By Angela Vega
Earth Day for my 8 year old self entailed egg cartons, plastic soda bottles, old shoe boxes, tin cans, and sometimes a hot glue gun if our cubbies were cleaned out and if we could prove to our teacher that our sticky fingers could handle them. Earth Day at school was essentially a two hour long arts and craft session where we built recycled trash sculptures slathered with the phrase “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle!” along the frontside, backside, and anywhere space would allow.
While it was difficult to explain to a class of third graders the political implications of environmental issues, Earth Day is still celebrated in a way that does little in bringing actual attention to the most concerning of today’s environmental qualms. While we sang songs from the safety of our classrooms about recyclable materials, where to find them, and where to place them, the voices of those marginalized rang through the streets, chanting words of anger over their own displacement.
Protesters held signs reading “Water is Life,” “Honor Our Treaties,” and “Stand with Standing Rock” in the last year alone. After countless months of protest against the controversial oil pipeline, on March 10, federal judges agreed on continuing the construction of the final section of the Dakota Access pipeline. This was done, however, against the wishes and rights of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
Several accounts before the media blackout at Standing Rock protests reported teenagers and Oglala elders alike teargassed, tased, and arrested. Cops fired rubber bullets at protesters and blasted them with earsplitting whines from Long Range Acoustic Devices, according to writer Wes Enzinna for Grist.
This decision ultimately allowed the pipeline to move forth with the desecration of ancestral land, land that was previously guaranteed for indigenous peoples under the Treaty of Fort Laramie and a decision we will continue to see the effects of today. Water supplies are ultimately threatened, and the Standing Rock Sioux tribe is left with the negative environmental and economic costs that accompany the project.
Ultimately, we have failed to encourage an environmental solidarity with those who suffer the most from environmental negligence. The severity of environmental issues we are taught about and exposed to are only the tip of the iceberg. Below the waters, however, is a more nuanced, but increasingly relevant and growing issue: environmental racism.
Environmental racism refers to the ways minorities, primarily people of color and members of low socioeconomic groups, face disproportionate amounts of exposure to environmentally degraded areas and hazardous facilities as a result of institutional and cultural racism.
Essentially, low income people of color are pushed and displaced into areas that face a disproportionately higher risk of environmental hazards while richer, wealthier residents or businesses take over grassroot communities, creating a modern day segregation and a catalyst for racial disadvantages.
Examples of this are seen still in Flint, Michigan where residents (whose population is 57 percent black) are left with contaminated water with no signs of immediate and urgent aid in sight despite three years of protest. Instances of environmental racism can also be seen in areas closer to home. Los Angeles has seen countless instances of gentrification, the process of renovating a district, or “urban renewal,” so that it conforms to middle-class taste, driving out low income and long term residents of a community. As the middle class push their ways in, the poor are displaced out to areas with high exposure to environmental degradation, leading into a spiral of racist and classist disadvantages.
There is an existing insensitivity to the wellbeing of the poor and marginalized in our country. Too often, the interest of large corporations are put above the wellness of normal residents and citizens.
This Earth Day, it is time to revisit the holiday’s initial intention. Instead of the generic “reduce, reuse, and recycle” mantra, it is time to look at our issues with a broader lense.