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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

A Look Ahead: The Environmental Justice Movement

Air Date: Week of April 14, 1995

There's a growing consensus that the future of environmentalism lies in local organizing. Russ Lopez, Director of the Boston based Environmental Diversity Forum, talks with host Steve Curwood about how people-of-color groups are working for justice in their communities by addressing environmental problems. Lopez also discusses the prospects for alliances between urban social action groups, scientists and mainstream environmentalists in the years ahead.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Now, let's look at the environmental movement as it heads into its next 25 years. Where is it going? What will it mean to people? In Washington, some see the government retreating from environmental protection, and predict dark days ahead for the environmental lobby. But others suggest that the future could be bright if traditional environmentalists join with the emerging environmental justice movement, one that links environmental degradation to poverty, discrimination, and the quality of urban life. Among them is Russ Lopez, executive director of the Environmental Diversity Forum in Boston.

LOPEZ: I think that the environmental movement is actually very healthy right now. There is this tremendous growth on the local level in low-income communities, in urban communities, and I think ultimately that's going to reinvigorate the entire movement. When the mainstream environmental groups tap into the energy that exists on the local level, they'll be empowered to get more of their agenda across nationally.

CURWOOD: Explain for me what is bringing more and more people of color to the environmental movement.

LOPEZ: Well I think there's a growing sophistication that problems that have existed for a very, very long time are really environmental, whether it be a group that's concerned about a vacant piece of land that's being dumped on. Whether it be somebody who has a problem with lead paint. It's only for the first time are they seeing their issue is environmental. And I think people are beginning to look at their communities as a whole. That you just can't concentrate on the lack of jobs. You just can't concentrate on infant mortality. And once you start thinking about the broad issues, then you're really starting to think like an environmentalist.

CURWOOD: Russ Lopez, do you think that people of color are welcome in the environmental movement?

LOPEZ: Um, yes. Um, I had to stop and think about that for a moment. I think the problem is that it's, like any group of people environmentalists have their own language and their own way of doing things, and people who are familiar are always the ones you feel most comfortable with. But I think that as a whole, the environmental movement really is ready to, like, accept the enthusiasm of this new group of people into it.

CURWOOD: This hasn't been typical of the environmental movement historically.

LOPEZ: No, and actually, there was a recent study done by a gentleman in Santa Barbara that looked at the difference between the environmental justice movement and the environmental movement. Environmental justice advocates tend to come from a social action, social justice background, where environmentalists are much more likely to be scientists and lawyers. And so people haven't not even shared a language in terms of how to think about the environment. I think one of the problems with the environmental movement was that it was anti-urban from the start. A lot of people think that the beginning of the environmental movement was when Thoreau went off to Walden Pond to leave the evils of Concord, Mass. and the cities of Massachusetts at that time. The other great founders of the environmental movement, you know, John Muir, Audubon, they were all getting away from what was seen as the evilness of cities. And I think that translates into today, and why there's such an anti-urban bias. Plus, I think that a lot of environmentalists, you know, your feelings about the environmental movement are never divorced from your, your general feelings about life. And a lot of people who live in the suburbs are terrified of ever going into cities, and are terrified of ever meeting a person of color. So I think that kind of preconceived bias carries into their dealings with people of color.

CURWOOD: What are the incentives for these groups to get together?

LOPEZ: Well, they need each other. As an example, the Clean Air Act did a lot to make our urban areas cleaner. Ozone levels are down, oxides and nitrogen levels are down. Unfortunately, recent data shows that that didn't necessarily translate into better health, because it didn't look at particulates, which has now turned out to be major factor in lowering life expectancies of people in cities. And you ask anybody on the street, they say a bus goes by, I need to hold my breath. And from the neighbors' point of view, it's nobody's going to believe, if a mother of 2 children stands up in a meeting and says this is a problem, government doesn't listen. If the scientist stands up and says, and she says, I've studied this problem and it's real, government and other people look up. You know, you can't refute a scientist as much as you can refute a neighborhood. So I think that if they had worked together, the scientist with the neighborhood people, the air would be safer for most people in this country now.

CURWOOD: Now, let's talk about global issues for a moment. How does a grass roots movement engage with some of the global issues? Let's look at the threat of global warming for one. How is that made relevant in poor communities, peoples of color in grass roots organization?

LOPEZ: First of all, I think that people of color and low-income people are very much aware of issues like ozone depletion and global warming. And also, so much of our overuse of energy and other resources comes from inappropriate land use patterns, the inappropriate way we've built up our cities. And as long as we keep polluting cities and make them undesirable places to live, people will go out into the countryside and convert more farmland and rural areas into suburban development, which means more energy, which means more production of greenhouse gases. So we can make our cities better, we can change that increasing pattern of destruction.

CURWOOD: So what's the general lesson to be drawn?

LOPEZ: I think the most important lesson from the environmental justice movement as a whole is that everybody has something to contribute. Because improving the environment of the world and locally really takes everybody, and that you can't dismiss somebody's opinion or value simply because they're not like you.

CURWOOD: Well thank you very much for taking this time. Russ Lopez is Executive Director of the Environmental Diversity Forum in Boston, Massachusetts.

LOPEZ: Thanks.

 

 

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