Getty Images

For too long, most pundits have talked about the environment as, to borrow a phrase, a “white man’s burden.” Conventional wisdom has portrayed environmental justice as a pet project of beach cleaners, trail hikers, spotted-owl savers and—worst of all—elitists.

But here’s the reality: In the fight to save the environment, city dwellers, especially African Americans, have the most at stake. Today, African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods with the highest levels of industrial pollution. They are five times as likely to live within walking distance of a power plant and twice as likely to suffer lead poisoning. African-American children are three times as likely to die of asthma-related causes. To anyone familiar with injustice in America, it’s an all-too-familiar story: Pollution hurts everyone, but it hurts African Americans the most.

Advertisement

The same is true of climate change. While we cannot know to what extent Hurricane Katrina’s destructiveness was fueled by global climate change, we do know that climate change will bring more disastrous hurricanes just like it. We also know that after Katrina, those who lacked the money and mobility to escape were overwhelmingly black. Climate change will mean rising sea levels, more sweltering heat waves, and new and dangerous diseases. And, if history is any judge, many of the worst affected—and least able to escape—won’t be white.

Thankfully, there are activists who have helped draw the connection between the environment and other, more traditional social issues. Van Jones, a civil rights attorney in Oakland, realized that the clean energy sector could eventually employ hundreds of thousands of inner-city residents. His book, The Green Collar Economy, was a best-seller, and he’s now a special adviser to President Obama.

In 1997, Majora Carter began her career as a community activist by organizing protests against Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s plan to install a waste transfer station in her South Bronx neighborhood. Her organization has secured over $30 million to revitalize the borough’s landscape—and its economy—with a 23-mile “greenway.”  

Advertisement

And of course, there is Lisa Jackson, who in January became the first African-American head of the EPA. Before joining the Obama administration, Jackson was New Jersey’s commissioner for environmental protection, where she proved that a tough administrator can use environmental law to save African-American lives. She pushed for tough new legislation against the trucks and ships that ruined Newark’s air quality, and she led over 1,000 compliance investigations in Camden and Paterson, cities that had been ignored by previous commissioners.

These pioneers have made great strides, but too many purveyors of conventional wisdom still treat the environmental justice movement as if it exists only in national parks and old-growth forests.

The good news is that Americans of all walks of life understand what the pundits overlooked—and they are already changing the face of the environmental movement. Today, a lot of Americans who care about the environment don’t even think of themselves as “environmentalists” because a lot of money has been spent to brand the word as negative and define them as unrealistic or extreme.

The new environmentalists are farmers, ranchers, mothers, fathers, evangelical Christians and bottom-line business people. They range from the CEO of Wal-Mart—who recently endorsed a mandatory cap on carbon emissions—to a retired commercial fisherman in North Carolina who began suffering from the same symptoms as the poisoned fish he caught in a river polluted by a nearby hog farm. They are fighting small but significant battles across America to reclaim the environment. Our challenge is to go to the grassroots and make sure the new environmentalists are African Americans, too.

How have we let such a distorted picture take hold? Part of the blame lies with the media: Any time a story about the environment does not mention the work of urban activists, a journalist has missed an important part of the picture.

But the biggest part of the blame, and the biggest part of the solution, lies with us. As citizens and activists (and sometimes as senators), it isn’t always easy to connect the dots, but we can’t afford not to. We must remember that cities are ecosystems and that global climate change exacerbates local poverty.

Advertisement

There is an often-repeated quote by one of America’s first great naturalists, John Muir. “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Muir died almost a century ago, but his words have never been more relevant.

When we talk about “the environment,” we’re talking about redwoods in Northern California, but we’re also talking about drinking water in East Baltimore. We’re talking about ice caps melting at the North Pole, but we’re also talking about levees breaking in New Orleans.

It is time for more community activists to be invited to connect the dots. Without environmental justice, social justice will never be complete.

Advertisement

John Kerry, who attended the very first Earth Day celebration in New York City in 1970, is a senator from Massachusetts and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

Dayo Olopade: Black Folks, Green Thumbs.

Majora Carter: City dwellers can save the world.

Dayo Olopade: Seven ways to love your mother (earth, that is).

Kai Wright: Why environmental justice isn't enough.

Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins: Getting in on the Green Ground Floor.

Take a look at the Green Collar Heroes photo gallery.