Why Environmental Justice Should be Everyone’s Priority

Chevron Refinery Fire
August 6, 2012

My heart is heavy with so many things. 2012 has been a year of distractions and distortion: from the Olympics to the election to our favorite guilty-pleasure reality shows.  Meanwhile, a new epidemic of racialized terror is sweeping this pretending-to-be-post-racial nation, where guns are much more quickly and cheaply available than therapy and mental health care, and murderous xenophobia is rationalized away by our twisted double-speaking corporate media. The value of Black and Brown life is as low as ever, evidenced by racially motivated attacks on innocent people, and the fact that there has still been no semblance of justice for Trayvon Martin, or Oscar Grant, or Manuel Diaz, or Kendrec McDade, or Chavis Carter, or the countless others whose lives have been wasted by similar kinds of state sanctioned violence.

I try to build a fortress of health around myself and those I love, doing all that I can to ensure our survival, but the poison still seeps in.  Everything is toxic… our food is tainted with chemicals and pesticides, the education we receive is laced with lies and inaccuracies, and the physical environment is so dangerous and damaging that our babies are sabotaged right from the gate. I often wonder with exasperation, “damn, can we just live??” And methinks the answer is no. Hell no. Obviously not. When has life ever been an easy option? When have people of color ever been more than a source of cheap expendable labor in this country? When has anyone other than us given a fuck about our survival? And although racism is clearly alive and very real, capitalism has effectively reduced ALL OF US to consumers whose value is measured in market terms. No living being who breathes air and drinks water is immune to environmental destruction. Zoom out for a second… look at an atlas or a globe and you will realize that this planet is smaller than we think. Nuclear waste in Japanese oceans will wind up on California shores in a matter of weeks, because it is the same Pacific Ocean, and all of the Earth’s waters and skies are interconnected.

None of our lives, our love, our bodies, have ever mattered to the Chevron corporation, for instance, whose massive fire plume is slowly choking out the oxygen over Richmond and the entire Bay Area as I write this. What can I even say to my friends and loved ones who have been mandated to stay in their homes, barricading themselves against the acrid poisonous air, as if you can really fully protect yourself from air… Do I tell them that I am worried for their lungs and their brains and their skin, because they will have to come out sometime, and they can’t hold their breath forever? And where could they even go to seek refuge? The entire world is being exploited beyond belief. Beyond habitability. And although we have all been trained by formulaic horror flicks to wait patiently and ignorantly for the zombie apocalypse, “the end of the world” is a bit of an inaccurate statement. The world (as in Planet Earth) will be here long after us: just as it was here long before the malignant cancers of industrial profit-driven capitalism and environmental racism.  This planet has survived ice ages and global warmings many times over… we are the fragile ones, so “the end of humanity” is perhaps more precise. It hurts to think about it, so we try not to notice that the future is rapidly becoming the present, where drone warfare is real, and our water is being hydrofracked until it is literally flammable, and the mountaintops are being blown off, and the icecaps have already melted more than scientists thought possible for another three decades.  And although people of color are the first to suffer and the last to get relief, all living beings have a stake in environmental justice because it is our bodies and our children and grandchildren’s bodies that will bear the brunt of these toxins in the form of cancers, neurological disorders, respiratory diseases, etc. for generations to come: just as we who are living now still grapple with the traumas of oil spills and wars and genocides that occurred before we were born.  I am passionate about environmental justice because it is about human survival: a feat that is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve.

As is often the case, Tupac Shakur said it best: “I was given this world, I didn’t make it”. I inherited this world, like an old run-down but nonetheless beautiful estate, and it’s definitely a fixer-upper. Fixing it up isn’t easy and I definitely can’t do it alone, but I’m doing my best.  As small as I may feel sometimes, doing what little I can to educate and protect myself and my loved ones from premature death feels like it’s better than nothing. And re-membering the powerful symbiotic relationship we have with the Earth as human beings is my way of refusing to sit shrouded in numbness, watching helplessly as the world becomes a wretched, burning dystopia. Will you join me?

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