The word “environment” conjures images of wilderness, but our environment is all around us—it’s the air we breathe, the water we drink, the spaces we inhabit. Environment is where we live, work, learn, and play. Environmental justice describes the idea that everyone deserves to live in healthy conditions that promote physical and mental well-being. Some people call this “eco-justice” to remind us that we are all part of one oikos (eco-), one ecological household.
The Environmental Justice Movement began in 1982, when North Carolina officials decided to dump PCB-laden soils in Warren County, where the population was 75% African American and income levels were the lowest in the state. Fearing contamination of their wells, the residents petitioned, then turned to civil disobedience. The Coley Springs Baptist Church led protests for two months as men and women, elders and children, laid their bodies in the dusty roads to block the trucks bringing in toxic waste.
The United Church of Christ assisted the protesters and then initiated a study of hazardous waste siting that revealed the most significant factor predicting where a toxic facility gets located in the U.S. is race. This report gave rise to the formal charge of “environmental racism;” it also inspired a counter movement for environmental justice.
Environmental justice is about a healthy community. Inequitable distribution of environmental burdens and benefits affects an entire community. It affects us when adults and children suffer from asthma caused by exposure to air pollution, when we cannot safely eat fish from our rivers, when our children lack green spaces in which to play and be emotionally restored through contact with nature, when we have to worry about contaminants in the gardens where we grow vegetables to feed our families, and lead in the paint and dust of our homes where our children are supposed to be safe. It affects us when children miss class due to illness, making it hard for them to achieve their potential and have the lives their parents dream for them. The ripples from these examples make environmental justice an economic issue. But, more importantly, it is a moral issue because we are all part of one community, one household, and we are each responsible for the welfare of all who live together in this household.
People’s Church has a long history of social justice work; we strive to “build the beloved community.” This year, the Green Sanctuary Committee plans
to develop some eco-justice projects through which to improve the health of our community. Actions under consideration include: supporting the campaign to remove PCBs from the Allied Paper site; partnering with other social justice organizations to improve energy efficiency in low-income housing; facilitating cleanup of the Kalamazoo River.
We hope church members will share other ideas and opportunities. Help us decide how our congregation can most effectively contribute to the health and welfare of our Kalamazoo community.