A Whiter Shade of Green

Parts 1 & 2

by grace villmow

Part 1

Historically, environmentalism has been an exclusively white practice with un-severable ties to colonialism. In fact, those ties have yet to be severed to this day – the modern conception of environmentalism is still largely white and rich, stunting the growth of developing countries. The outcomes of this mentality have severely negative impacts, particularly on third-world countries and, within first-world countries, lower-income persons and minorities.

Let’s start globally. The Paris Climate Accord, signed by 196 countries in December of 2015, is an agreement for countries to plan and report their methods and actions to mitigate global warming. It is non-binding and many of the planet’s most infamous polluters (such as India and China) have only planned for a net increase their annual greenhouse gas contributions to our atmosphere at a controlled rate, but here is what makes it a huge step in the right direction: every single country that signed it recognizes that climate change is happening, humans play a significant role in it, and we should be taking steps to decrease our greenhouse gas output. The Paris Climate Accord is the start of a start towards becoming better stewards of our planet, but it has been met with hostile opposition for one vague, yet valid, reason: the economy.

Common convention and understanding holds that whatever regulations we establish to preserve or improve the environment will inevitably contribute to a country’s economic demise. Our president has even tweeted that climate change is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese to decrease competition. This is entirely false, but it highlights the fact that in order to mitigate global warming, we must voluntarily make some changes that we might not see the benefits of in the short run. A country’s GDP might grow faster if they toss regulations to the wind, but the repercussions of such an action would come at a greater cost down the line in the form of food shortages, catastrophic natural disasters, and in many cases, an influx of displaced persons, refugees of their own country whose homes have been eroded away by rising sea levels. Perhaps there would be a sense of poetic justice in the ultimate destruction of countries that paid no heed to the warning signs or the scientists, but life ain’t fair. Not all countries will be equally impacted by climate change, and the countries that are the most responsible and need to make the biggest changes are not at the highest risk of global warming’s catastrophic effects.

Thomas Friedman writes in Hot, Flat, and Crowded about the American Dream. It has inspired not just Americans, but the world to live in the American style: a way of cars and hamburgers with a higher waste output per person than any other country in the world. The United States consumes over 30% of the world’s resources despite weighing in at only 5% of the world’s population, and other countries want in. The core of Friedman’s book is a call to a green revolution worldwide, but more importantly, a call for the United States and other economic leaders that need to take responsibility for the damage they have caused. After all, we are the ones that set the precedent of such an extravagant yet environmentally catastrophic way of life. In an era of increased environmental awareness, Friedman posits that “green is the new red, white, and blue”, or a new way for America to reassert itself as the world’s dominant power; however, a study by the New York Times shows that the American people disagree.

The image below shows a stark reality of the American mentality, that climate change will impact people, but not me. The worst part is that, for the most part, they are not wrong. Climate change will not hurt people in developed countries as much as it will hurt people in developing countries, climate change will not hurt the rich as much as it will hurt the poor, and climate change will also not hurt white people as much as it will hurt people of color. The United States has the highest GDP of any country in the world, which means that we are in the best position to start the green revolution, to reduce our waste and our greenhouse gas output. This asset, however, is currently acting as our downfall. We could enact changes that only our children’s children will see the effects of but will set an international precedent for making green energy mainstream, but the United States does not believe in delayed gratification. Instead, we look at the devastation of hurricanes Irma and Harvey and simply clean up, because we can afford to build our houses directly in the path of natural disasters that will only grow worse with the advent of global warming.

Look at the states that got hit the hardest this September: Texas and Florida. Both voted Trump, a man who has called climate change a hoax, in the 2016 election. Perhaps they do realize that denying the existence of a problem will only make it grow worse, but what does that matter? We can afford it, at least for now. The problem is that other countries cannot. Or worse, other countries can, but will choose not to because they know one country cannot reduce global warming if no one else is making any effort.

The wealth of the United States and other major polluters also highlights that the negative effects of environmental regulations do not impact all countries equally. Or, perhaps they do, but some countries are better equipped to deal with their immediate negative impacts on the economy. In the short term, it is generally true that environmental regulations temporarily decrease a country’s competitiveness, or ability to participate in the global market. Products that were once cheap to manufacture might become less cheap, or companies might need to adapt to disposing of their waste in a more responsible manner, or other factors relating to the regulation cause a country’s net exports, for the years following the regulation’s institution, to decrease. In some cases, companies may even move out of the country to escape the regulations, taking jobs along with them. First world countries, or countries that maintain high economic independence relative to other countries, need to take the ball here, and they usually do. It is the immediate enforcement of these regulations on a global scale, in countries that cannot handle them yet, that causes going green to become environmental injustice.

