~ Robert Ballard
Most of us have heard of NIMBY (not in my backyard) movements: campaigns to stop something or other from being built or established in our neighborhoods and communities. None of us wants a polluting factory or refinery or waste facility near us; but if it's not near us, where does it go? Most of us don't think about that; we just say a word or two of gratitude that our neighborhood is relatively pollution-free and go on about our lives, rarely, if ever, considering that our high-consumption lifestyle means that someone somewhere else has to pay a high price for our choices.
A recent issue of The Sun interviews Robert Bullard, one of the pioneers of the environmental justice movement, talking about the injustices inherent in where we choose to locate polluting factories and toxic waste dumps. Here's an excerpt:
Cowell: What types of environmental hazards do you see most often in low-income and African American communities?
Bullard: It’s mostly waste. Everybody produces waste regardless of class or race, but not everybody has to live near where the waste is dumped. We did a study of commercial hazardous-waste facilities and found that more than half of the residents living within a two-mile radius of these facilities were people of color. When you look at two or more of these facilities in close proximity, that number jumps to 69 percent, and it’s likely that there aren’t just two or three but four or five in a single area. When smelters, refineries, and chemical plants are located near schools, the students attending those schools are predominantly low income and minority. And if you live in a community of color, you are two and a half times more likely to live near a polluting facility. That’s part of the reason why zip codes and neighborhoods are consistent, powerful predictors of people’s health.
Poor communities are sometimes exposed to chemicals that haven’t even had toxicological research conducted on them yet. Local governments are gambling with people’s lives. And when someone objects, the burden is on those who are fighting serious illnesses to prove that this toxin has destroyed their health. Sometimes they don’t even know which chemical is making them sick. The burden of proof should be reversed: the company producing the chemical should have to prove that it will not harm the public.
Bullard also talks about the importance of redefining the environmental movement to include both the natural world and the places we live. As he says, "We can’t leave people out of our concept of the environment. And once we start to talk about people, we have to talk about justice and equality."
Read the complete interview.
Bullard's interview is an important reminder to educators who are teaching about environmental issues to engage students in a broader discussion of the inequities involved in our current systems, and a call to activists to expand the boundaries of what "environmental protection" means.
For a couple ideas about exploring environmental racism with students, check out these two activities from our friends at Teaching Tolerance.
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