Climate & Social Justice

Snarl of Issues Creates Environmental Injustice

Best, most prosperous, and environmentally friendly way to unravel this racist mess is to build a just transition

The environmental-justice movement deals with a host of issues that are interconnected. (ecoRI News)


Environmental justice isn’t easy to define. All the definitions offered by government agencies, academics, and nonprofits sound similar, but actually eliminating the exploitation of marginalized communities requires untangling a mass of environmental and social issues.

Jesus Holguin, a member of the city of Providence’s Racial and Environmental Justice Committee, defined it this way:

“Environmental justice starts with people having easy access to the beauty and the serenity that is the earth. It starts with people being able to prepare and eat real food together. It ends with people being able to self-govern themselves and their community.”

Joann Ayuso, founding director of Movement Education Outdoors, a Rhode Island-based nonprofit “operating on Narragansett, Pokanoket, and Wampanoag land,” noted there is an important distinction between environmentalism and environmental justice.

“Environmental justice is not an updated term for environmentalism,” she said. “Environmentalism, while very well meaning in most cases, reproduces the Colonial idea that land and humans are separate and, therefore, we need to preserve land away from human intervention. Environmental justice is all about understanding humans as part of the environment.”

She explained environmental justice is more closely aligned with a just transition. She noted just transition is important to environmental justice because it acknowledges that “we cannot simply preserve places to create the impact we need.”

“Just transition requires us to build a visionary economy for life in a way that is very different than the economy we are in right now,” Ayuso said during an April 30 Rhode Island Environmental Education Association event. “Constructing this visionary economy calls for strategies that democratize, decentralize, and diversify economic activity while we damper down consumption and redistribute resources and power.”

Environmental justice has a variety of definitions, but they all come back to the same thing: the exploitation of Black, brown, and low-income people. (Bonnie Phillips/ecoRI News)

But chasms exists between the different worlds living on this third rock from the sun. This inherently unfair divide elevates some at the expense of many others.

For some people, the environment’s dwindling bounty and access to it is a natural part of life. It provides relaxation, energy savings, shade, beauty, a sense of belonging, and profit. For others, however, their environment is a source of threat, risk, and health woes.

During the past five years, for example, the neighborhoods around heavily polluted Allens Avenue in Providence — Washington Park and South Providence — have dealt with: the rupture of a high-pressure pipeline that released about 19 million cubic feet of methane, or enough natural gas to heat 190,000 homes for a single day; the derailment of a tanker car carrying 30,000 gallons of ethanol; a gasoline spill after a tanker truck carrying 11,000 gallons of fuel overturned on the ramp from Allens Avenue to Interstate 95 North, with gasoline reaching the Providence River; an excavator on fire; a fire at a metal scrap yard that set a large pile of junk ablaze; and a nauseating stench from a petroleum-storage business after it converted two of its tanks to hold liquid asphalt products.

For distressed communities like Washington Park and South Providence, access to stress-reducing green space is restricted by, among other things, limited public transit, contempt for their communities, systemic racism, and the privatization of the shoreline.

Environmental justice is also most certainly about how some people consume natural resources at the expense of others, and pollute the planet’s life-sustaining systems at a far greater rate.

For instance, the world’s richest 10% contribute almost half of global climate emissions, while the world’s poorest 10% contribute less than 5%, according to a 2020 Oxfam report. The richest 1% account for 50% of aviation emissions. In fact, the richest 1% of the world’s population is responsible for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the poorest 50% — even though the latter shoulders so much more of the burden.

Even as research, studies, and news reports continue to expose the ongoing cascade of environmental injustices being committed locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally, most of the effort required to balance the scales is left for a sliver of society to achieve. Another sliver profits off the suffering the former works to alleviate. The rest of society goes about its business, as the planet simultaneously floods and burns and the risks faced by its most vulnerable deepen.

Many of the rest not already aggressively impacted by this unequal distribution of wealth and resources will likely become vulnerable to some form of environmental injustice themselves.

A functioning and healthy natural world should be an intrinsic part of everyone’s life. Unfortunately, long-embedded environmental injustices, built primarily by racist policies, work as they were intended.

In this 12-week, 15-story series, which also includes a podcast done in partnership with students in Roger Williams University’s Communities of Hope program, ecoRI News examines 10 issues — climate crisis, transportation, pollution, energy, land use, healthy food, drinking water, affordable housing, lead poisoning, and utility shutoffs — entangled in environmental justice from a local and broader perspective.

To view the series, click here.

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