There I was in a mid-March snowstorm riding shotgun in a truck heading south through the Crow reservation in Montana. I made a stupid comment to break the silence: “Man, there is nothing out there.”
Crow member and my guide for the day, Emery Three Irons, politely corrected me: “There’s a lot out there.”
I saw an empty vastness. Three Irons saw a landscape of history and culture, and all of the splendor and pain attached to both.
Reviewing the year’s news, I was reminded of this. With partisan publications, herd journalism and narrow-minded newsfeeds, it’s easy to miss big, important developments on environmental issues—both good and bad.
Let’s avoid being like me in the foothills of the Pryor Mountains. Survey the landscape. Avoid the urge to break the silence until there’s something worth saying.
The most poignant stories of solution and struggle in 2016 were from those who too often shoulder the largest share of environmental harm—poor and minority communities.
It started with lead poisoning and government failure in Flint—a story that’s still unfolding.
Flint prompted journalists from across the country to take a look at lead poisoning and water in their own communities—it turns out Flint is everywhere. St. Louis. East Chicago. Baltimore.
Poor, often minority, communities are still poisoned by a toxic directly linked to criminal behavior and reduced IQs.
While Flint—a majority-black city that never regained its footing after the recession—is text book environmental injustice, the problematic intersection of pollution, poverty and people of color can be much more complex and multi-faceted.
Food insecurity and toxics are combining to hamper development in poor children. Drought is crushing small farmers in developing countries, the food source and economic backbone of their communities. Fossil fuel reliance continues to touch every aspect of our lives: the health of our lungs and farms, the stability of our economy and international relations.
But there are Native Americans camping in snow, bucking development on sacred land by exercising sovereignty, however ill defined it may be. Communities are pushing for—and building—small-scale, resilient energy systems, connecting people to their power in new and exciting ways.
People are providing healthy, necessary amounts of food to those in need, taking aim at waste, and seeking agriculture done without corporate stranglehold.
Activists tackling racial, criminal and labor injustice realize that dirty air, tainted water and poverty cannot be disentangled from economic and political marginalization.
Every day we at Environmental Health News and The Daily Climate compile the day’s top environmental health and climate change news (and distribute it via free daily and weekly newsletters. You can subscribe here).
We fill blanks in coverage with reporting of our own. Our small team aggregates around the clock, aggregating almost 30,000 stories this year alone.
We found more than 2,200 stories this year dealing with climate and environmental justice. While not an exhaustive collection of every environmental story, this represents a doubling of such stories from a year prior.
For 2017, experts say, expect the push for environmental justice to center more around the issue's intersections with racial, economic and environmental equality.
Campaigns for all three overlapped this year: As our economy stratified more starkly into haves and have-nots—and often ignores pollution and health costs in the name of progress—we've seen calls to restructure.
“Our failure to address environmental justice crosses many boundaries,” said Sylvia Hood Washington, an environmental epidemiologist and editor of the Environmental Justice journal.
“Movements are merging and addressing multiple issues," she said. "Safe housing, police brutality, violence against children, inadequate housing, exposure to substances that cause learning disability.... All of these issues are important and must embrace environmental health science.”
We began to see this in 2016. The Sierra Club came out in strong support of the Fight for Fifteen movement, a protest for low wage workers to make $15-an-hour. “Low wage jobs are some of the most environmentally hazardous jobs there are, especially when workers lack union representation. We need livable wages because we can't break a glass ceiling we can't reach,” wrote Aaron Mair, president of the Sierra Club's board of directors.
Groups such as National People’s Action have made clean energy a key point of their agenda, which aims for a more just economy. The New Economy Coalition and Our Power Campaign are pushing clean energy and other green jobs in conjunction with job training and opportunities for people to live healthy, both physically and financially.
As Trump takes office and fills key cabinet posts with mostly men who disavow climate science and promote fossil fuel development, it's worth noting this movement is coming from the ground up.
Even the large environmental organizations aren't driving the agenda, said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, chief program officer with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“We’re seeing a harkening back to an early time, fighting for environmental rights, not just in the hands of environmental organizations, but every community that cares about air and water and health,” said Casey-Lefkowitz.
David Pellow, a professor of environmental studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, said the Black Lives Matter movement is a great example: “They haven’t necessarily passed laws but they’ve changed the conversation.”
The Movement for Black Lives, which includes more than 50 groups including Black Lives Matter, released a platform in August that called for divestment from fossil fuels within a broader demand to address disproportionate criminalization and incarceration.
The report also called for cleaning pollution in black neighborhoods as part of a path toward economic justice, and bolstering the financial support for black farmers.
A major reason for such a bright spotlight on environmental justice issues this year was Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential run, which included an entire platform on environmental justice—something rarely mentioned in presidential politics.
“These injustices are largely the product of political marginalization and institutional racism. The less political power a community of color possesses, the more likely they are to experience insidious environmental and human health threats,” read Sanders’ racial justice outline, which called for a clean energy transition, bolstered Superfund cleanups and more stringent permitting of polluting industries.
Sacred water, Standing Rock and sovereignty
The Standing Rock Sioux’s opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline perfectly embodied the intersection of civil rights, human rights, and the environment, while also adding to the conversation important questions of indigenous sovereignty, Pellow said.
