racism and poverty and sustainability

Last night I finally watched the movie Elysium by South African director Neill Blomkamp. Besides falling back on typical meaningless violence and starting plot lines that were never fully explored, the sci-fi movie had a great premise. It posed a world where the “have nots”, mostly composed of hispanics and black people, lived in the detritus of blighted urban landscapes wracked by air pollution, poverty and little access to medical care and the “haves” lived on a space station that was mostly made up of resorts and golf courses and every home was equipped by a miraculous healing machine that could fix any health problem. The space station, called Elysium, was inhabited by wealthy and privileged white people. The movie touched on themes that are extremely relevant today such as environmental justice, exclusion, and relegating basic human rights such as clean air, access to nature and health care to the rich only. Elysium depicted in a shocking and extreme way the environmental injustices we see in our world today but choose to ignore.

It shed light on how even today the haves and the have nots experience and discuss climate change and sustainability in very different ways. This is what I mean:

[Note: I'm using "Haves" to describe the mainstream privileged population and "Have Nots" to describe marginalized populations.]

Examples of the way the “Haves” experience climate change and sustainability issues:

1. They read that shrimp harvesting destroys whole marine ecosystems and make a conscious choice to stop eating shrimp.

2. They read that GMO corn is bad for the economy and for your health, so they shop for non-GMO tortilla chips at the natural food store.

3. They shop at weekend farmers markets and are willing to pay a little (or a lot) more for organic meats, produce and cut flowers.

4. They choose to bike instead of drive and use this as a badge of honor.

5. They buy vegan shoes made in America.

The way the Have Nots experience climate change and sustainability issues:

1. They take the bus because they can’t afford a car.

2. They walk on broken or road shoulders with no sidewalks because they live in an area of town that is largely neglected by the city government, like they do in East Portland.

3. They have to breathe the worse, most polluted air because they can only afford to live next to a highway or a coal factory.

4. They eat fast food because that is the food that is most readily available in their neighborhoods and there is a dearth of places where they can buy healthier food.

5. They buy clothes and shoes made in China from Wal-Mart because that is what they can afford.

Recently, theRoot.com asked if black people care about sustainability and climate change and if yes, why they don’t talk about it more. The article declares that “the ill-fated climate-change debate is as white as late-night talk shows.” But Brentin Mock of Grist says that this is the wrong question to ask and that of course black people care about sustainability and climate change.

So the right question might be – how do we talk about sustainability and climate change to include marginalized populations that are more worried about getting food on the table rather than if that food was sprayed with pesticides. “One reason black people and other ethnic groups may not talk much about global warming, carbon emissions and melting polar icecaps,” says All Digitocracy’s Tracie Powell, “is because they don’t make the connection with “kitchen table” issues like having to pay more for gas or food.”

Mock admits that as a black journalist that covers the environment, “the bigger challenge for me is explaining this for family members, friends I grew up with, and the communities I grew up in. Because they very well could have the toughest challenges coping with climate change impacts, I feel an extra responsibility to relay this in ways they understand. This means linking it to things that touch their lives regularly: asthma, transportation, racism, hip hop, religion.”

While the Have Nots may not be talking about sustainability per se as much as the Haves, it doesn’t mean they aren’t in the thick of it. The Have Nots experience sustainability and climate change problems first and most deeply. Like in Elysium, there is a huge divide in the world we live in when it comes to the way we deal with and talk about sustainability issues.

The Haves need to wake up from their privileged and self-satisfied stupor and start interfacing with these issue with a wider lens in an effort to include the people who are the worst victims of environmental injustice. Buying expensive organic food and locally-made artisan products is great – but how is it helping the person who’s daughter is killed walking on the street because the city neglected to build sidewalks in her neighborhood or the man who got cancer because he lives next to a freeway? We have to bridge the gap between the way the Haves and the Have Nots experience and discuss sustainability issues. We have to expand our definition of sustainability to include equity and social justice, because without those aspects, sustainability is just a hollow trendy buzzword that dictates the kinds of expensive things wealthy people buy instead of being a real problem that we find real solutions to. We’re all in this together – let’s start talking and acting that way.

Photo Credit: Photo from U.S. National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons.