The poor bear the burden when environment is harmed

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, July 12, 2015

When Pope Francis released his encyclical "Laudato Si'" last month, he made the point that the damage people are doing to the environment is bad not only because we are fouling our common home, but also because the poor of the world are bearing the brunt of the problem.

That's nothing new, said Sylvia Hood Washington, editor in chief of the journal Environmental Justice and author of "Packing Them In: An Archeology of Environmental Racism in Chicago, 1865-1954" (Lexington Books, 2005).

"I think the greatest thing is that he makes it clear that to continue to live this way is sinful, because it causes death and destruction to the least of our brothers and sisters," Washington said.

Washington, an African-American Catholic, also worked for four years on a 2006 DVD sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Knights of St. Peter Claver on the "Struggle for Environmental Justice and Health in Chicago."

She looked at issues such as groundwater contamination from landfills, the location of power plants and highways and their effect on asthma, and lack of information about environmental contaminants given to residents in poor communities.

Environmental justice "means that the negative ecological impacts from man's activity are disproportionately impacting the poor and minorities, which in the United States tend to be one and the same," Washington said.

"There is a cost for advancement, there is a cost for industrial development. Usually the cost is born by the people who can't afford to move away or who don't have the power to put it somewhere else. NIMBY — 'not in my backyard' — is a code phrase for put it in the poor neighborhood."

Climate change and climate justice are part of overall ecological change and ecological justice. The effects of a warming planet are already being seen with more and stronger storms, droughts and heat waves. As with other kinds of environmental impacts, the effects are mostly felt by the poor, who cannot escape.

"You don't see rich people dying in floods, do you?" Washington asked. "Even in Katrina, who was left behind? The people who are left behind are the people who are least prepared, who don't have the resources to leave."

Washington, 56, grew up on the outskirts of Cleveland in a neighborhood that was not wealthy. She lived near an area similar to what in Illinois would be called a forest preserve. That was where people chose to illegally dump their trash.

"That's the question: where do we choose to dump our trash?" she asked. Chicago has a vivid history of environmental racism and injustice. Readers of Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel "The Jungle" will recall his description of Bubbly Creek, an arm of the Chicago River that served as an open sewer for the Union Stockyards: "The grease and chemicals that are poured into it undergo all sorts of strange transformations, which are the cause of its name; it is constantly in motion, as if huge fish were feeding in it, or great leviathans disporting themselves in its depths. Bubbles of carbonic gas will rise to the surface and burst, and make rings two or three feet wide."

It was this pollution, as well as human and other waste flowing from the Chicago River into Lake Michigan, that prompted the city to reverse the flow of the river in 1900. While the feat — made possible by the digging of the Sanitary and Ship Canal that links the Chicago River to the Des Plaines River and then, eventually, into the Mississippi — is considered a marvel of engineering, it was undertaken to protect wealthy lakefront residents from waterborne illnesses by sending pollution through poor neighborhoods packed with immigrants and minorities, who "started dropping like flies," Washington said.

Viviana Gentry Fernandez-Pellon of the Cooperation Operation, a non-profit that operates a community garden and education efforts in the Pullman neighborhood, knows about dealing with pollution all too well. Her organization is transforming a roughly 2½-acre former industrial site into an urban farm coop that grows everything from berries and watermelon to herbs to greens. But they are working on doing soil remediation on over half the site after seeing signs that a clay cap placed by the EPA more than 20 years ago to contain toxic waste may have cracked.

Situated in a food desert, the cooperative — which has benefited from about $1,500 in funding from the Archdiocese of Chicago's Operation Rice Bowl collection — provides produce to community members who spend time working in or for the garden.

Washington said there are plenty of steps individuals can take to mitigate climate change and other environmental damage.

"It's not an intractable problem," she said. "It's not. We can choose to burn energy from a clean source or an unclean source. Even in our own homes, we can choose to do things like use LED lighting to reduce the energy we use, so if the power companies have to burn coal, we use less of it."

Each American generates an average of about seven pounds of carbon dioxide a day that winds up in the earth's oceans, she said. That can be reduced with simple changes.

"Let's say you live a few blocks from a local grocery store," she said. "You could walk, you could make fewer trips to the store, you could take a bus, you could use Peapod (a grocery delivery service). Or let's talk about how you wash the dishes. If you have a dishwasher, you can wait until it's full to run in instead of doing it after every meal. If you live in the suburbs and you have to go downtown, don't take a car into Chicago. There are all these little actions you can take."

People also can take responsibility for educating themselves about climate change and advocating for public policies aimed at mitigating it.


  • laudato si
  • stewardship
  • social justice
  • enviromentalism

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