Environmental justice begins with each of us

One of Pope Francis’s recurring themes in his encyclical, Laudato Sí, is that the poor suffer the most as a result of environmental degradation. He points out that, “human beings, too, are creatures of the world, enjoying a right to life and happiness and endowed with a special dignity,” and “we cannot fail to consider the effects on people’s lives of environmental deterioration, current models of development and the throwaway culture.” 

The pope explains that, “the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together. We cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to the causes related to human and social degradation. Deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet. Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest.” 

Despite the technological advances that we have made over the last 200 years, the growth of many cities throughout the world has actually lead to increasingly unhealthy conditions, “not only because of pollution caused by toxic emissions, but also as a result of urban chaos, poor transportation, and visual pollution and noise.” Pope Francis tells us that, “we are not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal and deprived of physical contact with nature.” 

Personally, the ability to be in contact with the natural environment and stand in awe of the majesty of His creation has always been a powerful means of restoring my sense of well-being. Unfortunately, the poor are often excluded from areas of natural beauty through privatization of spaces, or the lack of green spaces in the areas where they live.

Some businesses seeking to bypass environmental or occupational regulations in their own countries, have gone to developing countries where these laws are weak or nonexistent. This results in exposure of workers to unhealthy conditions, and the release of pollutants into neighboring communities. 

When some of these companies cease their operations in the developing countries, the pope describes how they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, depletion of natural resources, deforestation, impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable. 

Toxic wastes are sometimes transported from first world countries to developing countries. This action is termed “toxic colonialism.” Worldwide the disposal and accumulation of gases into our atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels is resulting in climate changes. Those with wealth are better equipped to adapt to the changes created, while the poor suffer from deadly heatwaves, droughts which devastate their meager farms, floods, and sea level rise, which takes away their homeland.

Pope Francis sheds light on some of the reasons for these inequalities. The decision-makers and policy-makers are often living in affluent areas and are out of physical contact with the problems of the poor. He explains how this can lead to a “numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect part of reality.” Tendentious describes analyses which strongly promote particular causes or points of view. He suggests that, “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach. It must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

In our own country poor and minority communities have been selected for siting LULUs, or Locally Unwanted Land Uses, such as dumps, landfills, incinerators, and companies emitting toxic chemicals. The term “environmental racism” was coined to describe the situation where minorities are more often subjected to higher environmental risks in their neighborhoods and at their jobs. Native American reservations are sometimes offered economic incentives in return for allowing environmentally-risky operations to be located on their lands, since their sovereign nation status exempts them from state environmental regulations. Minorities in poorer communities are much more likely to be exposed to high levels of the neurotoxin, lead, due to the existence of lead paints in their homes, or old lead pipes which supply their drinking water. The recent incident involving Flint, Michigan’s water supply is a prime example. Millions of children in the U.S. have dangerously high levels of lead in their bodies. 

The environmental justice movement began in our country in the early 1980s as a result of African American communities being subjected to a disproportionate amount of dumps, landfills, and other environmentally hazardous operations. The United States Environmental Protection Agency defines Environmental Justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. The EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this nation. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”

The pope wants to make the world aware of the plight of the poor and the moral responsibility that we all have in caring for our common home. The poor make up the majority of the world’s population, yet in our present model of distribution, a minority of people living in rich countries, like our own, believe that they have the right to consume in a manner which could never be universalized among all peoples. Our planet could not support this level of resource use by all people, nor could it contain the waste products of such consumption. We each play a role in environmental justice. When we conserve energy and reduce our use of fossil fuels, we reduce the impact of climate change on the poorer nations who bear the brunt of the impacts without receiving the benefits. When we recycle we reduce resource use and the stresses on landfills, which are often placed in the poorer sections of a community. When we dispose of harmful chemicals properly, or choose not to use them altogether, we keep the water and soil clean for all peoples. 

We need to carefully assess the impacts of environmentally sensitive developments on all of the stakeholders. We must look at the care of the Earth with a sense of shared responsibility. As Pope Francis teaches us, “We need to strengthen the conviction that we are all one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalization of indifference.”

Anchor columnist Professor Rak is a Fall River native and a parishioner of St. Mary’s Parish in Fall River. He has been a professor of Environmental Technology and coordinator of the Environmental Science and Technology Program at Bristol Community College in Fall River for 18 years. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Holy Cross College in Worcester, and a master’s degree in marine biology from UMass Dartmouth. 


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