It remains to be seen if the emerging green economy will be more equitable and inclusive than the brown economy, which often concentrates pollution in poor communities of color. Will low income and immigrant families be left behind in the move to solar panels, electric cars and organic strawberries? Will poor neighborhoods be the first to be abandoned when rising seas start flooding various streets more frequently?
Those were some of the questions up for discussion at a recent Climate One event on environmental equity. Manuel Pastor heads up USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity. He says that while the green movement has done a great job of getting the message out that “everyone has the right to clean air,” the conversation needs to be broadened.
“Because everybody's also got the right to a good school, they’ve got the right to access to employment, they’ve got the right to be able to enjoy themselves and realize their opportunities.”
“So for me, environmental justice is important in and of itself,” he continues, “but it's also way to get people to understand that there's a broader social and economic environment that we have to make sure that people have access to.”
People tend to think of environmentalism as a white, elitist movement, says Pastor.
“What they imagine is a sort of thin, white hipster in spandex, fresh off their bicycle, tossing granola over their shoulders,” he chuckles. But that stereotype is both outdated and limiting. The true environmental activist, Pastor says, is “less the bicyclist in spandex and more the immigrant woman who lives near a refinery in Wilmington, who’s facing the daily ravages of pollution from those remitting greenhouse gas emissions and the co-pollutants.”
Recent polls by USC and the Public Policy Institute bear that out, reports Pastor. When asked about climate change, “only 43% of non-Hispanic whites in the state of California said it was a very serious concern. 63% of Latinos said it was a very serious concern. 57% of African-Americans, and 54% of Asian Pacific Islanders.
“So people of color across the board are actually more concerned about this.”
Vien Truong, National Director for Green for All, says that tapping into that demographic can only add strength to the movement. “They are a political power that is under understood. So when we talk about the importance of engaging communities of color, it's about, how do we win more climate policies, more climate solutions?”
And that means more than just changing consumer habits, “buying green” and plugging in a Prius, says Miya Yoshitani of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. A societal transformation has to happen as well. “It’s policy on the one side, but mostly it’s about putting people back in the center,” she points out.
“This is not about light bulbs. This is about what we want the most for our children. Which is, you know, health, it’s access to good jobs, it's the ability of people to make decisions that are most important in their lives. And it's nothing less than that.”
Environmental disparity, says Pastor, has long-term effects on children, “their ability to learn, their ability to do well in schools, their ability to be healthy. So this is a crisis that's an intergenerational crisis.
“Climate equity is not a special interest issue,” he concludes. “It’s at the center of what we need to do to address the climate crisis.”
“And the only way we’re going to get there,” says Truong, “is if we’re actually working together to understand the interconnectedness of our different ethnic communities, black, brown, Asian communities.”
The Berkeley bicyclist, the Wilmington mother, the migrant workers in Fresno and the Laotian refugees living in the shadow of Chevron’s Richmond refinery – all have a stake in California’s environmental movement.
“This is not about what we’re fighting against, but what we’re fighting for,” says Truong. “This is about fighting for a new energy system, fighting for a new democracy, fighting for a new way that we relate to one another as sisters and brothers.
“How do we actually create a new relation to our planet? How do we actually create a new economy?
“That is what is at stake here.”
This program is made possible by the generous support of The San Francisco Foundation and the Seed Fund.
Written by: Anny Celsi
Photography by: Ed Ritger