lawsuit over a span of seven years concluded that the penalties collected by the U.S. EPA were uniformly and significantly lower in people of color communities than in white communities, and it also found that EPA took longer to clean up toxic sites in communities of color.
More than 20 years after that study, significant disparities remain, and they are as troubling here in New England as anywhere in the country. Whether the issue is childhood lead poisoning in New Hampshire, sea level rise in Rhode Island, or rising energy costs across the region, New Englanders living in low-income communities and communities of color are much more deeply impacted by our environmental challenges than our society at large.
Now, as CLF turns our efforts toward our strategic priority, climate adaptation and resilience, we can be certain that the poorest communities in our region are our canaries in the coalmine. Locally, regionally, and globally, the poorest people have contributed the least to anthropogenic climate change, but will take the first punch and bear more than their fare share of the devastating impacts (as this video by the German NGO Germanwatch cleverly points out).
While today CLF has a program area dedicated to healthy communities and environmental justice, ensuring that all New England communities, both rural and urban, are thriving, healthy places is not merely the work of one program. It’s the work of CLF – a common thread throughout everything that we do. CLF works to ensure that all New England communities enjoy clean air and clean water, all families have access to fresh local food, and all people have tools for making their neighborhoods more resilient in the face of our changing climate.
Climate change will hit our poorest communities first and hardest, but it will eventually ravage all of us if we don’t act now. We are all in this together, regardless of race or income, and our broad portfolio of work at CLF is more urgent now than it has ever been.