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"Race, Poverty and Sustainable Communities,"

by Catherine Lerza March/April 1994 issue of Poverty & Race

For a long time, and for good reason, those whose abiding concerns are the dynamics of race and class in the social, political, economic and cultural life of this country probably have had little to do with anything that smacks of environmentalism. The mainstream American environmental movement has long been averse to dealing with issues of race, class and gender. Unlike their Green counterparts in most other nations, US environmentalists have tried to position their movement and agenda as "apolitical" or "nonpartisan." After all, who does not want a clean planet for themselves and their children?

The emergence of the environmental justice movement from communities of color and poor communities over the past decade has challenged the notion of apolitical environmentalism and raised important issues of environmental racism and classism. You don't have to look far or deep to find stacks of data to show that poor people and people of color, in urban and rural areas alike, have borne a disproportionate burden of environmental pollution and environmental degradation and that they have benefited less from environmental movement victories in arenas such as wilderness areas, clean air, clean water or reduced exposure to toxics.

Over the past two or three years, "sustainability" has entered the political, economic and environmental lexicon. A concept that means many things to many interests, it is essentially a linking of the economic and environmental in a more organic way than does current, primarily regulatory, environmental policy. Sustainability is popularly positioned as a "new paradigm" but, so far, it is one without a standard definition. For some it means simply incentives to business and industry to become "green" and "eco-efficient." It allows the environmental community to escape from the "jobs versus the environment" box that threatens to marginalize it. But sustainability can mean much more: the opportunity to connect economic, social and environmental concerns, to create new measurements of development or progress that weigh justice and equity as well as environmental quality. Right now, the environmental community is struggling to define "sustainability," and it is important for the poor and people of color, and for those whose allegiance is to them, to enter this debate to urge that social and economic justice and democracy be established as measures of sustainability as valid as clean air, clean water or recycled paper products.

As Eric Mann, director of Los Angeles' Labor/ Community Strategy Center, recently wrote:
Any real discussion of the economics of sustainable development must address broader issues of social justice, such as the redistribution of society's wealth generated in more environmentally beneficial industries, the reduction of the political power of large corporations whether they produce autos or electric vehicles, and the linking of a new environmental paradigm and the aspirations of society's most oppressed members and groups. This is not ... coalitional work, but rather strategy-for no environmental theory can be devoid of an economic theory and no economic theory can avoid issues of class structure and class conflict. It will either address class stratification by building democratic and redistributive components into the economics of environmentalism, or it will claim to be "neutral" on social issues, which . . . by default leads to replicating the injustices of our existing economic and social arrangements.

A Little History

In June 1992, thousands of people, including 120 heads of state, gathered in Rio de Janiero for the United Nations Global Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), a merging of the concerns of economic development with the protection and preservation of the environment under the rubric of "sustainable development." UNCED produced, among other things, Agenda 21, a global action plan for implementing a "common future." Theoretically, every nation represented at the gathering is developing its own national Agenda 21 detailing specifically what it will do to meet UNCED's goals.

From this gathering, "sustainability" became a global buzzword. Here in the US, Vice President Gore emerged as a leading spokesperson for sustainability, based on his book Earth in the Balance. Every national environmental organization subsequently embraced sustainability as an overarching goal. The US has officially responded to UNCED with a President's Council on Sustainable Development (composed of 25 members with roughly equal-numerically, at least-representation from the Federal government, corporations and environmental organizations, plus Rev. Ben Chavis of the NAACP and Tom Donahue of the AFL-CIO). An Agenda 21 implementation process is housed in the Department of State, headed by former Colorado Senator Tim Wirth.

Writing in the 1993 book Whose Common Future?, their response to UNCED, the editors of the British journal The Ecologist make a profound observation, one that characterizes the politics of "sustainability" as it is popularly understood and that also characterizes the gap between mainstream U.S. environmentalists and readers of Poverty and Race.

The demands of grassroots groups around the world are not for more management-a fashionable word at Rio-but for agrarian reform, local control over local resources, and power to veto developments and to run their own affairs. For them, the question is not how their environment should be managed ... but who will manage it and in whose interest. They reject UNCED's rhetoric of a world where all humanity is united by a common interest in survival, and in which conflicts of race, class, gender and culture are characterized as of secondary importance, to humanity's supposedly common goal.

Thus, as a tentative alliance of corporate interests, environmentalists and public officials begins to emerge waving the banner of sustainability, there is cause for concern. What will be touted as new, "progressive" economic and industrial policy blending environment and economics, the kind that can take the US and the world into a new millennium, may not address race, class, economic disparity or justice. As The Ecologist observes, the international political community's next stop after Rio was Munich for a round of G-7 and GATT negotiations.

Environmental Justice

Here is where the rising voice of the environmental justice community is so important and why it needs to be strengthened. In 1991, Washington, DC was the site of the People of Color Environmental Summit-the first time that people of color from all over the US came together on their own terms, with their own resources, to define their environmental agenda. The 600 people who gathered for this meeting, representing the struggles of hundreds of organizations and hundreds of thousands of people, created a statement of principles [available from PRRAC with a SASE) and an agenda centered on issues of race, class and power. From this summit, several regional environmental justice networks have been created, and mainstream environmental groups have begin to grapple with what the emergence of this movement means to their work. What has not yet happened is a redefinition of "mainstream" environmentalism using the principles of eco justice, which is still viewed by the mainstream as a "special interest" within environmentalism.

In a paper prepared font the Summit, Carl Anthony of Earth Island Institute cautions that something will emerge from the global business and political community bearing the name "sustainable development" that will affect the use and availability of natural and financial resources:
. . . [M]embers of communities of color, particularly those who live in cities, rarely think about the consequences of natural resources depletion as a limit to the achievement of their economic well-being. Yet font the people of the United States, who make up 6% of the world's population, but consume 50% of its resources, social justice as well as logic suggest that the US population-rich as well as poor-ought to consume less. How can we reconcile this constraint with legitimate aspirations of communities of color, to increase their economic well-being in a land that has denied them the product of their own labor? ... Communities of color have yet to engage in the policy debate over sustainability. In the absence of their participation, policies font achieving sustainable development are likely to have an unfortunate impact on them.

Blaming the Victims

But communities of color and the poor will not just be unfavorably impacted. They will be blamed font environmental problems. They already are. Ask many sustainability advocates what the central environmental problem is and almost universally they will say: population growth. These folks will tell you that women in the Third World, poor women everywhere in fact, have too many children, and until they stop (or are stopped) we can do very little to make the earth sustainable. In California you will hear that it is "illegal aliens" spilling over the border who are to blame font environmental as well as economic and social problems. But it takes no special math talent to figure out that the 10% of US families who control 72% of this country's wealth ante probably responsible font consuming a huge percentage of the world's resources on their own, with very little assistance from the poor.

As the idea that "we" (read Americans) ante to blame font environmental problems and that "we" ought to change our lifestyles in order to "save the planet" gains popularity, it is imperative to challenge this notion of "we." Ante the poor, the immigrants, the marginalized really to blame font waste, pollution, congestion and unnecessary consumption? Are they as culpable as the middle class and the wealthy? Perhaps reduced consumption and voluntary simplicity ante answers font the "we." But these ante not appropriate solutions font the poor, who already "live lightly on the land" and for whom "sustainability" should mean adequate income, access to health care, decent housing, quality education and safe neighborhoods. Font the poor, the dispossessed and the marginalized, the process of achieving sustainability would mean a process of leveling up.

Fundamental Change Needed

Achieving sustainability must involve major changes, not just in individual "lifestyles," but in the way goods and services ante produced and distributed new products, the elimination of many products, the depopulation. of fragile eco-systems, etc. Such a transition, while beneficial, would create major economic dislocations in the US and around the world. As is the case with any profound change, those on the margins of society and the economy will be poorly equipped to deal with it. Shouldn't we demand those "sustainable" economics sustain those who are most in need and do so in planned and systematic manner, rather than assuming a green or sustainable version of trickle down?

A sustainable economic system will not of itself change conditions of inequity and poverty, nor will it automatically improve the conditions under which increasing numbers of Americans (an the majority of the world's population live. In fact, it could exacerbate current inequities unless we demand a definition of sustainability that gives equal value to issues of distributive justice, access 1 opportunity and objective measures quality of life (health care, housing education, employment) along wit measures of environmental quality.

I close with the inspiring vision Maurice Lim Miller, director of San Francisco's Asian Neighborhood Design
It is incumbent upon those in community development and the environmental movement to join force] and assure that environmental an social justice issues are melded. It': important that everyone understand; that the overlap of the two movement is not just in creating green jobs o cleaning up lead in low-income communities, but that the overlap is in promoting social justice and the eradication of poverty and racism. I coming up with a definition that truly melds the environmental movement with community development, w need to acknowledge that without movement that calls font equality an justice-a movement that builds community-nothing we try will be sustainable.

Catherine Lerza is the Director of fining Sustainable Communities (DS a project of the Tides Foundation, DSC former director of The Shalan Foundation. DSC is convening a national conference on sustainable community development, June 2-4 in Oakland, CA For more information, contact D 2000 P Street NW, #408, Washing DC, 20036, 202/833-4667.
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