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Clean Air & Water Access for All

The first part of a series of articles discussing the inequities within the environmental movement, why we can’t protect our planet without addressing them directly, and what we can do about it.

Published on: May 05, 2021
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The past year has played a pivotal role in opening our eyes and hearts to the irrevocable nature of the climate crisis, the ingrained racial injustices of the nation, and the need for intersectionality within the environmental movement. We recognize that the fight for racial justice and the fight against climate change are not separate — they depend on each other.

We can’t win either of these fights until we acknowledge and address the deep-rooted inequities that have existed since the birth of our country. While these inequities extend to every aspect of the environmental movement, today, we’re discussing them in the context of clean air and water. This way, we’ll be able to discuss some of the history of these issues, some uplifting progress that’s been made, and action items you can focus on to continue this progress.

At the end of the day, our goal is to encourage an environmental movement that gives every person, along with Mother Nature, the chance to thrive.

What are some historic inequities surrounding clean air and water?

While the inequities regarding clean air and water in America are deep-rooted and complex, they highlight the shared foundations between systemic racism and environmental injustice.

In his 1990 book, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, Dr. Robert D. Bullard introduced the term environmental racism. He discusses how corporations and policymakers work together to strategically place big polluters in BIPOC communities.

Specifically, discriminatory practices such as redlining placed low-income communities of color away from natural spaces and closer to hazardous waste facilities. In addition, the lack of infrastructure, mobility, and other residential standards increase the vulnerability of these communities and, in turn, further marginalize them. Patterns like these (and many more) have allowed environmental injustice to persist. Recent research has shown:
• Redlining continues to push BIPOC communities way from natural spaces, into lower-quality homes, and closer to hazardous waste facilities.
• These communities continue to face the highest exposure to pollution and remain at a higher risk for climate-related disasters (and the gentrification that often follows).
• Although white Americans are the primary consumers of goods that generate fine particulate matter pollution (the deadliest form of air pollution), Black Americans disproportionately breathe this polluted air.
• Asthma mortality rates for Black children and adults are eight times and three times higher (respectively) than the rates for white Americans.
• Compared to white communities, communities of color face unequal access to safe drinking water.

Think about it — if bad actors knew they couldn’t get away with it, if they were held accountable, they wouldn’t dump chemicals into our waterways, spill toxic emissions into our air and pave over critical habitat. These things happen because the communities that are impacted are not empowered to fight back. They are marginalized here as they are marginalized in other critical parts of our society.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and discouraged by these facts, but we want to remind you that the news is not all bad, and progress is happening. Public awareness has recently skyrocketed in the realm of environmental justice. Through the work of organizations such as the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Intersectional Environmentalist (IE), and beyond — more and more people are taking a stance to “dismantle systems of oppression in the environmental movement.” Over one million people have taken the IE pledge to do just that! All of these people are working to empower these communities and raise these voices so we can protect our shared planet.

In addition, the 2020 elections rang in big wins for the environmental movement — many of which directly promote environmental justice, clean air, and clean water.

What can you focus on?

With complex, deep-seated issues like these, we recognize it can be hard to know how you can help as an individual. Below are some action items you can focus on right now and in the future:

1. Commit to learning more about environmental injustices. If you haven’t already, we recommend fully reading Dr. Robert D. Bullard’s Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. Our friends at NRDC also list readings and action items, so you can learn more about each topic and follow through with specific actions. In addition, we recommend visiting the resources section on the IE website and, of course, continuing to visit our resources in The Field Guide.

2. Find out which communities in your area need your help the most. These are the communities that typically reside near big polluters, struggle with contaminated tap water + hazardous waste pollution, and have faced additional oppression through policy and infrastructure decisions. Conduct local research, reach out to environmental organizations in your area, and talk to other people in your community. NRDC walks you through steps you can take to learn more about big polluters and protect your community from dirty development projects.

3. Hold your elected officials accountable. You’ve learned about new issues, now it’s time to ignite change. Lasting change is only achievable if you have support from public officials at the local, state, and federal levels. This can be as simple as writing a personalized email to your local officials stating who you are and the air, water, and pollution legislation you wish to address. Be sure to call out specific legislation names. At the federal level, you can add your name to the petition to further “call on the Biden administration to take bold action in its first 100 days,” and find inspiration through this letter that IE wrote to the administration.

4. Ensure that your mindset and efforts actually uplift marginalized communities. This work is not a contest — it’s a communal effort. It’s important that marginalized communities do not continue to bear the burdens of the problems they have the least part in causing. On top of this, marginalized communities have been historically vilified for not “doing their part” even though they do not have many of the resources, the free time, or the energy to change their habits. It’s important to look at these issues from a perspective of community and compassion — instead of competition. A sense of community can go a long way in demanding access to clean air and water for all.

The fight continues.

We hope you feel inspired and equipped to stand up and amplify the voices of silenced and oppressed communities. As we continue to discuss more specific environmental injustices in The Field Guide, we encourage you to focus on feeling empowered and optimistic.

These are big challenges, and tackling them can feel uncomfortable and difficult. But with the current momentum surrounding the intersectional environmental movement, there’s no time like the present to harness that energy and work to create lasting, positive change. As a brand, we’re working to do exactly that.

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