“The environment, for us, is defined as where we live, work and play.” These were the words Jeanne Gauna, co-director of the SouthWest Organizing Project, spoke as she began training neighborhood residents fighting environmental racism in their communities more than two decades ago. It was a simple and profound statement, and its context informs the environmental justice movement’s current dilemma to ensure that poor people and people of color are included in the green movement addressing global climate change.
Environmental justice activists like Jeanne have understood for over three decades the importance of broadening the scope of the environmental movement beyond rivers and birds. We knew then that the key to shifting public consciousness toward living sustainably and in balance with the earth was to include people and the economy as part of the environmental movement’s conversation. Narrowly defining the environment limited our vision for change, preventing the collective “us” from putting forward bold proposals and placing our opponents on the defensive.
In 1991, hundreds of people–concerned residents, organizers, scientists, lawyers and academics–developed 17 Principles of Environmental Justice. These principles provided a vision for social change based on equity, justice and sustainability that went beyond race, ethnicity and political borders. The Principles of EJ connected conservation, sustainability, health, workers rights, corporate responsibility and democracy under one big tent. The concept of environmental justice was a direct descendant of the justice frame of the civil rights movement. Now more than 17 years later, elements of our broad vision are being adopted by mainstream “green” advocates.
EJ activists may be thrilled that their ideas have seeped into the mainstream consciousness, but we’re not. Why? Because we fear that the poor and communities of color are going to be left out of the solutions and may suffer disproportionately from the emerging green economic shift. And we hear very little about justice and equity in the debate over climate change and the fervent efforts underway to transition our economy from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.
Poor people and people of color were, and in many cases still are, negatively impacted by the efforts of national environmental and conservation groups. In 1990, the SouthWest Organizing Project and 132 organizations signed a letter to the “Group of 10” national environmental and conservation organizations, charging them with environmental racism for leaving people of color out of the process of their policy decisions and not considering the impact their decisions would have on these particular communities. For example, in northern New Mexico, conservation organizations concerned with saving the spotted owl clashed with Chicano communities when a ban on tree cutting also prevented local residents from gathering dead and fallen wood they depended on to heat their homes in the winter.
A few years ago in a controversial paper entitled “The Death of Environmentalism,” Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger hypothesized that “the environmental community’s narrow definition of its self-interest leads to a kind of policy literalism that undermines its power.” They scolded the environmental movement for “failing to articulate an inspiring and positive vision” and missing opportunities to build alliances by thinking beyond their narrowly defined self-interest. Nordhaus and Schellenberger came to some of the same conclusions EJ leaders did 15 years prior. The question today is whether the “green wave” is repeating history.
The struggle to transition to a green economy has transcended the environmental movement. In fact, it has gone mainstream. We are on the cusp of a new, greener future, and how we do it as a society will determine whether or not it is truly transformative or whether it saves the planet while maintaining the equity and justice status quo. We are at a crossroads, again. Will the green-building movement price poor people out of being able to afford an energy-efficient home? Will surging gas prices disproportionately affect those who can’t afford to buy a hybrid vehicle? Will the recycling centers and biomass compost sites all be located in communities of color? Will a new green economy that brings well-paying and permanent jobs be constructed in a way that is accessible to our most vulnerable communities? And will the EJ movement sit around and complain that few of the ideas of the “green wave” are new instead of doing something about it?
The EJ movement will be infinitely stronger in addressing the very real concerns regarding the emerging green economy when we stop complaining about how others stole our ideas and start working to make them real. After putting forward a bold and radical vision for change, we stopped being for something and started being against things. So much so that, in an operational sense, we forgot what we were fighting for. The green wave has made new again, in a 21st-century framework, how the EJ vision can become a reality, and it needs our help to ensure it is equitable and just.
For us, workers rights, racial and gender justice, economic development and youth empowerment all fit within the EJ tent, because EJ is about the place we live, work and play. There are many ways our work over the years has led us to this “green” moment. Here in New Mexico, we’ve worked to hold Intel Corporation accountable for their water exploitation and air pollution; at the same time, we’ve pushed them to transition to a sustainable development model that minimizes their water usage. We’ve worked in broad coalitions at the municipal and county level to promote small, local businesses as central to a sustainable economic development approach. We’ve infused “smart growth” debates with an emphasis on justice and equity. And throughout the years, we have promoted culture and the reintegration of poor and people-of-color communities with the natural environment.
When we consider the explosion of “green” talk–the impetus for governments throughout the nation to pass laws protecting our air and water, to shift us off of oil dependency and to promote economic development that is green–we see very little that is different from what we have advocated all along. And our central question is, as it’s always been: Who pays and who benefits? Our task is to ensure that this is the question being asked by the mainstream green movement. The mainstream frames the debate in terms of saving the environment. We hear that it will require “sacrifice,” without any acknowledgment that the sacrifice will most likely be borne by the least affluent. There is much talk about the well-paying jobs that can be created by an entirely new homegrown economic sector, but little about ensuring that these jobs are located near and are accessible to historically disenfranchised communities.
We need to claim our place in this movement and to challenge those who do this work most directly to prioritize the needs of working families and people of color in economic development initiatives. To do this does not require that the many social justice organizations fighting for justice shift their mission or incorporate entirely new work areas. It means that we expand the green vision firmly in the direction of justice. Justice requires that a healthy environment include healthy families.
Many nations are on board in saving our planet. But the U.S. and Bush still stand in the way of our great shift. Our nation refuses to reduce greenhouse emissions in accordance with international agreements because it’s not profitable. We still live in a system based on profits that doesn’t place people directly at the center. The EJ movement is green by nature. It’s our task to develop on the ground leaders with a justice vision, to hold our elected leaders accountable and to insist that equity be built into any new green economy initiative. We believe these are our primary contributions to making the emerging green economy transformative. Going green is good, but you can’t drop the justice.