The year that environmental racism started to get noticed

TW: racism, erasure of people of color, classism, colonialism, Israeli occupation

I wrote on-again-off-again about a phenomenon over the course of 2012, where historical and present realities of racism and colonialism created economic and environmental conditions for people of color that put them at greater risk in changing climates.

That August, there was a bit of joking about global warming at the 2012 RNC that was primarily met with Democratic criticism that in the future that will seem foolish. At that time it seemed pertinent to remind people that global warming was already making indigenous Alaskan communities more food insecure, as fishing times and spots had begun shifting in relation to new weather. In Fall, with Hurricane Sandy’s landfall in Haïti, it seemed important to highlight how the poverty in that country meant that buildings and infrastructure were both more likely to fail and more likely to not be rebuilt. In fact the 2010 earthquake hadn’t been dealt with, exacerbating both the fallout from the hurricane and the subsequent cholera epidemic as untreated water became a normal backdrop in Haïti. After Sandy made landfall in the US, the media seemed to wholly erase what had happened years before to predominantly Black communities in the Gulf as a result of Hurricane Katrina. The intersections between global warming, systemic racism, and poverty were there, but were seldom being connected.

To a degree, 2013 was an improvement on that, with environmental issues and the realities of racism and classism sometimes being introduced in tandem. The Idle No More movement, originally founded in 2012 by First Nations (ie, indigenous) activists in Canada became an international phenomenon in 2013, which both attracting indigenous peoples to its activism in other countries but was widely reported on. By the end of the year, a common narrative had formed. The pattern of communities vulnerable to economic and environmental exploitation attracting companies, foremost minerals extraction ones, then facing police violence in response to protests had become established. Most painfully, against Mi’kmaq protesters in Canada in late 2013. The role that racism played in these communities being selected for environmentally questionable policies and actions and later the racism that informed the police response was unfortunately largely implicitly referenced in major media.

There were additional limitations sadly imposed on this type of story, however, with them often conforming to a set formula. Overwhelmingly, it was only indigenous groups, not other ethnically marginalized people who were covered, and the near exclusive type of exploitation highlighted was mineral extraction often in association with fossil fuel companies in Canada or the United States. Just as in previous years, the on-going reality of ethnically and economically marginalized populations in South and Southeast Asia whose their ancestral lands can and often are selected to be flooded as a result of damming projects have remained largely overlooked.

environmental racism
(From here.)

We still haven’t quite gotten to the point where the global connections between poverty, racist and colonial practices and histories, and climate change are part of typical media reporting on a number of events worldwide, but we’ve edged closer. Can we wait for more people to make this connection on their own, so that it’s not a shock to them for media to cover it in that way? While we’re sitting here, the reality the Philippines were hit by a hurricane categorically stronger than any storm on the planet in more than thirty years, which sounds silly until you read the stunning wind speeds recorded as it passed through a densely populated portion of the Philippines, a former Spanish colony and US territory. The Philippines’ Climate Commissioner released a petition in the midst of attempting to contact his family, but his request for not even any specific policy change but for the largest contributors to carbon emissions to “acknowledge the new climate reality” that the Philippines now know all too well. That garnered less attention than the disaster itself, however.

More recently, unusually heavy rains flooded the Gaza territory in Palestine, whose infrastructure couldn’t handle the crisis under the weight of Israeli occupation and other international factors. Our failure to connect these forces costs isn’t just threatening people’s futures, but presently costing lives.

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