“People are really seeing and connecting what’s happening with Native communities and the rest of planet,” he said. “These are not just Native or oil pipeline issues. It affects us all.”
Kyle Powys Whyte, Timnick Chair in the Humanities at Michigan State University and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in Shawnee, Oklahoma, said the way Standing Rock happened was crucial to the attention it grabbed and ultimate success.
“It’s an important idea, not just the protest that we can succeed at, but how we design protest,” he said. Standing Rock camps became functional communities, with people supporting each other with food, water, prayer. The Standing Rock and ally tribes insisted that they were not protestors but water protectors.
Standing Rock is the visible tip of a tribal justice movement focused on race, political representation and the management of natural resources.
I saw much of this firsthand. For our yearlong series, Sacred Water, I visited reservations where tribes are fighting for clean water. While touring the Crow Reservation with Three Irons, I saw multiple streams and rivers tainted with bacteria and heavy metals, exacerbating tribal health problems and economic woes.
Along the Puget Sound, which has dwindling salmon populations due to development, pollution and climate change, tribes are fighting to bring back the cultural icon for traditional ceremonies and spiritual well-being, but also for financial security. Commercial fishing is suffering badly.
In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a proposed open-pit mine threatens the cultural headwaters of the Menominee Indians of Wisconsin. Ancient burial mounds sit nearby and the river is the center of their creation story.
Similar to Standing Rock, the call for environmental justice for the Menominee is based on a feeling of political marginalization and a system that doesn’t take into account tribal values.
“Putting a mine on this location is just the same as if they were to put an open pit sulfide mine in the Garden of Eden for the Christians. Imagine what they would say when asking them to describe how it feels to see this mine polluting their sacred area,” wrote Menominee Guy Reiter in an essay for our series.
This issue of sovereignty—which has long been a moving target—will continue to play out over the coming year. “We understand sovereignty as a way of life: autonomy, independence and community cohesion,” Whyte said. “The U.S. government often understands sovereignty in a much more limited sense.”
The highly visible fight over the Standing Rock pipeline has transformed the justice conversation in the U.S. and thrust Native Americans and grassroots organizing back into the mainstream consciousness. It worked in North Dakota: The Obama Administration rejected a crucial permit last month needed to complete the Dakota Access pipeline and gave, for now, a victory for the Standing Rock Sioux and allied tribes who have camped for months.
Rev. Fletcher Harper, executive director of GreenFaith, a faith-based organization focused on environmental stewardship, said it is “truly the best of times, worst of times” for environmental justice.
That Standing Rock victory? That’s the “best” part, Harper said. The other side, of course, is president-elect Donald Trump.
“The Trump Administration has already sent signals that it may further privatize indigenous lands for resource extraction,” Whyte said. “We might be in for four to eight years of fighting for the bare right just to be consulted.”
Speak to those concerned about environmental justice about President-elect Donald Trump and there’s bound to be silence, sighs, swearing or all of the above.
Perhaps most concerning is the unknown of a Trump Environmental Protection Agency. If his pick to run the agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, is any indication it will be a sharp departure from what has been an increasing recognition of and focus on environmental justice.
This year the EPA released a report outlining their environmental justice through 2020. “By 2020, we envision an EPA that integrates environmental justice into everything we do,” said the report, which laid out three major goals — improving the health and environment of overburdened communities, expanding partnerships within those communities, and showing documented progress on disparities in lead exposure, drinking water, air quality and proximity to hazardous waste sites.
Pruitt is a climate change skeptic and has shown disdain for the very agency he will head, taking part in a multi-state lawsuit against the EPA over proposed regulations to curb the potent greenhouse gas methane from oil and gas operations. It remains to be seen what he makes of the environmental justice initiatives at the agency.
Optimism and opportunity remain and the refrain is consistent: the movement will have to thrive at the local, county and state level. “I think a lot of [environmental justice] organizations will get stronger as more people realize they can’t sit on their hands,” said J. Timmons Roberts, a professor of environmental studies and sociology at Brown University.
States have long been leaders on progressive environmental justice policies, Roberts said. In his home state of Rhode Island, for example, the 2014 Resilient Rhode Island Act seeks to mitigate climate change impacts while also looking for ways to boost the economy and lift up low-income residents.
California this year extended its cap and trade program, tilting the revenue spending toward urban, poor communities. Gov. Jerry Brown has made no secret that he’s willing to spar with Trump when it comes to the environment.
“We have a lot of firepower! We’ve got the scientists. We’ve got the universities. We have the national labs. We have a lot of political clout and sophistication for the battle. And we will persevere!” Gov. Brown said in a fiery speech at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union last month.
Such progressiveness in spite of federal action or inaction could be vital during the Trump tenure, Pellow said.
“We need to stop imagining the EPA or federal government will be the source of solutions for environmental justice,” Pellow said.
Part of the local approach means moving beyond simple opposition—protesting a polluting power plant, for example—and building local resiliency, such as energy cooperatives, land trusts, urban gardens, Pellow added.
“We need to be building something positive, not just opposing something bad.”