Decades of environmental injustice are on global display in the Gulf Coast's toxic floodwaters, but a more hopeful vision is coming together. A network of community leaders and academics -- which has long demanded a change in the region's political and industrial fabric -- is finding a more receptive audience.
The environmental justice movement is rising to the occasion. It is demonstrating the expertise, capacity and power to implement our common dreams.
Eco-friendly companies, social justice groups and concerned professionals are forging a nascent "Green Relief" movement that is already delivering results on the ground, working to replace today's snapshots of oil-soaked abandon with visions of locally-crafted communities bustling with bike paths, sidewalks, lots of green space, healthy housing, and powered by clean energy.
Organic root crop growers in Maine are gathering a truckload of beets and potatoes. Organic cereal makers are shipping hundreds of thousands of boxes to shelters. On the ground right now is the Veggie Van organization, which is delivering biodiesel fuel and generators in the impact zone, and organizing a fleet for ship-borne relief. Others are compiling data on the sweep of toxic pollution that is accompanying Katrina's floodwaters, and monitoring what the EPA is and is not doing.
Alongside this emergency response, top writers, speakers and politicians have poured their hearts into visionary expressions of ecology and justice. Organizations like the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus are joining forces with environmentalists and social justice organizations to present an alternative to the federal government's business-as-usual approach.
But ideas can turn into more hot air unless we abandon our tendency for competitive segmentation and duplication. The environmental justice movement provides us with principles behind which the rest of us can gather, and then implement our collective expertise.
Through unity and resolve, we can help the dislocated people of the Gulf Coast reconnect with their home communities, with inspiration, empowerment and a healthy future.
A framework of environmentally friendly and safe communities designed by today's evacuees stands in stark contrast to the Bush administration's grim response. The federal government's delayed and paltry response to Katrina harmed tens of thousands of victims and now promises a Halliburton-laden, heavy-handed reconstruction, perhaps with some token millions tossed in the direction of those organizations with whom the government is most comfortable.
As green organizations move from rhetoric to implementation they can choose to either join the Bush money train, go it alone, or work with the "Green Relief" coalition. They can either be party to a system that rewards corruption with pork, or to a movement and process that comes from the people of New Orleans, Bay St. Louis, Pascagoula, Venice, in their choices and their needs.
Business-as-usual ineptitude and callousness compounded this disaster. Long before Hurricane Katrina tore through the heart and soul of this region, deeply rooted communities bore witness to other seemingly intractable foes. State and federal collusion between government officials and petrochemical corporations covered the state with a toxic gumbo during a century of intense oil-fueled industrialization.
Local organizations, many of them faith-based, banded together and sparked a powerful global movement for environmental justice in the 1980s. Now many of these battle-tested leaders are evacuees of the worst human-made disaster since 1984, when Union Carbide's methyl isocynate gas cloud killed over 18,000 people in Bhopal, India.
The movement's spirit and resolve is one of the shining lights over the post-Katrina landscape. Leaders from New Orleans, like Dr. Beverley Wright, whose resource center at Dillard University fell victim to nine feet of floodwater, are now organizers for environmentally friendly and equitable relief and reconstruction.
Donele Wilkins, an environmental justice leader from Detroit who worked with evacuees in Houston, says her community is finding a more receptive audience. "We've been marginalized and ignored at best for speaking out about these issues for years. I don't think people thought we were nuts, but maybe that we were just crying in the wind, maybe that we were a little extreme. This is our time to stand up and be counted."
The environmental justice framework for sustainable relief and development is supported by several pillars:
- Unity. "This is a time to work together," Wilkins says. "Let's make this right. We can share ideas, resources, and labor, and together, really restore our community. If we don't, then shame on us."
- Redressing disparites. "In this hurricane and any recovery, we have to address long-standing disparities legacy of this region, we have to own up to this, not act that we are all starting at the same starting point," notes Dr. Robert H. Bullard, a leading environmental justice author. "There are legacy issues that we have to address, and build into a process of recovery: Jim Crow laws, discrimination, not having access to green space, living near polluting facilities, building schools on top of landfills, and inaction by federal, state and local agencies."
- Cleanup Accountability. Bullard warns about the temptation for "cheap cleanup." "We have to mobilize to make sure that does not happen." Environmentalists must ensure that the EPA "does not compromise on the cleanup," agrees Wilkins. "The level of pollutants that has come from petrochemical plants is huge, and will require years of monitoring."
- Transparency. "There's a sense of healthy paranoia that we just can't trust government to do the right thing," Bullard says. "We have to make the process very transparent. If we're not careful, redevelopment will permanently displace poor people, sick people, people of color."
- Skill-training. There should be skill-training for evacuees "so people impacted can contribute to the rebuilding of their city," says Wilkins.
- Green communities. Bullard says reconstruction projects should embrace state of the art, energy-efficient construction and design. "Make sure we apply all the things we know about smart growth: mixed-use housing, transit, sidewalks, greenways, things that will make a livable community, even if it happens to be inhabited by low-income people."
- Healthy shelter. "There must be consideration for healthy, affordable homes," Wilkins says.
- Long-term health monitoring. The volume, spread, and diverse composition of Katrina's pollution stew are unprecedented. Community leaders are demanding long-term monitoring of people's health, particularly those where exposed to the polluted aftermath.
- Economic diversification. Over the long haul, says Ms. Wilkins, "we are talking about rebuilding sustainably and green, and diversifying the economy so that it is not so dependent upon the petrochemical industry."
Many organizations, large and small, are heeding these calls for green relief and reconstruction.
"Some of the national environmental groups do see these issues," says Bullard. "They do recognize the importance of making sure no communities are left behind, and that we can use green technology to try to move away from business as usual and get it right this time."
The Healthy Building Network is working within the environmental justice framework to deliver expertise and other real goods to the impacted region. "The forces of environmental racism literally added insult to the injury of friends, colleagues, leaders and elders," explains HBN director Bill Walsh, who has initiated the "Green Relief" effort. Walsh says, "'Green Relief' coalition will operate in service to organizations and initiatives that are committed to principles of environmental and social justice during the rebuilding effort. Our network will offer green building professionals the opportunity to connect directly with these efforts on the ground in Louisiana."
My organization, the Sustainable Energy & Economy Network, is part of the "Green Relief" effort. We hope the environmental justice community, climate activists, and the renewable energy industry, can make clean energy integral to the greening of relief and reconstruction.
The human hand was as strong a player as nature in the devastation. Poor planning, politics, discrimination and greed were as important factors as storm surges and wind speed. The old ways clearly failed, and our challenge is to counter them with principled expertise and goods.
Instead of relying upon the fossil fuels that have divided and destroyed, the impacted region can look forward to harnessing nature's power for good. These deltas and bayous and beaches and pine forests are beautiful places in which deeply rooted communities have resided and wish to return. The rest of us can help this happen by pouring our minds and souls into a collective greening of the Gulf Coast.