Civil movement

How a Texas sociologist became the father of the environmental justice movement

Initially, the idea of ​​environmental justice had no name. He didn’t have much support either.

A few years after the first Earth Day, a young sociologist named Robert Bullard collected data for a 1979 lawsuit, filed by his then-wife, over a planned landfill for a black class neighborhood. average in Houston. His work showed that although only about a quarter of Houston residents were black, all city-owned landfills and most city-owned incinerators were in black neighborhoods.

Today, environmental justice is widely recognized as a critical public health issue. And Bullard is now known as the father of the movement. He directs the Center for Environmental and Climate Justice that bears his name at Texas Southern University in Houston.

But at first, he says, when he asked for help from environmental groups, the response was, “Ah, that’s interesting. But isn’t that where the landfills and dumps are supposed to be? And civil rights leaders told him, “We don’t care about the environment.

It would take a decade of organizing and action, by Bullard and many others, for more people to see how civil rights and environmentalism converge, he said. “And this convergence is called environmental justice.”

In the 1990s Dumping in Dixieone of 18 books Bullard has written on environmental justice, he defines it as “the principle that all people and all communities are entitled to equal protection from our environmental laws, regardless of race, income , their national origin” and their place of residence.

Where someone lives “deeply” affects health, said Dr Lisa Patel, deputy executive director of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health.

And a neighborhood’s health factors are not shaped by accident. “They’re the result of structurally racist policies, like redlining, that make certain areas more susceptible” to pollution, said Patel, who is also a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Stanford School of Medicine in Palo Alto, Calif.

Examples abound:

— Neighborhoods subject to redlining in the 1930s now have high levels of air pollution. Demarcated neighborhoods, usually where blacks, Hispanics, or Asians lived, were deemed financially risky and devoid of investment. Today, redlining maps align closely with worst air pollution maps, according to a 2021 study in Environmental Science and Technology Letters. Air pollution – especially fine particles such as soot, smoke or dust – has been linked to a higher risk of heart attack, stroke and death from heart disease.

– Regardless of income, blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other people of color are more likely to be exposed to sources of air pollution, according to a 2021 study in the journal Scientists progress. These disparities have persisted even though this pollution has decreased overall.

– A neighborhood outlined in red is also less likely to have cooling green spaces and more likely to have higher heat levels, on average 4.7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer, according to a study published in Climate in 2020.

The Environmental Protection Agency says heat can contribute to heart attacks, strokes and other forms of cardiovascular disease, with low-income people and black people most likely to be affected.

The upshot of these inequalities, Bullard said, is that life expectancies in ZIP codes a few miles away can vary widely — up to 20 years, according to a Virginia Commonwealth University study.

Patel sees examples of textbooks in his own part of California. West Oakland, once a thriving black business district, has been isolated by freeway construction. In the same area, trucks serving the busy port must take Interstate 880, which passes through neighborhoods where most residents are low-income or black or Hispanic. But truck traffic is prohibited on nearby Interstate 580, which runs along more affluent areas.

As a result, Patel said, West Oakland is a place where rates of asthma and cardiovascular disease are “several times higher than families living a few miles away in the beautiful hills of Oakland.”

Climate change will compound environmental justice issues, Patel said. For example, it is already making wildfires more intense and severe, exposing people to choking smoke. “But what we have seen in recent years play out in the Bay Area is that it is higher income families who can afford an HVAC system in their home, with filters installed to be able to exhaust the most of the air. pollution.” Low-income families cannot.

Still, TSU’s Bullard mixes optimism with realism as he looks to the future.

“We made a lot of changes, a lot of progress. But there is still a lot of progress to be made. And while he’s seen such problems pass from rural back roads to the White House, much of what’s been done has been low-hanging fruit, he said, in relation to the changes transformations that need to happen, especially to protect communities from climate change.

He is encouraged by the fact that young people tend to be more inclined to see how “housing, transportation, education, the environment, civil rights, criminal justice, health – all of these things are intertwined” .

Bullard says people who want to help get started in their own communities. “Start local,” he said. “And when you start locally, you can start building relationships.”

Patel encourages people who are concerned to talk about it openly, as polls show people tend to underestimate others’ concerns about the environment. “Do something about it and tell other people about what you’re doing.”

We have made “a lot of mistakes” as a society, she says, but we can learn from them and recognize that “it was unfair; it worsened the health. But here is an opportunity to build a sustainable future.

“I mean, we’re talking about clean air, clean water, healthy children, walkable, livable cities,” Patel said. “I think it’s worth imagining and fighting for.”

Michael Merschel is a writer for the American Heart Association.

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