Going Green

Color_lines_jpegOriginally posted March/April 2008
By Robby Rodriguez, Color Lines

"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. 

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