Holistic health & healing: environmental racism & ecological justice.

Author:Hopkins, Dwight N.

The environmental movement in the U.S. is comprised of at least two major sectors. One is known to the public because of its emphasis on the preservation and conservation of Mother Earth, and Greenpeace is usually the face of this grouping. The second important dimension of environmental concerns is the struggle against environmental racism and for ecological justice. Here, poor and working class communities of African Americans, Latino-Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans have taken the lead against sickness in human bodies, social relations, and nature.

The Greenpeace wing of the movement has consistently fought for the healing of the planet. It teaches us that "... environmental degradation caused by massive pollution of air, water and land threatens the very life of the earth. Rapid depletion of non-renewable resources, indeed of species themselves, the thinning of the ozone layer, exposing all living creatures to the danger of radiation, the buildup of gases exacerbating the greenhouse effect, increasing erosion by the sea--all these are documented by scientific research." (1)

The primary foci of the earth-emphasis environmental wing have been historically "wilderness and wildlife preservation, wise resource management, pollution abatement, and population control." Preservation examples include the spotted owl and the snail darter. The leaders and followers of this movement have mainly been middle and upper income white people with above average education and easy access to political, cultural, and economic resources. (2)

For instance, in April 2007, roughly one thousand scientists from about seventy-four countries constituted the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change. The final report disclosed the dire impact of global warming on the earth's ecosystems. Increased populations and growing urbanization coupled with adverse climate changes will eventually result in hazardous flooding, drought, and slow extinction for up to twenty to thirty percent of plant and animal species. (3) More than ever, Mother Earth is sick with acid-rain pollution. The greenhouse effect is increasing. Carbon dioxide traps the sun's heat in the atmosphere and consequently warms the earth. Industrial pollution is another part of the problem. What many people don't know is that carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for about two hundred years. The increase in temperatures and sea levels will give rise to massive famine and damaging flooding. It is possible that in the year 2040, sea ice in the Arctic might disappear totally, preventing polar bears from hunting sea animals on which to live. For us humans, a radical climate change will drastically lower rainfall in the western United States and global storms will intensify. (4)

Though the two wings of the environmental movement in the United States are mainly separated, on the global scale, the World Council of Churches (WCC) has united the two positions of protecting Mother Earth and also struggling for ecological justice.

For instance, the 1974 Bucharest meeting of the WCC sub-unit on Church and Society introduced the notion of "sustain-ability." Sustainability acknowledges that there are finite resources and, consequently, one needs to develop new technologies and social systems less dependent on these limited resources. Non-renewable resources demand alternative means of sustaining human progress. However, at this meeting, poorer countries emphasized a definition of economic justice and development which contrasted with the northern hemisphere's focus on limiting the use of non-renewable sources to facilitate human development." (5)

At the World Council of Churches sixth assembly in Vancouver (1983), there was a gradual merger, at least conceptually, of these two approaches to healing the environment. Earth was recognized as an agent along with human beings in the creation process. Simultaneously, talk about ecology had to take into account justice. Thus this WCC assembly agreed on a "'process of mutual commitment to justice, peace and the integrity of creation" (JPIC). "Integrity of creation" was a new phrase in the ecumenical lexicon, and it cried out for definition. (6) To solidify organizationally this new thrust, the WCC established the unit called Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation. One could no longer talk about creation's integrity without linking it directly to justice and peace. Today, as a result of the WCC' s forging a conceptual and organizational link, the unity of conserving the earth coupled with the demands of justice is, at least verbally in globally ecumenical conversation, embraced by most churches. (7)

In the words of K.C. Abraham (India): The interconnectedness between commitment to the renewal of society and to the renewal of the earth is clearly seen in the struggle of many marginalized groups all over the world. Indigenous peoples (Native peoples in the USA and Canada, Marois in Aotearoa-New Zealand, Aborigines in Australia, tribal people in many countries of Asia) and groups who have traditionally depended on the land and the sea (small farmers, fisherfolk, agricultural laborers) have kept these two dimensions together in their movements for liberation. (8)

Kwok Pui-lan, formerly of Hong Kong, affirms the ecological crisis resulting from a break in the human-earth connection. She attests to the need to care for both earth and for marginalized human communities. She lifts up especially the vulnerability of women and children in the Third World. "Deforestation, acid rain, soil erosion and the indiscriminate use of fertilizers and pesticides lead to the breaking down of the local sustenance economy on which most women and children are dependent." Women, therefore travel to the cities to care for themselves and their children. Unfortunately, many end up in the sex industry. Here, the rape of Mother Earth through deforestation and poisons yields the rape of Third World women's bodies. (9)

Environmental racism and ecological justice

Though conservation and justice emphases are nominally if not substantively recognized on the global stage through the WCC, the two emphases still comprise mainly two separate environment movements within the U.S.A. Again, the conservation and preservation wing of the environment effort is most widely known in America. That is why many people are surprised to hear that African American communities have been struggling against environmental racism and for ecological justice long before the formal launching of the struggle in the 1980s. Among black folk, environmental racism symbolizes profound illness of both the earth and humans in people of color neighborhoods. Holistic disease requires ecological justice, i.e., holistic health and healing.

For example, Thomas Calhoun Walker was a black man and the Advisor and Consultant of Negro Affairs for the Virginia Emergency Relief Administration in Richmond, Virginia. During WWI, Walker was the architect of environmental initiatives for blacks, including providing black children with access to swimming pools and parks, eliminating rats on wharves, promoting gardening among blacks, and stressing hygienic homes. (10)

Likewise few realize that many of the urban rebellions in the 1960s derived from black folk's anger about lack of garbage collection and sanitation services. And the famous riot at predominantly black Texas Southern University in Houston in 1967 erupted partially because community people protested an eight year old black girl's drowning at a city garbage dump. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated because he was helping black working class garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee, who went on strike for a holistic healthy environment. They sought increased wages, the same pay scale as white city workers, and a quality work environment. (11)

However, not all agree that the black community initiated the ecological justice dimension of the environmental movement. Some point to the United Farm Workers struggle against pesticide poisoning in the 1960s. And others mark the 15th century European occupation of Native American lands as the start of environmental justice struggles.

Yet general consensus cites the formal launching of the environmental racism and ecological justice movement in the year 1987. That year the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice (UCC-CRJ) published its landmark study Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites. Rev. Benjamin Chavis (a UCC black clergyman) headed the Commission whose report substantiated the reality of "environmental racism." Having created this new phrase "environmental racism," the report suggested: the existence of clear patterns which show that communities with greater minority percentages of the population are more likely to be the sites of commercial hazardous waste facilities. The possibility that these patterns resulted by chance is virtually impossible, strongly suggesting that some underlying factors, which arc related to race, played a role in the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities. Therefore the Commission for Racial Justice concludes that, indeed, race has been a factor in the location of hazardous waste facilities in the United States. (12)

The UCC-CRJ (1994) updated study found that the situation had worsened. More black and brown people were disproportionately living near hazardous waste areas. In seven years, there had been a six percent increase of people of color located near toxic disposal sites. (13)

After releasing their landmark 1987 report, the UCC assembled the historic First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., in October 1991. The Summit assembled indigenous peoples, civil rights activists, labor organizers, anti-toxic veterans, and academics. A final conference report directly accented the role of race in...

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