Author: Ashley Benedict
It’s hard to care about the environment. We are conditioned to take advantage of what we’re given without ever thinking about how we personally impact the physical world around us. We are accustomed to using plastic bags that will inevitably end up in the ocean, throwing away our trash without debating whether or not it can be recycled, and littering items that will never degrade. We buy brand name products, never pondering about who made these items, or what their working conditions are like, or how much they get paid by the hour. We don’t think about where these companies dump their waste and who is affected by the pollution. We don’t contemplate the thousands of oil spills that happen yearly as we fill the gas tanks in our cars, and the thousands of gallons of oil that poison our land and water, or the poisonous carbon dioxide that becomes trapped in our atmosphere. We don’t think about the millions of people that these issues impact, and how they affect our own lives in return.
How is environmental justice an issue of social and gender justice?
When we talk about environmental issues, most people think of it in the global sense, such as climate change. What most people aren’t aware of, however, is that climate change and other environmental problems aren’t distributed equally throughout the world. Some places and people are more susceptible to environmental changes, and they are almost never the perpetrators of these consequences. More often than not, poor environmental conditions correlate with poor living conditions, food insecurity, as well as class, gender, and racial inequalities. Here are a few ways that the two issues are interconnected:
- Environmental justice is often first tied to major protests in 1982 against the dumping of toxic soil in a landfill in a black community in Warren County, North Carolina, and a 1983 General Accounting Office study that revealed that three-quarters of hazardous waste sites in eight southeastern states were situated in poor and black communities.
- Poor neighborhoods tend to be warmer than richer neighborhoods, which correlates with higher mortality rates due to heart-related causes, especially in the elderly.
- Reduction in crop yields due to extreme weather patterns (e.g., drought) caused by deforestation and soil erosion leads to higher prices, making it more difficult for poor families to purchase food
- Climate change has been found to make it harder for developing countries to climb out of poverty and creates “poverty pockets” in rich and poor countries.
- When exposed to plastic fumes, women working in factories have a 400% increased risk of breast cancer
- Those who work in the plastic industry are more exposed to carbon monoxide, dioxides, and furans (from burning plastic). This can lead to cancer, impotence, asthma, and more.
- Large corporations continue to dump toxic sludge into poor communities and communities with large percentages of minorities.
- According to the UN, women in Sub-Saharan Africa spend an average of about 40 billion hours a year collecting water. As climate change decreases water availability, women will begin to dedicate more time to collect water, which decreases the amount of time available to attend school, which reinforces the cycle of poverty.
- Women also make up the majority of agricultural workers in many developing countries, which makes them especially vulnerable to climate impacts like soil degradation and extreme weather.
- Deforestation in one country can lead to a shortage of water in a neighboring country.
- Toxic waste dumped in oceans is carried by currents and affects the supply of fish everywhere.
- Difficulty in meeting community needs (in poor areas) leads to pressure on land, over-exploitation of soils, and deforestation.
- Food and farm products tend to flow from areas of hunger and need, to areas where money and demand is concentrated. Farm workers, and women especially, are amongst the world’s most hungry.
- For years, rich countries have been migrating some polluting industries to poor countries, but still producing primarily for rich countries. The waste made from these industries is often dumped into the water and land of these poor countries, and the inhabitants are faced with the consequences.
- According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 1.3 million gallons (4.9 million liters) of petroleum are spilled into U.S. waters from vessels and pipelines in a typical year.
- After the BP spill in 2010 on the Gulf’s coast, CNN reported that some 4,500 of the onshore workers had been recruited though unemployment programs, were homeless, or came from parish jail work-release programs. These people bore the brunt of exposure to the oil and chemicals.
- Since April 2014, residents of Flint, a city that is almost 57% black and incredibly poor, have been drinking and bathing in water that contains enough lead to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of “toxic waste.”
- The North Dakota Access Pipeline was originally supposed to route through Bismark, a predominantly white town in North Dakota (94.2%). They got the pipeline to change route without a fight, as opposed to the Standing Rock reservation, who has been fighting since last Spring (and sadly, has been forced to give up the fight.) If this pipeline were to spill, it would be affecting the drinking water of millions of people in the Great Plains.
