A White Person's Thoughts on Environmental Justice
Thoughts from a White Person on
Environmental Justice By Sue Smith
A focus on environmental justice is coming to General Assembly this year in the form of two overtures.
The Presbytery of Monmouth (NJ) is bringing an overture on responding to environmental racism, and another is coming from Newton Presbytery (NJ) on renewing our call to environmental justice. This was a hard topic to talk about in Monmouth, an almost entirely white gathering. One voice spoke against the overture because it did not spell out what actual action we were to take. Here is an example of how our white privilege does not allow us to understand or respond to the issues faced by environmental justice (EJ) communities. We tend to want to solve the problems that we perceive. But what we perceive as problems may not be the problems that EJ communities perceive as needing to be addressed or perceive as a high priority to address. And even if they are the same problems, our solution may not be the solution that the EJ communities would define for themselves. The action we need to take is spelled out quite clearly in the overture, “Listen to the perspectives and voices of people most impacted by environmental racism.” It is a problem when we do not understand listening to be an action.
These overtures address environmental justice/racism directly; there are other overtures that call for action that leave EJ communities out of the conversation. Two overtures call on the church to advocate for carbon pricing. This is a market solution and my colleagues in the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance (NJEJA) contend that the market should not be determining equity.
The market has never been good to EJ communities. Data proves that in NJ communities of color and communities of poverty suffer the most from pollution. Regulation is needed. It seems so simple to ask that along with the call for carbon pricing there is a requirement for regulated power plants in EJ communities to decrease emissions. The issue for these communities is not only reduction of CO2, a greenhouse gas contributing to climate change; the issue for these communities is the other pollutants and fine particulate matter that are emitted along with CO2. This is the pollution that causes health problems – asthma, heart conditions and pre-mature deaths.
Dr. Nicky Sheats, Co-Founder and President of NJEJA pointed out at a local Sierra Club meeting that the big environmental organizations (mostly white) seem to care most about the environment and most EJ organizations (mostly people of color) seem to care most about the community. Isn’t Christianity about community? Ephesians reminds us, “Peace be to the whole community, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Eph 6:23, NRSV). The whole community will not have peace until those of us with white power and privilege listen to the voices of the EJ community and there will not be love until equity abounds.
Sue Smith is co-editor of EARTH and Vice Moderator of Presbyterians for Earth Care.