True Sustainability Must Include Social Justice Along With Environmental Protection

The following excerpt is from The Earth, The City, and the Hidden Narrative of Race, by Carl Anthony (2017, New Village Press)

We need a new story about race and place in the United States. The civil rights movement brought forth a flow of narratives recounting valiant struggles to overcome racism and achieve social justice. Much environmental history has expressed concern for the destruction of forests, the degradation of landscapes, the uprooting and destruction of indigenous people, and the loss of species. All these concerns will continue to have force. But the experience of African Americans and other people of color has a key theme to add to the mix: the stories of the people who helped to lay the foundations of the nation despite being marginalized in an atmosphere of hostility and disrespect. Telling these stories and listening with compassion will help us heal and begin to understand that we are all, down to the core, sources of great creativity.

Conventional politics has operated as if there were a deep and unbridgeable gulf between environmentalism and social justice. Environmentalists revere and respect the natural world as a foundation for the life of future generations while social justice advocates are committed to equal opportunities for those who live in the present. When the first Earth Day happened in 1970, it was profoundly disassociated from the civil rights movement. It centered on protecting and restoring nature without acknowledging people’s need for social and economic justice. The environment and people are interrelated. Both demand our attention and respect. African Americans and other peoples who have labored in our cities and countryside, like all other humans, have not only a responsibility to care for planet Earth but also the right to share in its bounty.

It is clear that industrial growth is destroying life on Earth. We need a platform for all people to come together and decide to reduce our negative impact on the global biosphere. We cannot just say, “All we want is our fair share.” Nor can we say, “Save the planet by any means necessary,” and call the rest “collateral damage.” We are all in this together, and true sustainability must include social justice along with environmental protection.

Marginalized communities—subjugated economically and racially—have firsthand experience of what it means to build sustainability in the face of hardship. This cultural and individual resilience is a resource for leadership. We need to acknowledge the leadership emerging out of the social and environmental justice movements and work to dismantle the obstacles to leadership faced by people of color. The knowledge they can bring to our planning and environmental professions is invaluable.


Climate change is with us now. As global climate systems destabilize, our world is wracked with record-breaking high and low temperatures. Devastating storms and tornadoes are occurring with greater frequency. Droughts, wildfires, floods, and rising sea levels threaten to destroy homes and businesses and make traditional community lands uninhabitable. While we must continue working to mitigate climate change by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, we must also face the reality that Earth has already been pushed past the point where we might have avoided negative climate effects. As a result, we must work simultaneously toward mitigating the effects and helping our most vulnerable populations and climate refugees adapt.

Building resilience to climate change in vulnerable communities often entails technical responses: bolstering shoreline communities against flooding and sea level rise, training and equipping communities for emergency preparedness, and strengthening relief programs to deal with chronic stressors such as rising energy and food costs, heat island effect, and drought, as well as sudden disasters like flooding, hurricanes, tornados, and other extreme weather events that can cause massive destruction and displacement. Considering what we learned from working on the Six Wins Network, it is clear that creating sustainable and resilient communities in the face of climate change also provides opportunities for gaining greater social equity and justice.

Increasingly, African Americans and other people of color are emerging as leaders and activists in urban agriculture and permaculture projects. One such leader is Will Allen. Born in 1949 to South Carolina sharecroppers who eventually bought a small farm in Maryland, Allen’s childhood was rooted in farming. Following a basketball career in which he was the first African American on the University of Miami basketball team that was life-altering (for himself and innumerable others), he returned to his roots and bought a nursery in foreclosure in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, region and began urban farming, eventually starting the nonprofit Growing Power, Inc. His leading-edge agricultural techniques include greenhouse farming, worm composting, and aquaponics (raising fish and produce together in a mutually nourishing, no-waste system). He has become a teacher to many, locally and internationally. Growing Power, Inc. is but one of many examples of organizations and projects aimed at enhancing resilience and empowering members of vulnerable communities (Bybee 2009).

