Before his death, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. moved into a very environmental and economic justice space (Poor People’s Campaign). In fact, the day before he died he was leading the sanitation worker’s strike.
Some believe that his fight was only one of equitable wages. That was an incredibly important part of it, but it was more than that. It was also the environmental aspects of the harm being done to the workers. The black workers were forced to work in dirtier environments than their white peers and were thus seeing the health effects of working in environments that lacked clean air. In fact, many environmentalists link him to the beginning of environmental legislation like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. When you don’t have access to clean air and clean water your health deteriorates.
Let me backtrack: one of the reasons I created this website is that “getting outside” isn’t as simple as just a stroll outdoors for me. Oftentimes I was reading articles that pushed outdoors or slow intentional living that, while beautiful and pleasant, just didn’t resonate with my lived experience. Even the “nature-y” sites that gently discussed environmental issues stopped at eating less meat, using fewer straws, recycling and composting more. All of these things are valid and beneficial BUT as a woman of color - specifically a black woman - environmental issues are systemic and structural. The problems with the environment are more deep-rooted than only individual actions - they are social justice and civil rights issues.
Because if it were just about our actions, from the black woman lens, we have been doing enough. We ride public transportation and we reuse our plastic bags among other things. I know FEW black women who don’t have their reusable bag drawer or that space underneath the kitchen sink. We cook outside, walk outside, relax at the pools and the lakes, and we are farmers and beekeepers. People of color are the originators and sustainers of America’s cooking-from-scratch meals. We’ve been eating ALL the parts of the animal since we arrived here. Finally, very few products in a black home are one-use items. Vaseline is for lips, face, feet, removing a ring, and plenty more. Let’s not even go into apple cider vinegar, baking soda, rubbing alcohol, and so on. Wearing and mending our clothes is another example - everyone’s granny has a sock drawer where holes would be sewed. We know the backwoods - heck, we have always been hikers (i.e., Queen Harriet Tubman, Buffalo Soldiers and others). There are generations of environmentalists within the black community. We are nature and nature is us, we just have to reclaim our truth. But with the beauty of nature and our environments comes hard facts as well - we are disproportionately affected by environmental issues.
“Trees and plants always look like the people they live with,” Zora Neale Hurston once said.
Environmental racism is a real thing. AND before we immediately go into a socioeconomic conversation, please take the word of the Father of Environmental Justice, Dr. Robert D. Bullard’s words. Dr. Bullard found that “race to be more important than socioeconomic status in predicting the location of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities” (Bullard et al. 2007). According to Lumen Sociology, his research found, for example, that African American children are five times more likely to have lead poisoning (the leading environmental health threat for children) than their Caucasian counterparts, and that a disproportionate number of people of color reside in areas with hazardous waste facilities (Bullard et al. 2007).”
YES, socio-economics profoundly matters in environmental issues. There is no question that the more money that you have, the more you can resist pollutants. But in a recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study, it was found that “people of color in 46 states live with more air pollution than whites; African Americans are exposed to 1.54 times more fine particulate matter than whites; Hispanics are exposed to 1.2 times; those below poverty are exposed 1.35 times more than that above poverty.” This was the findings of the current administration.
We see that even when looking at socio-economics, race is dominant. And then, when we look at environmental issues, nature, and our Native American brothers and sisters, the problem becomes expanded. This is in addition to what environmental justice means for the people around the world, but more on that in a different article. To narrow all of the environmental justice matters in one piece - with all its complexity and nuance - would be wildly inappropriate so I will stick to the point of this article.
Shalom and Environmental Justice
And the point of this article is that the love of nature and being natural isn’t just about yoga outside, using essential oils, and composting. Goodness, I wish it was that simple! And believe me, yes all of those things are necessary as individual responsibility and self-care is a critical component of caring for the world.
But there is also the fact that to care for the earth and all of its living inhabitants is also opening up our eyes to see that there is damage being done at structural/systemic/political levels. The harm is a form of violence against people of color and low-income communities in America and around the world.
Whether you believe in climate change or climate catastrophe, the truth is children born into low-income homes are getting more severe and persistent asthma and being born at lower birth rates. Again, the study of maternal health and the environment is a topic that I am deeply passionate about and will explore at a later date but for now, I just want to shed light on the fact that caring about our environment isn’t just for tree lovers. It’s not as simple as, “I care about black/brown issues while they care about green issues.” Environmental issues are brown/black/low-income issues.
And so, admittedly, I am going to suggest going outside, taking it slow, practicing sustainability, and also caring about the workers. There is nothing that I desire more than for this website to be a vessel of shalom, but God’s peace doesn’t mean closing our eyes to the world around us. In fact, it’s the opposite - Jesus came to bring peace while also breaking down so many of the oppressive structures, mindsets, and rules of the time. I pray that we use our mindful moments as a time to ponder how we can each elevate instead of oppress.
Shalom, my friends,