Environmental Justice and a New American Dream

Jerome Ringo

After twenty years in the environmental movement, I have to say the most noticeable element continues to be the absence of the poor and people of color from its ranks.

In 1991, when I joined the largest conservation organization in my state, the Louisiana Wildlife Federation, the membership was 24,000. At that time I was the only black member. Today I am still its only black member.

Up to now, reasons for this lack of involvement are not hard to find. Poor people, and many people of color, simply have had too many other priorities to face — paying the rent, coping with inadequate health care. Environmental concerns were on the back burner.

But as the groundbreaking environmental justice study by the United Church of Christ made clear twenty years ago, people of color and the poor are disproportionately burdened by the world’s environ- mental hazards. Disproportionately large numbers of people of color live near toxic dumps, waste treatment centers, and petrochemical plants. For the first time, that report gave environmental justice, the ecological vulnerability of lower-income people, a higher public profile.

But year after year the absence of voices from that community leaves a void, weakening the overall environmental movement’s ambitious scope and political impact. The ecological threat to millions of people goes unheard.

People are waking up to that. Rising gas prices, Katrina, the war in Iraq — minority communities and poor neighborhoods are now realizing connections between poor environmental practices, health issues, national security, oil dependence, and falling economies.

People are starting to ask questions … Why such intense hurricanes? Why are our communities more impacted? Why do our neighborhoods suffer health problems? Why is the government slow to respond? And, how do we fix it?

Questions are leading to actions. The galvanizing force now is climate change. Rising oceans will threaten coastal cities — and 70 percent of people of color in this country live within 200 miles of the coasts. With Hurricane Katrina, then Rita, then Wilma, the world got to see how people of color were hit again and again by disaster.

Five years ago, global warming wasn’t a conversation. Now it’s talked about at breakfast, at the grocery store — and in Congress. Last year, the environmental crisis was identified as a key issue by the Congressional Black Caucus at its annual Foundation Conference. The Caucus also hosts an annual Environmental Justice Braintrust assembly.

The great challenge now is to build an environmental coalition that represents and looks like America, a coalition that addresses the environ- mental crisis from a social, political, economic, and ecological perspective. In the 1960s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led the nation in achieving its civil rights by bringing together people from all walks of life. He convinced labor, environmental groups, the faith community, educators, both private and public sectors to come together. Until then, civil rights had been a series of battles waged for a half century. Dr. King turned those battles into a movement.

That’s what we need now, a coalition-building approach in the environment movement that will help us all find answers that make our country stronger, cleaner, safer, with a stimulated economy.

My work as chairman of the National Wildlife Federation and as president of the Apollo Alliance has focused on such coalition-building. The Apollo Alliance (apolloalliance.org) believes in treating clean energy as a political and security mandate. The Alliance now represents 20 million people by bringing together labor unions, environmental groups, faith- based organizations, business partners, and foundation supporters, all with the aim of winning our independence from foreign oil in ten years — and creating millions of new jobs.

In 1961, John Kennedy challenged the nation to send a man to the moon within ten years. When he said that, the technology was not in place at the time. But the Apollo space program succeeded in less than a decade. We need an Apollo project for the twenty-first century that revitalizes cities, improves our national security, and fights environmental degradation.

The churches have a huge role to play. The poisoning of the atmosphere is a moral violation. In Genesis it says God gave us dominion over the Earth. That doesn’t mean control only — it means taking care of Earth for generations to come. That’s a message that should come uniquely from the churches, and they should lead by example.

Against the odds, Dr. King created a coalition that yielded positive results. There’s no reason why it could not happen again.

Jerome Ringo, a Visiting Fellow at Yale’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, became an active environmentalist after twenty years in the petrochemical industry in South Louisiana. He is president of the Apollo Allliance.