Building community resilience also means supporting and strengthening community infrastructure such as neighborhood associations, churches, schools, day cares, senior centers, community gardens, small local businesses, local health clinics, community centers, recreation programs, art studios, museums, galleries, and local performing arts troupes. I have often heard it said that the number one factor in surviving a catastrophic event is whether or not you know your neighbors. Such community power not only fosters resilience when facing climate challenges but also enhances the experience of day-to-day living.12 While we advocate against processes and policies that break communities apart, such as gentrification, displacement of long-time residents and businesses, and discriminatory schooling, policing, and sentencing practices that decimate communities of color, we also build community resilience to face major climate challenges as they arise and improve conditions for vulnerable communities here and now.

Metropolitan planning organizations have attempted to treat planning for climate change and planning for regional equity as separate and unrelated, but there is no reason for social justice advocates to follow their lead. There are good reasons for aligning risk reduction and development of resilience in the face of global warming with the goals of regional equity. Public policies that respond to the need for adaptation continue to offer opportunities for low-income communities to participate in regional planning processes. We need to build multidisciplinary coalitions across geographic and social divides and look at our metropolitan regions as an interconnected system.

The challenge of global warming requires that we support the development of non-extractive and nonpolluting transportation choices, such as public transit and safe bicycle and pedestrian paths. A great deal of public attention has been focused on alternate energy sources. While this attention is important, equally significant is how we live together as extended families and viable communities. New community design strategies can reduce demand for energy while maintaining and improving the quality of life for everyone. An old drama of human achievement celebrated the rugged individualist who triumphs by extracting riches from nature and from the labor of workers. That myth is losing its appeal. An emerging new story recognizes the dignity and worth of all beings and celebrates the power of collaborative effort to solve challenging problems. Communities of color can be powerful models of sharing and intergenerational support.


Alternate energy sources and other technical innovations are important elements in building a sustainable world, but we cannot expect technology to solve all our problems. We need to understand and acknowledge the unsustainable burdens that industrial civilization has placed on Earth’s natural resources and the effect those burdens have on ecological balance. The challenge of global warming requires that we move away from the global love affair with the automobile. Instead, we need to support the development of non- extractive and nonpolluting transportation and housing choices; we need to create diverse neighborhoods with housing near jobs and public transit with safe conditions for walking and bicycling. These opportunities will manifest differently in each region, depending on local environmental, geographic, economic, and political factors. But as the urgency of climate change continues to press decision makers into action in our states, regions, counties, and municipalities, disadvantaged communities and their allies must continue to step forward, collaborate, and make our voices heard in planning, designing, and building equitable and sustainable regions.

The innovations proposed to get us through the climate change crisis will require strong social consensus and local-to-global community building—elements usually left out of proposals. The strong sense of community we need in order to cope with climate change is undermined by growing racial disparities, both within the United States and between the global North and South. These racial disparities are exacerbated by the ongoing spatial division of the wealthy from the disadvantaged. Spatial apartheid limits access of low- income people of color to education, good jobs, housing, nontoxic environments, transportation, healthy food, and green spaces, resulting in alarming disparities in health, life expectancy, and economic well-being.

Climate change confronts us with many giant challenges—reducing greenhouse gas emissions, building community resilience to extreme weather, confronting poverty in our regions, and restoring and protecting the web of life on which our own lives depend. We each have a role to play in facing these challenges. Some of us will get involved in political processes, set up cooperative businesses or nonprofits, and find new ways of sharing space and resources.  Others will create art, music, gardens, schools, and networks of mutual aid. The needs and the possibilities are endless. The voices of elders are joining with those of young people around the world who are expressing their care for the planet, their passion for justice, and their hope for a livable future. They must be acknowledged and encouraged. We must come together as one human family to care for Earth and for one another—working together, listening to each other’s stories, and appreciating and celebrating our diversity.


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