Commentary

A focus on equity this Earth Day

April 21, 2021 12:01 am

The sun sets over the James River in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

By Mark Hoggard and Aliya Farooq

As we move toward Earth Day 2021, we do so in the shadow of Derek Chauvin’s trial in the murder of George Floyd and remembering countless victims of police violence who sparked last summer’s protests. Last week, a police officer right here in Virginia has been fired after pointing a gun at, and pepper spraying, a Black U.S. Army lieutenant during a traffic stop.

We remember so shouting “Black Lives Matter,” and because Black lives matter, Black environments matter as well. The reality this Earth Day is that systematic racism is a key contributor to the air we breathe, the water we drink, the communities in which we live, the toxins which surround us and the burdens we suffer from climate change.

American civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis spoke of “environmental racism” way back in 1982, describing it as “racial discrimination in environmental policy-making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the ecology movements.”

There are countless examples of environmental racism right here in Virginia:

  • In the East End of Newport News, where the majority of residents are Black, rail shipments of coal and Interstate 664 slice through the neighborhood.  Asthma, heart disease, and chronic lower-respiratory disease death rates are higher than in other areas of the Peninsula Health District and in the state of Virginia.

  • Two Fracked gas power plants are proposed in Charles City County, where 44 percent of residents are Black, and 7 percent are Indigenous.

  • Only after a barrage of lawsuits did Dominion Energy finally abandon the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would have snaked a fracked gas pipeline through the commonwealth, notably through poor rural neighborhoods, Union Hill and other communities of color, and within feet of Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Chesapeake.

  • The city of Petersburg made headlines last year when the city disconnected water service to non-paying residents preceding the COVID-19 pandemic.

In short, if you are poor, if you are a person of color, if you are disadvantaged, you are very likely to suffer the most as a result of environmental degradation.

This Earth Day, we need to ensure that the wonders of the natural world are used in sustainable, equitable ways,  addressing the costs of abusing the earth that Black, brown, and poor communities inequitably suffer.  We need to listen carefully to the cry of the earth and the peoples who suffer the most from climate change and environmental degradation. Pope Francis says it best in his encyclical, Laudato Si’: “We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

The environment and the people that inhabit it are interconnected; all of God’s creation is one. God calls us to be stewards of the resources which we have been given, to look out for one another by sharing and collaborating, rather than grabbing up everything we can get now and worrying about others later. We know that God’s gift of creation can enable us to thrive through good soil for planting, clean air to breathe, beauty to enjoy. When we destroy or mistreat this great gift, we condemn countless people to poverty and all that comes with it.

There is good news:  Virginia’s Environmental Justice Advisory Board became a permanent advisory body to the Executive Branch in June 2020. The board will provide recommendations to the governor to maintain environmental justice principles.  Chief among those principles is the commitment to amplifying the voice of communities most impacted by climate change and environmental degradation.

This year,  Rep. Lashrecse D. Aird of Petersburg introduced House Joint Resolution 538 to ensure no person in the commonwealth is denied access to water. The measure recognizes the access to clean, affordable water as a human right, and calls for a statewide water affordability program, and stresses that state agencies implement strategies to limit water contamination and pollution by residents and industries.

This Earth Day, remember: Black Lives matter!  Black voices and environments matter! Let us work toward a conscious and inclusive approach toward decision-making that considers how our laws and policies affect our environment, protecting the environment for all.

Mark Hoggard is the chair and Aliya Farooq is the vice chair of the steering committee for Virginia Interfaith Power & Light. 

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