Los Angeles, where air pollution often reaches dangerous levels. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
According to a study conducted by researches at the University of Minnesota, nonwhite people (black, Asian, Hispanic), regardless of income, are exposed to higher levels of air pollution than white people. John Metcalfe at the Atlantic Cities reports: “On average, non-white people inhale 38 percent higher levels of air pollution than whites, they say. If non-white people were brought down to the levels of pollution enjoyed by whites, it would prevent 7,000 deaths from heart disease in their communities each year.” This, despite the fact that nonwhite people contribute less to air pollution than white people.
I tend to focus most of my time at this blog writing about issues related to racism, but have somehow skipped over environmental justice. Intellectually, I know that climate change is the most important issue facing us all. If the planet isn’t habitable, there will be no fight over how we allocate resources. Yet it feels like such a distant problem when faced with pervasive violence, food insecurity, disproportionate poverty rates, mass incarceration, etc., knowing that those things are killing us right now and the fixes are relatively easy, when compared to battling climate change.
But our environment—the air we breathe, the water we drink, the fuel that powers us—is inextricably linked to every other issue we face. As this new study shows us, environmental justice is a crucial aspect of anti-racism work in the United States. Not only that, the fight for our environment is a fight for oppressed populations across the globe. It is the land that we stand on that is most in danger of disappearing.
We’re running out of time. The gravity of the situation requires that we all do our part. Of course there are other supremely important issues that require our attention. This doesn’t mean we drop everything. Our brains can hold more than one thought at a time, our actions can be multifaceted. It does, however, mean that those of us who haven’t been paying enough attention to climate change can no longer take for granted that others will do the work. It’s time for all of us to show up.
Let this Earth Day be the beginning of a new commitment.