Remember Social Justice Issues in Celebration of Earth Day

Earth Week: the six days of the year we designate for conscious consideration of the planet. Through fundraising efforts, Instagram posts, trash collecting, and more, we proclaim dedication and gratitude to the land we live on, the water we drink, and the beauty that surrounds us.

While it is true that “every day is Earth Day” and should be treated as such, I will refrain from echoing this growing cliché (by assuming we should all accept it as fact) and instead point to the physical costs humans self-inflict when we neglect Mother Earth.

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a report illustrating the disproportionate impact facilities emitting particulate air pollution, like soot, have on low-income communities and communities of color.

The study found that communities living below the poverty line suffer from 35% more exposed toof particulate matter emissions than the overall population. Non-whites experience 28% more partculare health problems; within this figure, African Americans are subjected to a 54% greater helath burden.

Illustration by Lee O’Dowd

Inhaling particulate matter can have devastating impacts on human health. Some of the pollutants studied have been connected to asthma, cardiovascular issues, heart attacks, and premature death. A case study of The Bronx neighborhood of New York, found that individuals who lived close to noxious industrial facilities and waste sites were 66% more likely to be hospitalized for asthma. Significantly, these same individuals were 13% more likely to be people of color.

Such findings demonstrate an environmentalism that continues to carry a history of racism and economic inequality. The costs of our society’s wastefulness are disproportionately felt by a certain set of bodies, and ironically, it is those least likely, and least able, to be excessive in their use of resources.

Environmental degradation is inextricable not only from physical wellbeing, but social inequity at large. The proximity of polluting facilities to low income neighborhoods and communities of color means that already marginalized individuals face greater risk of sickness. Regardless of whether the sickness is life threatening, chronic health issues reduce the likelihood that affected individuals can retain a job, go to school, or pursue opportunity elsewhere. Thus, pollution traps those it affects in a cycle of poverty that can last generations.

So, this Earth Week, remember that initiatives concerned with environmentalism must also be tied to anti-discrimination in all forms, from class to race to disability. Polar bears are not the only ones suffering at the hands of climate change. The wellness of Black, brown, and lower-income bodies depends on finding a way to sustainably share and preserve the natural resources we have left.

Susanna Penfield

Susanna Penfield

Susanna Penfield, class of 2020, writes the weekly column “Diving Into Wellness” in collaboration with the Wellness Resource Center. She is a Political Science Major and Feminist and Gender Studies Minor, co-chair of Student Title IX Assistance and Resource Team (START), editor for the Leviathan - CC’s journal for art, poetry, and prose - and member of the Cutthroat Rugby Team. In addition to the Catalyst, Susanna has been published in Cipher and the Leviathan, and her personal essays have been featured in both Colorado’s Emerging Writers: An Anthology of Nonfiction and the America’s Emerging Writers Series.
Susanna Penfield

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