An interview with “the father of environmental justice,” Dr. Robert Bullard
Nexus MediaOct 19
By Nexus Media, with Robert Bullard
The environmental movement is divided into two. Large, well-funded, green groups mostly led by white men, lead national campaigns and lobby Congress, while small, poorly funded environmental justice groups, largely staffed by people of color, work for change at the local level. Observers have writtenatlength about this divide, arguing that is has hampered efforts to deal with climate change. Critics say that as long as these organizations operate in two separate spheres, big green groups will struggle to organize locally, and environmental justice groups will struggle to secure resources they need to thrive.
Dr. Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University in Houston, believes that big green groups need to do more to support environmental justice groups, which treat pollution not as an isolated problem, but as part of a larger constellation of issues that includes poverty, discrimination and political marginalization. Bullard, known as “the father of environmental justice,” spoke with Nexus Media about the importance of local activism and what big environmental groups can do to strengthen the climate movement. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In the climate movement, they talk about environmental injustice and climate change as two different challenges. Why do you say that is a problem?
When we in the environmental justice movement talk about the environment, we define the environment as everything. It’s where we live, work, play, learn, worship, as well as the physical and natural world. It’s very inclusive. And I think when we bring that frame to climate change, we see it in that same context, that climate change is more than parts per million and greenhouse gases.
The communities that are adversely impacted by pollution are the same communities that are on the front line of climate change. These are the same communities that host — in many cases without their permission — very dangerous facilities, very polluting facilities. They pump out lots of greenhouse gases, but they also pump out lots of other pollutants that make people sick.
The iconic figure for climate change is a polar bear. That’s very important in terms of what’s happening in the Arctic and what’s happening to polar bears, but for communities of color who have never been to the Arctic, who have never seen a polar bear in person, their iconic figure is a kid with asthma.
You know, over the last four decades I’ve written 18 books on these issues. The central theme that brings all of those books together is equity and justice and fairness. If we neglect the least powerful and the most vulnerable, we run the risk of making it worse for everybody.
We saw that in Hurricane Katrina when we didn’t take care of the levees in the lowest-income communities. That’s obvious to many communities on the ground who are facing the ravages of climate right now. For them, it’s not a debate. It’s not theory. It’s real. For workers who work outside, they know it’s getting hotter. They know it’s more difficult to work outside, and they know that if it’s too hot to work, or if it’s raining every day, they can’t do their job, and they’re losing money. It’s not a matter of whether or not climate change is real. They know it’s real.
These communities who see it 24/7, they are real experts. They may not have gone to universities and gotten PhDs, but they have PhDs in living every day and in surviving the things that most people only write or read about or see on television. That’s where I think we have to really bring those voices to the forefront and get them integrated into decision-making. These people can tell you exactly what it’s like to survive a hurricane or live in a community that’s surrounded by all these dangerous facilities that are pumping out all kinds of pollution.