Climate Justice and Social Justice – Part 1: Hazel M. Johnson and the Principles of Environmental Justice

—— Cover art by Annabelle (graphicsandgrain) on Instagram

Just a quick note before beginning this post, thank you to the wonderful BIPOC environmentalists at Intersectional Environmentalist for helping with the main flesh and information in this post! As a white person, with this post, I aim to disseminate and amplify the voices of BIPOC environmentalists who are already saying and voicing the opinions, experiences, and information below. I fully agree with and support these people and their voices and urge others to amplify their voices as well. You can start by finding and following them through the link above!

If you’ve been reading my posts lately, you know I’ve been talking a lot about how social and environmental justice are so deeply intertwined. So let’s take a chance today to dip our toes in and talk about exactly what that means and where that dual attention needs to be focused when it comes to fighting the climate crisis.

In the United States, race is the biggest indicator of whether or not one lives near a toxic waste facility. Black people are exposed to 1.5 times more particulate air pollution then the average population. No matter where you look, it is always the most vulnerable peoples that are facing the worst effects of pollution and climate change.

Let’s learn about Hazel M. Johnson, the mother of Environmental Justice. After her husband passed away from cancer at age 41, Hazel started asking questions as to why so many people in Altgeld Gardens (the public housing areas in south Chicago) were experiencing such high rates of cancer and other health issues. After doing some research, she quickly learned that her area had 50 undocumented landfills, hundreds of hazardous waste sites, all leaking into the soil underground, and thus, into their water systems and underground water storage tanks. This high level of toxicity and pollution completely surrounding Altgeld Gardens, gave it the nickname “The Toxic Doughnut.”

Hazel was the true definition of a pioneer of her time, and in 1979, she started People for Community Recovery (PCR) in Chicago, with the intention of helping the community understand toxic waste, test for lead poisoning in their water sources, conduct health surveys, demand a cleaner environment, and strengthen their connection to their environment. PCR is an early example of true grassroots organizing, mutual aid work, and community resistance against environmental injustice.

In 1991, Black environmental and civil rights activists convened in Washington D.C. with BIPOC leaders from around the world for the first ever National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. Hazel M. Johnson was also present there, helping create the core principles of Environmental Justice, which are still widely used today in organizing environmental policy-making. Such principles represent a real milestone in how environmental legislation is created and how potentially environmentally destructive projects are carried out.

These principles are key in navigating the difference between “spread harm equally” and “don’t harm anyone at all” when it comes to forming new environmental laws and projects.

Here are the core principles of Environmental Justice (from this site)

  • Environmental Justice affirms the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity, and the interdependence of all species, and the rights of all beings to be free of environmental destruction
  • Environmental Justice demands that public policy be based on mutual respect and Justice for all peoples, and free from and form of discrimination or bias
  • Environmental Justice mandates the right to ethical, balanced, and responsible uses of land and renewable resources in the interest of a sustainable planet for humans and other living things
  • Environmental Justice calls for universal protection from nuclear testing, extraction, production, and disposal of toxic/hazardous wastes and poisons and nuclear testing that threaten the right to clear air, land, water and food
  • Environmental Justice affirms the fundamental right to to political, economic, cultural, and environmental self-determination of all people
  • Environmental Justice demands the cessation of the production of all toxins, hazardous wastes, and radioactive materials, and that all past and current producers be held strictly accountable to the people for detoxification and containment at the point of production
  • Environmental Justice demands the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making, including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation
  • Environmental Justice affirms the right of all workers to a safe a healthy work environment without being forced to choose between an unsafe livelihood and unemployment. It also affirms the right of those who work at home to be free of environmental hazards
  • Environmental Justice protects the rights of victims of environmental injustice to receive compensation and reparations for damages, as well as quality healthcare
  • Environmental Justice considers acts of environmental injustice as a violation of international law, the Declaration of Human Rights, and the United Nations Convention on Genocide
  • Environmental Justice must recognize a special legal and natural relationship of Native Peoples to the U.S. Government through treaties, agreements, compacts and covenants, affirming sovereignty and self-determination
  • Environmental Justice affirms the need for urban and rural ecological policies to clean up and rebuild our cities and rural areas in balance with nature, honoring the cultural integrity of all our communities, and providing fair access for all to the full range of resources
  • Environmental justice calls for the strict enforcement of principles of informed consent, and a halt to the testing of experimental reproductive and medical procedures and vaccinations on people of color.
  • Environmental Justice opposes the destructive operations of multi-national corporations
  • Environmental Justice opposes military occupation, repression and exploitation of lands, peoples and cultures, and other life forms
  • Environmental Justice calls for the education of present and future generations, which emphasizes social and environmental issues, based on our experience and an appreciation of our diverse cultural perspectives
  • Environmental Justice requires that we, as individuals, make personal and consumer choices to consume as little of Mother Earth’s resources and to produce as little waste as possible; and make the conscious decision to challenge and reprioritize our lifestyles to insure the health of the natural world for present and future generations.

Hazel M. Johnson made a huge impact with her activism, environmental justice, equity and public health, that stretched beyond her community. To impact the lives of BIPOC communities all over the country. Though they tried to silence her, Hazel continued to fight and organize within her community to establish real change, communicate complex issues within environmental justice before the language to identify these issues even existed.

Just from these principles, we can easily see how the climate crisis is about so much more than the climate. Ignoring social justice in conversations about climate change is just as harmful as claiming one “can’t see color” in a conversation about race.

“Sacrifice zones” (I.e. places like Altgeld Gardens) really highlight the intersection of social and environmental justice, and thus the importance of intersectional environmentalism, and why BIPOC people need to be at the forefront of the climate movement. Whilst climate change, pollution, and environmental degradation are existential issues, they are also undeniable discriminate, as Hazel and other BIPOC worked and continue to work tirelessly to point out and change.

The climate crisis is a product of colonial, extractive, exploitative, and racist behaviours. It isn’t just about emissions and net zero. It’s about exploitation, ownership and entitlement. It’s about thinking we have complete ownership, dominion and control over the planet. It’s about profit and capital being worth more than people’s lives. It’s about a tree or a fish being worth more dead in our consumer-capitalist society than alive.

Climate change and social inequality exacerbate each other and it is crucial that we all recognize this. Without tackling the very systems that caused the crisis, we will find ourselves in another, similar global crisis very soon.

For example, if we only focus on lowering global emissions, and not on the extractive and exploitative behaviours that are driving these excess emissions, we will see total ecological collapse, air pollution crises especially in poorer and more vulnerable parts of the world (because net zero pollution is not zero pollution), extractive industries exploiting miners and using child labor.

We must be able to see the injustices and inequalities and recognize their roots, harms and impacts, if we are going to be able to tackle them and dismantle them. Tackling the climate crisis also means addressing deeply entrenched issues and barriers facing environmental and social justice.

In part 2, I will discuss a few systems of oppression embedded in our societies and how they exacerbate the climate crisis.

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