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Environmental Justice Is Social Justice

You shall love your neighbor as yourself. —Leviticus 19:18
That which is hateful to you, do not do unto another. —Hillel

The Catholic Climate Covenant asks a great question: “Who’s under your carbon footprint?” The question is a reminder that the environmental harm we cause has an impact on real people. This is something that is easy to forget when we talk about “the environment,” “the earth,” and “the atmosphere.” (Your carbon footprint is the amount of harmful emissions generated by your activities that are released into the atmosphere to worsen climate change.)

A few weeks ago the JGF Fellows went on an environmental justice tour with Charles Callaway, Community Organizing and Outreach Coordinator at West Harlem Environmental Action (WEACT.) WEACT Charles showed us around his neighborhood; including the many dangerous and polluting facilities that are located there. West Harlem has a waste transfer station, a natural gas plant, and several bus depots.

As Charles explained, waste has to go somewhere. And a lot of it ends up in low-income communities and communities of color that don’t have the economic and political influence to keep it out. This is the social justice issue at the heart of the environmental crisis. Poor people – here and around the world – bear an unfair share of the burden of environmental problems.

We were dismayed by the problems Charles described. But we were also inspired by Charles’s story of how WEACT was formed and what its’ leaders have accomplished. The North River Wastewater Treatment Plant was originally supposed to be built elsewhere. But, after sites in other neighborhoods were rejected, it was built in Harlem. Riverbank Park, on top of the plant, was not completed until 20 years after the plant went into operation. Years of advocacy have finally resulted in repairs to fix serious problems with the plant, a new green bus depot, and a community ready to meet any new challenge.

What can we do? First, we can educate ourselves about environmental injustice and speak up in solidarity with communities that are fighting it. And second, we can set ambitious goals for eliminating the outdated technologies and systems that result in waste, pollution, and harmful emissions that unfairly burden others.

There’s someone under our carbon footprint, so let’s step as lightly as we can.