These are just a few examples of how environmental justice correlates with social justice. Here’s a quick video on how climate change affects certain populations:
Who is Winona LaDuke?
Winona LaDuke is probably one of the most notorious environmental activists of our time, yet she is also severely under-appreciated. After first becoming an activist in 1985, LaDuke founded the Indigenous Women’s Network and took on multiple movements at once, focusing primarily on indigenous women and the many injustices they face, e.g., forced sterilization.
In 1989, LaDuke founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which works to buy back land within the Anishinaabe reservation that has been purchased by non-natives. This non-profit is also working to reforest the lands and revive the cultivation of wild rice. It has started an Ojibwe language program, a herd of buffalo, and a wind energy project.
LaDuke is also executive director of Honor the Earth, an organization she co-founded with The Indigo Girls in 1993. The goal of Honor the Earth is “to create awareness and support for Native environmental issues and to develop needed financial and political resources for the survival of sustainable Native communities. Honor the Earth develops these resources by using music, the arts, the media, and Indigenous wisdom to ask people to recognize our joint dependency on the Earth and be a voice for those not heard.” In 1994, LaDuke was nominated by Time magazine as one of America’s fifty most promising leaders under forty years of age.
During the 1996 and 2000 presidential elections, LaDuke ran for vice president for the Green Party presidential nominee, Ralph Nader. In 1996, she was given the Thomas Merton Award; in 1997, she was granted the BIHA Community Service Award; in 1998, she won the Reebok Human Rights Award and Ms. Magazine named her Woman of the Year for her work with Honor the Earth.
In 2007, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame; in 2014, LaDuke was chosen by The Evergreen State College to be a keynote speaker; in 2015, she received an honorary doctorate degree from Augsburg College. For much of 2016, LaDuke was involved in protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and vocalized her opinions often to media outlets. LaDuke has also written and published 6 books:
- Last Standing Woman (1997), novel
- All our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life (1999), about the drive to reclaim tribal land for ownership
- Recovering the Sacred: the Power of Naming and Claiming (2005), a book about traditional beliefs and practices.
- The Militarization of Indian Country
- Daughters of Mother Earth: The Wisdom of Native American Women
- The Sugar Bush
In other words, Winona LaDuke is one heck of an environmental justice warrior.
Winona means “first daughter” in Dakota language, which is fitting for the role she plays in the environmental movement. She could be called the first daughter to our Mother Earth; she fights for her Mother, her sisters, and all living creatures on this planet we call home.
How To Do Your Part
I challenge all of you to be more conscious about where your food and clothing are coming from, how they’re made, and how they impact not only the environment, but people around the world. Let’s try and be more aware of the interconnectedness of environmental issues and social issues.
Here are some things you can do to lower your waste output and lessen your carbon footprint:
- Reduce, reuse, and recycle
- Most importantly, reduce your use of non-biodegradable items – this includes plastic and glass
- Do your research on what types of plastics can be reused and recycled and stick to those
- Glass and aluminum are easier to recycle than plastic products (but still be sure to recycle your plastic)
- Don’t forget about paper! Paper is a product that can be reduced, reused, and recycled endlessly! Try to shop for paper products that have already been recycled as well.
- Don’t litter
- With food:
- Use cloth napkins
- Home-cook your meals instead of purchasing pre-made meals
- Put leftovers in reusable containers – stop using saran wrap and tinfoil. Also, make meals that leave a lot of leftovers!
- Eat less meat
- Cut down on processed foods
- Be conscious of the packaging your food comes in. Try and locate stores in your area that allow you to bring your own containers to shop with.
- Additionally, stop using the plastic shopping bags! Invest in a couple reusable bags.
- Grow your own food. Maybe you’ll find that you enjoy gardening!
- Start a compost pile! This is especially helpful if you grow your own food, as it can work as fertilizer.
- Ditch the disposable silverware – carry some from your own home
- Same goes for straws – ditch those and buy a reusable one
- With water:
- Install a low flow shower head – cut down your water usage
- If you can’t do that, just take shorter (and cooler) showers!
- Turn off the tap when washing your hands or brushing your teeth. You’d be surprised how much water you waste doing this.
- Reuse water from washing produce for gardening or potted plants
- Drink from the tap – and if you don’t like the taste of tap, invest in a water filter
- Additionally, carry a reusable water bottle (stainless steel is the most preferable. Try to avoid plastic ones, as they may release toxins after a while, especially if it’s lined with BPA)
- Install a low flow shower head – cut down your water usage
- With energy:
- Start using CFL light bulbs
- Turn down the temperature on the water heater
- Carpool with friends and/or family!
- Take public transportation
- Keep windows and doors closed when running heat or air conditioning
- Start thinking about using solar energy
- Get in the habit of unplugging electronics when they’re not in use
- As the weather gets warmer, think about drying your clothes on a line instead of using the dryer!
- Always fill your dishwasher to the brim
- Take advantage of the fresh air and natural light – open your windows and blinds
- Turn off the lights when they’re not in use
- Walk places that are close by or ride your bike! This will also give you a good workout.
- Use rechargeable batteries
- Cutting down unnecessary waste:
- Host a yard sale to get rid of anything you don’t want anymore – after all, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure!
- Instead of investing your money in brand name clothing, start checking out your local thrift shops, such as Goodwill and Plato’s Closet. For shopping online, check out eBay and Craigslist.
- If you shop online, be conscious of the type of packaging used and how much energy it takes to deliver this product. Think about whether or not you can buy this product in person.
- Save your bottles and cans and take a monthly trip to return them – you’ll make bank
- Unload your cars – having extra junk in your trunk weighs down the vehicle and leads to the use of more gas. It’ll save you money in the long run.
- Reduce your book-print
- Though it’s debatable whether e-books are greener or not, you can still purchase your books secondhand. Or perhaps, dust off your old library card and check out your reads from there.
- Make your own cleaning supplies
- Borrow, don’t buy – think about whether you really need something or not. Does someone you know own one? Just ask to borrow it!
- Go paperless – this is easy to do in our world today, so if you can do it, I advise it
- Try DIY beauty products. Not only is it cheaper and more environmentally friendly, but it can also be fun!
Of course, there’s a lot more things that we can do to cut down our waste and reduce our individual carbon footprints. This list is in no way comprehensive. I recommend that everyone do their research and figure out which green ways of living can be fit into your every day lives.
“The essence of the problem is about consumption, recognizing that a society that consumes one-third of the world’s resources is unsustainable. This level of consumption requires constant intervention into other people’s lands. That’s what’s going on.”
– Winona LaDuke
Other things you can do include:
- Volunteering your time to clean up local areas that have been damaged by pollution
- Donate to organizations that work to protect our land, air, and water
- Contact politicians on environmental issues – try and get them to implement more aggressive environmental guidelines and cleaner production methods
- Educate yourself on these issues further and educate others!
- Vote, vote, vote!
- Join a protest
Here are some events happening soon that you can attend:
- February 28 from 12 PM – 1 PM – The Women’s Center is hosting a Talk Back Tuesday about the water crisis in Flint. Stop by for the hour to discuss the issue, what’s happening now, and possible ways we can help!
- March 1 from 7 PM – 9 PM – The film ARISE, which captures the portraits and stories of extraordinary women around the world working to heal injustices, will be shown. After the film, a panel will discuss how the film’s message can be applied to West Michigan. The film will be shown at Park Theater in Holland, MI and Wealthy Theater in Grand Rapids. Tickets are free as long as students show their GVSU ID’s at the door.
- March 2, from 5:30 PM – 9 PM – LaDuke will be doing a keynote at the GVSU Loosemore Auditorium on 401 Fulton St W, Grand Rapids. This event is happening to celebrate our “Hidden Environmental Heroines.” Following the keynote is a paid reception with drinks and appetizers. This will allow guests the opportunity to meet LaDuke. Tickets are free as long as students show their GVSU ID’s at the door.
At the end of the day, it’s up to us to protect our earth and prevent further damage. It’s not only our environment and wildlife at stake, but it’s also our fellow human beings. These things may not seem to be interrelated on the surface, but once you dig deeper, it’s clear that these issues are inextricably intertwined. Please do your part to save our Mother Earth.
How do you plan on living a greener life? What will you do to bring awareness to these issues? Where do you think is the best place to start? Let us know! Send persuasive essays, personal stories, poetry, and more to firstname.lastname@example.org!