Earth Day, Stewardship, and Environmental Racism

Editor's Note: The following originally appeared on Katelin Hansen's Blog, By Their Strange Fruit on April 23, 2012, and has been reprinted with permission.


Like so many other things, pollution and environmental destruction disproportionately affect both people of color and the economically disadvantaged. This phenomenon is often referred to as environmental injustice and ties together the concepts of racial/economic privilege with unequal burden of the effects of environmental abuse.

Environmental racism is "the process whereby environmental decisions, actions, and policies result in racial discrimination or the creation of racial advantages." It is characterized by:

  1. Increased likelihood of being exposed to environmental hazards,
  2. Disproportionate negative impacts of environmental processes,
  3. Disproportionate negative impacts of environmental policies, for example, the differential rate of cleanup of environmental contaminants in communities composed of different racial groups,
  4. Targeting and siting of noxious facilities in particular communities,
  5. Environmental blackmail that arises when workers are coerced or forced to choose between hazardous jobs and environmental standards,
  6. Segregation of ethnic minority workers in dangerous and dirty jobs,
  7. Lack of access to or inadequate maintenance of environmental amenities such as parks and playgrounds and...
  8. Inequality in environmental services such as garbage removal and transportation.

A double standard exists when it comes to environmental conditions/practices and what is considered acceptable in a given community. Both low-income neighborhoods and communities of color suffer more health risks due to environmental pollution than their more privileged counterparts. Children of color are 60% more likely to suffer from asthma, and twice as likely toexperience lead poisoning. Families of color also live closer to landfills andhazardous waste treatment facilities.

It is an unfortunate fact that 53% of white children breathe air that doesn't meet EPA standards. But the rate increase to 63% for Black children, 72% for Asian American children, and 74% for Latino children. Adults face environmental racial disparity as well. Workers of color in many industries are disproportionately exposed to toxins and chemicals. The large majority of hired farm workers that handle pesticides and herbicides are people of color. Van Jones talks about the economic injustice of plastics (great video!), and even more examples can be found here.

In addition, marginalized communities often have less power to alter their environmental circumstances. It was Bullard's foundational report that first described the futile attempt of an affluent Black community in Houston, Texas to block the siting of a hazardous waste landfill in their community. His research demonstrated that race, not just income status, was a factor environmental justice issues. In addition, Sidney Howe, Director of the Human Environment Center, observed that those creating the most pollution live in the least polluted places.

This disparity is reflected all over the world. In Indonesia, American-based Freeport-McMoRan (the world's largest. lowest-cost copper producer) operates a mine that has been dumping 130,000 tons of waste rock per day into local rivers as a means of disposal. They have also been implicated in numerous human rights violations against the folks that used to live on that land.

In Nigeria, a country producing over two million barrels of oil per day (ranked 10th in the world, and 4th of suppliers to the USA), more oil spills every single year than in in the entire famous 2010 BP Gulf spill. Thedeath and destruction is outrageous, but so is the selective media attention. Many more examples of international environmental justice can be found here. Time and again, communities, countries, and individuals in power impose environmental destruction on those who can least afford it.

In researching this post, I was disheartened to find far more articles detailing the tension between Christianity and environmentalism than those lifting up their natural intersections. What can be done? Pastor Marty Troyer offers other examples of disparity, but also some first steps for change in our own lives (see post: Reverb). We live in a broken worlds, and part of the consequences is the daily damage we do to the Earth and our neighbors here.  Sisters and brothers, we can do better.

But ask the animals, and they will teach you; or birds of the air and they will tell you; or speak to the earth and it will teach you; or let the fish of the sea inform you (Job 12:7-8). 

What do you have to learn from the teachers referenced in Job above? Which of Pastor Troyer's suggestions can you commit to in this coming year? Check out Majora Carter's TED talk and what she's doing to combat issues of environmental racism.


Katelin Hansen

Katelin Hansen (@BTSFblog) is the Minister of Music at UM Church 4 All People, a multi-class, multi-racial church in an underprivileged neighborhood of Columbus, OH. Four years ago, she and her husband moved to the vicinity to live in intentional fellowship with the surrounding community. Katelin is also the editor of By Their Strange Fruit (BTSF), an online forum facilitating racial justice and solidarity for the sake of the Gospel.

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Read and comment on a range of personal reflections and perspectives about poverty and Ministry with the Poor. Our goal is to attract diverse voices and points of view from United Methodists and friends, including people and communities living in conditions of poverty, other experts, religious leaders, community organizers, advocates, policy makers, volunteers, and all engaged in Ministry with the Poor.