Friday, July 10, 2015

On Environmental Justice And Why Environmentalism Is Not Elitism

Relevant spoken word by a woman from the Marshall Islands, UN Climate Summit 2014

       In many ways this blog is an expansion on my post from last week on how I came to care about environmentalism and in many ways it’s a rant.  When I was applying to colleges I wrote many essays like this post, but the one that I remember most was in response to the very broad prompt, “What matters to you most and why?”  My 17 year old self was appalled.  How was I supposed to answer a question like that?  Narrow in on the single thing you care about most and say why?  I had no idea where to begin.  In the end, I wrote an essay about people.  I wrote that I liked talking to people, that I liked learning about people, and that ultimately I wanted to do something to help people.  While this is all still true, the way I think about these things and the way I envision my future has changed so much.
I quote my 17 year old self, “Environmental issues concern me, but they are not what I feel most passionately about and I cannot envision myself devoting my life to them.”  The irony in this is pretty obvious as I now plan to do just that.  I never would have pictured myself studying the things I have been or pursuing a career centered around environmental issues (and especially not as an economist), but my understanding of environmentalism has deeply changed over the past few years. 
I used to think of environmentalism as a scientific issue rather than a social issue.  I thought it was all about diverting wasting, finding alternative fuels, and reducing emissions.  In some ways it is, but environmental issues are also deeply social.  Environmentalism is as much about race and class as it is about measuring biodiversity.  Too often we forget this.  We think of environmental activism as driving hybrid cars, eating organic, and purchasing Patagonia fleeces.  While all these are good things, this is a very narrow definition of environmentalism which is problematic in that it excludes a large portion of the population who can’t afford to do these things.  So often I have heard that environmentalism is an elitist movement, that it is a cause for the wealthy.  This is not only false, but it obscures the fact that low-income people are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards and changing climates.  A factory is never permitted to pollute the air of a wealthy neighborhood, we pay poorer countries to take on our electronic waste, and increasingly severe droughts in the Middle East hurt the farmers not the wealthy politicians.  What is most unjust is that these are not the people who actually produce the largest portion of the pollution.  This is why we must take action to address climate change and adopt more sustainable practices, because when we hurt the Earth we also hurt someone else who relies on this planet, and when we cause irreparable damage we harm future generations.  This is why I plan to study environmental issues, so that I may pursue a career which promotes environmental justice, and hopefully this will ultimately allow me to do something that helps people just as I always planned. 

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