Environmental regulations slowly trickle down from countries that can handle them to countries that need more time. A good example is the advent of cars with high mileage. The United States started making cars meet certain mileage requirements in the seventies, long before cars were even commonplace in many developing countries at the time. Imposing such regulations on a global scale probably would have decreased carbon emissions and pollution that we see today, but imposing such regulations so early on might have and most likely would have stunted their growth. It is true that greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced by not allowing developing countries to have their industrial revolutions, but forcing these people to remain in the Dark Ages while we thrive would not be just. The prosperity of the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and all world economic leaders has come from industrialization: a period of trial and error, of creation and destruction. And now, we are in a position to make our technology more efficient. The countries just now entering their industrial revolutions are going to use the cheapest resources available to them, and why should they not? They deserve growth and independence as much as we do. What we can do is take this into account going forward, and start focusing our effort on churning out efficient technologies that we can make globally available.

Let me make this abundantly clear: this is not only environmental justice here. Yes, it is fair that we allow developing countries to rely on coal and oil and natural gas as much as we did, but the importance of our transition to green energy is not just to protect the earth, it is to protect ourselves. If the United States continues to rely on coal and oil instead of taking the next step in development, other countries will catch up. We will no longer be the top dog in the global economy. Perhaps that does not matter, and our reign of power is coming to its end, but we have an opportunity here to reclaim that American spirit of innovation and inspire the world with the American Dream once more. We need to transition to green energy and a less wasteful lifestyle for two reasons: it will slow climate change without halting the growth of developing countries, and it will give us the competitive edge we need as countries larger than us emerge as world powers.

There are also environmental injustices stemming from regulation that have no direct impact on the economy, like Africa’s ongoing battle with DDT. DDT is cheap and effective, but it wreaks havoc on whatever ecosystem it touches. The problem is, regulating DDT in Africa as strictly as it is regulated in the United States causes malaria cases to skyrocket. It really is a tough call – do we take Silent Spring to heart and stop producing it, or do we risk looking like hypocrites by selling to Africans a product banned in our own country? Current negotiations with the World Health Organization provide a limited exception to the DDT ban for malaria control, but people in Africa still die every day because Rachel Carson scared Americans into thinking that DDT is far too toxic to ever have any benefits. This is a prime example of an environmental injustice: we have taken up the white man’s burden and so kindly restricted DDT from the rest of the world in order to better protect our planet’s health. An admirable premise, but one that highlights our own blindness to the struggles of the disadvantaged, an ignorance that kills over one million people every year. We fail and fail again to realize that our actions, even good-intentioned ones, have consequences.

Part 2

Environmental justice is not just an issue of developed and developing countries, but an issue of rich and of poor, and of white and of color, within first world countries. This past summer, I interned at the Keller Science Action Center in Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. I co-authored a research paper on infiltration rates in restorations of various ages on Chicago’s lakefront, but mostly focused in Burnham Park, a recently established 600-acre park on the city’s South Side. If you are familiar with Chicago, you might associate “South” Side with “Black” Side or even “Poor” Side, and for the most part, those are accurate associations. It is what makes the presence of Burnham Park such a milestone and also such a risk. No, not a risk because its location makes it dangerous for the people that visit it – it is dangerous for the very people it is intended to benefit.

Environmental gentrification, also called eco-gentrification, is a phenomenon that many planners overlook when establishing an urban or suburban greenspace, and its results can be catastrophic for the people that live near these establishments. Once a greenspace – usually a park, or garden, or even a small patch of trees – has been established, property value skyrockets. For homeowners, this is good news. However, low-income families tend to rent, and when property value goes up, so do their monthly payments. Apartments are sold out from under people who have lived in them for years, and they are forced to move elsewhere. In attempting to provide people with an natural space for recreation, the city only ends up displacing them. Environmental scientists Jennifer Wolch, Jason Byrne, and Joshua Newell published a research paper in Landscape and Urban Planning that highlights the importance of making a city “just green enough” that people in low-income neighborhoods are provided with the benefits greenspace without its negative effects, but the possibility of eco-gentrification is still largely overlooked today when establishing urban and suburban greenspace.

