There’s infrastructure, there’s the Green New Deal, and there’s the planet being rendered uninhabitable by carbon combustion. Oh, and the perpetual underfunding of public schools, especially in districts that are home to communities that are predominantly not-White.
How to address problems that are so vast in scope, and competing for our attention and resources?
By looking at ways to address them simultaneously.
Which means thinking about these problems intersectionally.
Dharna Noor, writing for Earther and Massive Science, profiles efforts that incorporate just this sort of intersectional thinking:
Why schools should be the center of a Green New Deal
Underfunded schools have left students to boil in the heat or drink lead-tainted fountain water. The GND should help
May 4, 2021
A Center for Public Integrity and Center for Investigative Reporting investigation found that one in every 11 public schools fall within 500 feet (152.4 meters) of highways and other roads with significant traffic pollution. A 2020 federal report also found that one-third of public schools across the U.S. have some combination of inadequate heating, air conditioning, and ventilation systems — an issue that’s been of particular concern as schools face pressure to reopen but still keep students and staff safe from the spread of covid-19.
These issues disproportionately affect poor communities’ schools and are the results of decades of public disinvestment. Fixing it will require a total environmental overhaul for schools to ensure they’re safe places to learn and work. Such a plan is essential in the fight for environmental justice for students, educators, and staff. Its effects would also reverberate far and wide, creating many co-benefits for communities. Put simply, schools need a Green New Deal…
“Our view is, don’t attack this problem in a kind of patchwork fashion, don’t just do a little bit at a time, but undertake whole-building retrofits,” said Daniel Aldana Cohen, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania who co-founded the climate + community project and co-wrote the proposal. “If you’re going into the walls already to get rid of asbestos or to get rid of mold, why not modernize the school water system while you’re in there to get rid of lead and make it efficient? Or if you’re dealing with a crappy HVAC issue system, why aren’t you putting in heat pumps that will provide both cooling and heating and fully electric systems that can easily be made carbon-free with rooftop solar?”
The $250 billion would be provided through grants specifically be allocated for what the plan calls “schools with the least capacity to fund or finance these retrofits themselves.” This subverts what Aldana Cohen called the “neoliberal green economy,” wherein only affluent schools with disposable capital can afford to become early adopters of clean technologies.
There is no better place to begin learning how to think about intersectional problems, and address them with intersectional solutions, than by listening to Leah Thomas:
Intersectional Environmentalism Is the Urgent Way Forward
Leah Thomas, founder of the Intersectional Environmentalist platform, on how BIPOC voices in the sustainability movement have been silenced—but lifting up those voices is the only way to protect people and the planet.
April 22, 2021
In 2017, I was the only Black person in my graduating class to receive an environmental science degree. At times, I felt the pressure to silence parts of my racial identity. Because of the lack of representation in my studies and even in my textbooks (despite the many voices of color who shaped the environmental movement), I felt afraid to disrupt the status quo and advocate for issues of race within my environmental journey.
The feeling didn’t dissipate when I entered the climate movement as a working professional, joining corporate sustainability teams at companies like Patagonia. As I learned more about the Clean Air Act, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the policies and institutions that were built to protect both the people and planet, I was left wondering why Black and brown and low-income communities across the U.S. still face the brunt of environmental injustice. From higher instances of air pollution, proximity to toxic waste sites, and lack of access to safe drinking water, the data on the ways in which climate change disproportionally impacts communities of color is alarming and begs the question: Who are environmental policies and institutions actually protecting?
It seems like the boundaries of environmental protection don't extend equally to BIPOC communities. That's partially because BIPOC are not offered positions at the decision making table. A study by the Green Diversity Initiative found that only 12 percent of employees and leadership within environmental nonprofits, government environmental agencies, and foundations were people of color. There’s even less representation in government entities—historically, the people who should be influencing and creating equitable environmental policy have been white. The current Congress may be the most racially diverse, with 124 lawmakers identifying as people of color, but it’s still less diverse than the country as a whole.
On top of that, there's a history of the erasure of BIPOC voices in climate change. Throughout my environmental activism journey, I often heard people—teachers, others in my workplace—lifting up the work of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, while ignoring the work of BIPOC environmentalists. Since the 1970s, Dr. Robert J. Bullard, the Father of Environmental Justice, has highlighted the ways people of color have suffered most from pollution and how low-income and Black and Brown communities are often located near toxic facilities. Hazel M. Johnson, the Mother of Environmental Justice, helped create the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice, an order that required federal agencies to consider environmental impacts on BIPOC and low-income communities. Environmental justice evolved from this, yet I didn’t learn about these principles or the environmental justice movement in high school or during my studies for my environmental science degree
Where there’s economic inequality, dollars to doughnuts there’s structural racism (q.v., 'The poverty was manufactured by racism.' White supremacy begets economic inequality. May 3, 2021).
And where there’s structural racism, there’s environmental racism:
What is environmental racism?
31 Jul 2020
All are examples of environmental racism, a form of systemic racism whereby communities of colour are disproportionately burdened with health hazards through policies and practices that force them to live in proximity to sources of toxic waste such as sewage works, mines, landfills, power stations, major roads and emitters of airborne particulate matter. As a result, these communities suffer greater rates of health problems attendant on hazardous pollutants.
It was African American civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis who coined the term “environmental racism” in 1982, describing it as “racial discrimination in environmental policy-making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of colour for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of colour from leadership of the ecology movements”.