Environmentalism: concern and action aimed at protecting the environment
Environmental Racism: Environmental racism is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color.
Environmental Justice (EJ): Environmental justice is the movement's response to environmental racism, based on the principles that no one should suffer disproportionate environmental pollution and harm due to race, nationality, income, religion, sexual identity/orientation, creed, etc.
It is common for “environmentalism” and “environmental justice” to be used interchangeably, but the advocacy efforts are distinctly different. Environmentalists largely make decisions in offices that are often slow-moving and rarely incorporate the voice of impacted communities. EJ advocates organize at a community level, advocating for solutions from lived experiences to drive action up the supply chain. Environmentalists advocate for the planet. EJ advocates strive to not only address the issues of exposure, but the origins and intersections of issue areas that stem from institutional racism (which encompasses healthcare access, reproductive justice, immigration, rights of mother nature/natural laws, economic justice and so many others).
So how can these movements meet?
"It feels like an elephant is sitting on my chest at night."
In Houston, Texas, the Valero oil refinery is pumping out hydrogen cyanide by the ton – a poisonous and flammable liquid used as a chemical weapon in World War One. The community surrounding the refinery consists of 97% people of color, and according to a 2016 report, experiences a 22% higher cancer rate than the rest of the city.
“When we walk around knocking on doors, they tell us, ‘It feels like an elephant is sitting on my chest at night,’ or, ‘I wake up vomiting at 3 AM,’” shares TEJAS Policy Research & Grassroots Advocate, Yvette Arellano. “Once every couple of weeks, there’s this horrible smell that’s released, and that’s from planned emissions. So one minute you’re walking down the street, and the next, your skin feels like it’s on fire.”
Have you heard this story? How about the grassroots effort to stop it? If you think about environmental campaigns you read and hear about, it’s usually from larger environmental groups with dedicated marketing and communications departments.
At one level, we have multimillion dollar ad campaigns from NYC to LA covering billboards and Google ads and Instagram highlights. And on the other, we have a grassroots organizer in and out of court with impacted families that sometimes have no one else to hear their stories – in which case, a Tweet might drop once a month or so. So we’ve seen a lot about turtles and ocean plastic bracelets and recycled shoes over the past few years. But there’s a problem with this story: the only people in it are consumers.
For perspective, while activists in Houston were filing a lawsuit against Valero’s efforts to increase hydrogen cyanide emissions in 2017, activists in Seattle were campaigning for a citywide straw ban. After #StrawlessinSeattle was hashtagged over 1,000 times, it grew into a viral #StopSucking sensation that has accumulated around 100K Instagram posts.
Respectively, #Valero2501A has been tweeted under 10 times in the same 3 year period. And while Seattle successfully banned straws by 2018, in 2020, people are still tagging #StopSucking… and the Valero case is still not settled.
Through persistent dedication and countless hours in courtrooms, TEJAS and concerned citizens have made progress, and Valero dropped its proposed annual emission rate from 512 to 196 tons. “It’s a huge success,” Yvette says, “but they’re still dumping poison into the community.” The next hearing is scheduled for August 27th, 2020 and is open to the public to attend and observe.
“What do these all have in common?”
Straw campaigns have been instrumental in raising awareness about plastic pollution in the US, and UPSTREAM is proud to partner with groups that have led these efforts. Because while straws in Seattle might appear disconnected from hydrogen cyanide in Houston, these advocacy efforts actually intersect – and that’s where the Break Free From Plastic movement emerged.
“Before 2017, I always felt like the plastic movement was very separate from ours, not fully realizing that 99% of plastic was derived from fossil fuels,” Yvette says. “I always saw the plastic movement as parallel organizing. They operate in their section, like recycling, and we do ours, toxic exposure. For so long, the oceans groups were focused on the East Coast and West Coast waters, but not necessarily the Gulf Coast. It made me feel like I wouldn’t be a part of that story.”
Yvette carried this perspective through her first encounter with Break Free from Plastic (BFFP), a movement that formed in Southeast Asia in 2016. Leaders of the movement began to connect plastic pollution to its source. Ultimately, that’s how groups like UPSTREAM found our way to oil towns like Houston, where TEJAS hosted the first BFFP US meeting in March 2017.
“It was a series of events that all happened almost right after Hurricane Harvey. There was this massive [petrochemical] build-out. So all at once, I’m seeing the same type of structures and reading over and over again the same kinds of units: ethylene export terminals, ethane crackers, ethane, ethane... I was like, 'Ethane? Ethy-lene? Polystyrene?’ This is what I kept reading in the news post hurricane Harvey and seeing the massive stacks moving across our communities,” Yvette explains. “It was like, 'This is what's going on with ethylene and polyethylene.' And I didn't connect it to plastic! They didn’t connect it to plastic. That's what made me so enraged. I was like... what do these all have in common?'”
Yvette was then invited to discuss the buildout at the People Vote Versus Oil Infrastructure summit, where she heard even more about ethane and ethylene. Not only was this her first shared panel with white rural organizers, it was also her first summit that linked natural gas and plastic. When the summit concluded with a panel led by BFFP, Yvette recalls, “I was like ‘WHAT?!’ So you’re saying everything back home is related to this… plastic stuff?”
“I started a conversation with BFFP before the first US meeting like, ‘Look I respect the work you all are doing, but we work on toxic exposure and with fenceline communities. We don’t work on recycling,’” Yvette says with a laugh. “And everyone was like, ‘No, WAIT!’ Then I went from the point of saying, ‘We don’t work on recycling,’ to seeing a fuller perspective and having a better understanding of what a circular economy would look like, could look like – and will look like.”
And since connecting petrochemicals to plastic, Yvette has continued to create bridges as a movement leader for the past 3 years. But like any effort that’s the first of its kind, there are learning curves.
“I feel like the plastics movement can be more intersectional. There are conversations that need to happen within grassroots organizations too – to talk about race, to talk about privilege. But also, to talk about potential outcomes if you don’t do anything,” Yvette explains. “It would be great to have a little more training for the base on what EJ is, not just saying, ‘Environmental justice!’ because that doesn’t necessarily provide any context. BFFP has also been one of the few groups to understand this need and take on steps to bridge a full narrative.”
"Justice is what love looks like in public."
So how do we ground our work in justice beyond just talking about it? Given the lack of diverse representation across US NGOs, advocacy groups are overdue for training in EJ, systemic oppression, and environmental racism to create safer spaces for equitable opportunity and inclusion. And while education is vital, intellect can only take us so far.
Cornel West once said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” That’s what we hoped to see when so many communities and organizers got together in protest of the DAPL pipeline through Standing Rock. It’s what we’re seeing now with the wider, more mainstream solidarity being shown to Black Lives Matter. And, as we’ve been reflecting deeply on this these past couple months, it’s what environmental organizations, and specifically groups in the plastic pollution movement like UPSTREAM, seem to be waking up to as well.
We can’t achieve justice in isolated sectors because ultimately, our backyards are connected. Yes, we love our rivers and coastlines. And of course we care about the turtles. But if we’re solely focusing on keeping straws out of their noses, we’re missing the fuller picture – like children going to school red-eyed and nauseous, next to the facilities that produce the plastic in the first place.
Even when it’s not easy or comfortable or convenient, it’s time to start including each other in our conversations, our work, and our stories. Because this next chapter has the potential to be the one the planet’s been waiting for, where the environmental movement embraces, uplifts, centers, and protects our humanity. And that’s a story that connects and includes us all.