The problem even stems beyond gentrification. Chicago, in particular, has gang rivalries and feuding neighborhoods wherein sharp lines are drawn that determine who is allowed to go where. The Chicago Park District could try to improve quality of life in these neighborhoods by establishing a greenspace nearby, but depending on where they put it, access might be restricted to only a few blocks of people. The city might even make the mistake of placing the park on one of these sharply drawn lines, oblivious to the fact that this park has been made unavailable to both sides of the equation. In either case, somebody loses, and the city would have been better off redirecting those funds to a community center that helps care for children.

Environmental injustices thus far have tended to stem from benevolent intentions rooted in ignorance, but unfortunately, the issue is much more sinister than that. Enter racism: alive and well in urban and suburban greenspace design. Public park districts design with everyone in mind, but they often do so based on antiquated and racist stereotypes: The Hispanic/Latinx community needs picnic tables because they are “family-oriented”, the Black community needs basketball courts because they “prefer structured physical activity”, and white people need hiking trails and bike paths because they’re “active and interested in their surroundings”. Picnic tables, basketball courts, hiking trails, and bike paths are all great features for a park to have, but they are often designed on the basis of exclusion. Perhaps trail signs are only written in English, or advertisement for aspects of the park can only be found in predominantly white spaces. The Chicago Field Museum, for example, played a huge role in the development of prairie restorations and hiking trails in Burnham Park, so maps and information can be found there at the Museum, but not in the neighborhoods that the restorations and trails are actually located in. People that receive this information go and visit the park, and suddenly the people living in the nearby neighborhoods are excluded from something that was built for them.

For further information on this, Jason Byrne, a coauthor on the just green enough paper, has also done research on the exclusionary perception that minorities have of public greenspace in Los Angeles in his paper entitled When Green is White: the cultural politics of race, nature, and social exclusion in a Los Angeles urban national park. The paper is available to view for free online, including the dialogue of a focus group that truly illuminates the extent to which minorities feel excluded from greenspace that is built in their very midst. His research also analyzes the socio-cultural determinants of park (non)use, surmising that people are less likely to visit parks if they are “older, impoverished, busy, socially isolated, female, ethno-racially marginalized, are unaware of park facilities, perceive parks to be dangerous, or have grown up with limited access to nature”. Not all of this has to do with systematic racism or sexism, but park design often serves to further the cultural divide between white people and people of color, and between men and women. The way many parks are designed and advertised, an implicit Whites Only sign tends to appear as a glowing beacon of segregation instead.

One could reason that any environmental inequalities in the United States and other predominantly white countries is an inevitable byproduct of systematic racism, sexism, and classism, and that these injustices will simply be remedied in time as we dismantle systemic oppression. This may be true, but there is no reason to wait when people are suffering now. The environmental justice movement was born in the United States out of Chicago by Hazel M Johnson, who spent most of her adult life in Chicago’s Altgeld public housing development. This was cheap land, and as Hazel soon found out, her neighborhood was in the middle of a “toxic doughnut”, the dumping grounds of numerous steel mills and trash collection companies. After her husband died of lung cancer, Hazel took to documenting the illnesses that ran rampant within her community, soon collecting enough evidence to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that people were dying because of unchecked air and water pollution. Wealthier, whiter neighborhoods could afford to stay involved in public affairs and redirect any potential pollutants far away from where they lived, but the people living in Chicago’s public housing had no such luxury. Hazel Johnson had to found a group called the People for Community Recovery in order to even start to pressure the Chicago Housing Authority to remove asbestos from Altgeld. Nevertheless, she persisted, and a few years after she founded the group, she connected with a young organizer in the mid-eighties named Barack Obama. Her work eventually made it to the national scale and prompted then-president Bill Clinton to sign Executive Order 12898: Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations in 1994.

It has been over twenty years since the United States formally started recognizing environmental justice as a task worthy of merit, and yet it is still often ignored by the environmentalist movement. It is true, none of these problems have easy solutions, or even solutions at all. The thought of making a park “just green enough” leaves a sour taste in my mouth because no one should be subjected to a lower greenspace standard on the basis of their income. The thought of allowing developing countries to pollute the earth as much as we did, knowing full well the consequences, disgusts me, but I need to remind myself that in a capitalistic global economy, that is how they will earn the freedom and higher living standards that everyone deserves. This not an article that will provide anyone with answers, but this depressing information is something that everyone needs to keep in mind going forward. We can slow the rate of global warming justly or unjustly, and unfortunately, the latter would probably work better than the former. What we need to remind ourselves as we attempt to go green is that our actions impact everyone, and they will impact some more than others. It is up to us to make those impacts positive or negative.

Graphic depicting how people think global warming will affect them.

Source: The New York Times

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