The forgotten corners of environmental inequality

As air pollution, lead poisoning and other environmental impacts affect the marginalized more acutely, hopes of sustainability and equality begin to sprout in gardens around the globe.

By: /
November 2, 2015
Children march during a rally against climate change in New York September 21, 2014. An international day of action on climate change brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets of New York City. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

I write from a train cutting across the diagonal of the northeastern United States. It alternately streaks or lumbers by the back doors of the region, revealing everything left out of Chamber of Commerce brochures. There are Maryland mountains of crumpled automobile graveyards, the gravel quarries of Virginia, and the burnt-out brick buildings of Baltimore, whose charred roofs match the skin tone of the citizens who move among them.

Environmental inequality is laid bare through the train’s window. Do the rough sections of town, of country, of the world, arise because they are perceived in a binary way by the rest: as either the source of the raw materials to extract for society’s future use, or as the dumping grounds for matter no longer needed? Or do the rough edges bubble up when young souls are surrounded by the endless reminder that their community, their place – that they – are somehow considered disposable to others?  

It works both ways. Environmental inequality knows no bounds. It is the snake eating its tail, round and round. The forgotten corners where the detritus is disposed, legally and illegally. The place where tax dollars stretch farthest to buy the land for the sewage processing plant. The junction where the demands of two jobs and hungry kids win out over pursuing a battle for environmental justice against a corporate giant with bottomless pockets.

Do you want facts? There are facts. In America, a dark-skinned child whose people descend from Africa or Latin America is twice as likely to suffer from lead poisoning as her fair-skinned classmate. The question of whether black lives matter seems to have already been answered by the fact that African-Americans are 79 percent more likely to live in an area where air pollution levels cause health risks. For the First Nations of Canada, tribal reserves have been surrounded by chemical industries, like along the banks of the St. Clair River in Ontario. In places as distant from my train as Peru or Indonesia, there are accounts of children born with missing appendages and swollen heads, their landscape contaminated by mercury used to coax precious gold from recalcitrant soils. In India, poor access to adequate sanitation translates to millions of children with guts so compromised that their bodies are unable to process nutrients from already limited servings of food.

Ah, the unsurprised gloom. The inevitable doom. I seek out the fighters, those who set their hands upon the short-shrift side of the environmental justice scales and push, hard. They are everywhere. On my way to meet the director of Sustainable South Bronx, I passed the open doors of nearby warehouses that were filled with nothing but garbage, but activist and urban revitalization strategist Majora Carter had just won the MacArthur Genius Award for her work to bring sustainable development job training to youths and green roofs to buildings in the stricken neighborhood she grew up in New York City’s northern borough. In Mexico, after passing trucks loaded with trees possibly poached from the forests of Michoacán’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, I watched Pablo Angeles’s eyes light up as one of the orange-and-black creatures perched on the brim of his World Wildlife Fund cap, as a carpet of them blanketed the ground around his feet. As I sat with an organic farmer in northwestern India, two men with backpack sprayers spewed chemicals on an adjacent farm, just 50 feet away. But Amarjeet Sharma told me of his revolutionary impulse to turn his back on the petrochemical way of growing food and seek out something more sustainable on his land in Punjab. “They say money doesn’t grow on trees,” he said as we sat perched on a high table under a tree that littered small leaves upon us. “If it doesn’t grow on trees, then where does it come from? If you don’t have trees, what do you have?”

The fighters fight, but the game of inequality quickens and complicates in a time of climate change. All the rules are shifting. On one hand, it has leveled the field as everyone from the capstone of elites to the bottom-of-the-pyramid masses weather the stronger storms, the floods, the droughts. But even in this new reality, more interconnected than ever, the disparity remains as the upper echelon can afford the bottled water and elevated seaside homes.

On the international level, carbon-emitting countries still shimmy from their own responsibility like schoolchildren dodging a broken toy. But one by one, countries create their climate plans and some strive for ambitious goals. Entire countries are committing to becoming carbon-neutral. As homeowners raise solar panels upon their rooftops, villages in India switch out diesel pumps with solar-powered ones, and funds with deep pockets – the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Bank of America and Citigroup among them – are divesting from fossil fuel investments. Oil and gas companies in Europe are pushing for a carbon tax, eager to manage the risk they see coming too, and researchers quantify how much farmers should get for keeping their carbon-storing soils alive through organic agriculture. There are companies whose ledgers prove that doing business in an environmentally sound way makes economic sense too.

These are revelations like the ones I found in the Bronx, Michoacán and Punjab. More were among the 300,000 who were in the streets of Manhattan last year, marching for climate change action. They float out from between Pope Francis’s lips. They will hopefully emerge from the climate talks in Paris this December. I see one, now, from the vista on my train ride. There, wedged between two parking lots, like an impossible life raft, is a garden. The last of the season’s tomatoes ripen on the vine, starbursts of red visible even from my fleeting vantage.

There are gardeners amid the ruinous corners we’ve relegated our fellow humans; those supposedly without means or alternatives find means and alternatives. They slip on garden gloves, which are fighting gloves, and they dig in, transforming their plot of land and bringing life forth. They are leveling the scales. They are linking the back doors of the world to the front doors, creating a conduit that is at least one strident step towards environmental equality. 

Meera Subramanian will be speaking about her book, A River Runs Again: India’s Natural World in Crisis, from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka, at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, WA, on November 3.

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The Politics of Inequality series is a partnership between OpenCanada and the Lind Initiative at the University of British Columbia.


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