Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Toxic Air: One More Burden for the Poor

Monday night, Barbara and I had the privilege of listening to Peter Harris, founder of the Christian environmental conservation group A Rocha. Peter was speaking at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, challenging the crowded auditorium of New Yorkers to rediscover the widely-ignored gospel call to care for everything God has made: his earth, its creatures and its people.

Brimming with excitement from an evening of insight and challenge, we headed west to our home at Good Hand Farm.  We crossed the GW Bridge in the fresh spring air, with the city’s skyline gleaming across the Hudson to the south. We flew along I-80 through Fort Lee, Englewood and Teaneck. A great end to a good day!

But suddenly, our perfect evening was rudely interrupted. A sickly-sweet odor assaulted our senses as we sped along the interstate. Something awful in the air! Where are we, anyway? Oh, of course: Paterson and Elmwood Park, industrial towns along New Jersey’s Passaic River. All those stacks billowing fumes night and day. Yuck.

I wonder what it’s like to actually live here! Those poor people!

Well, looking into it, I discovered that nothing could be more true.  Poor people.  

It turns out that the privilege of breathing that perfect evening air was reserved largely for people who are rich like us: Fort Lee, Englewood and Teaneck enjoy average per capita incomes in the range of $32,000 to $38,000. But the rancid chemical cloud hanging over Paterson and Elmwood Park burns its way into the lungs of people earning on average about half of that: $13,000 to $23,000. In my little sample, you need money to fill your lungs with clean air.

Paterson chemical plants foul the air for NJ's poor
I wondered, is this true in other places? Is it the poor who bear the burden of our world’s pollution? Well, in a word, yes.  It turns out that this is the rule everywhere you look.  We think of caring for the creation as a matter of aesthetics, or stewardship. But – true as those impulses may be – creation care is also a matter of justice for the poor, and for racial and ethnic minorities.  Consider:

  • The United Church of Christ has conducted studies over more than 20 years showing that racial minorities comprise the majority of populations living near hazardous waste facilities in the U.S. And these toxic communities have 50% more poor people than clean communities. Whatever the intent, people of color and the poor end up living with our hazardous toxins.
  • The University of Pennsylvania has published research showing that, for communities with nearby toxic waste facilities, those with predominantly African-American populations are nearly twice as likely to suffer accidents involving toxins, compared with similar non-minority communities. The inescapable conclusion: Facility operators adhere to varying safety standards in different communities, and race matters.
  • The Journal of Urban Affairs published a UCLA study which found that low-income and minority children in California are disproportionately exposed to hazardous vehicle exhausts, resulting in much higher rates of respiratory ailments and mortality. Poor kids and children of color – these are the ones who get the asthma and emphysema.
  • The Climate Risk Index, which annually ranks countries around the world based on their vulnerability to climate change, puts impoverished Bangladesh, Burma and Honduras at the very top.  In fact, the ten most vulnerable countries generate almost no greenhouse gases, and in their poverty, they generate average per capita incomes of only $2,500. But the ten highest emitting countries (including the U.S.) enjoy average incomes of more than $43,000, with per capita carbon emissions 25 times as high. We generate the pollution; they suffer the consequences.
  • Researchers at Harvard and Duke universities have published findings that developing nations will be affected far more severely by climate change than developed nations, and that this unequal impact will persist throughout the twenty-first century. This means that the very countries which have largely missed the benefits of the Industrial Revolution will bear the brunt of its hazardous consequences.
  • The Christian Reformed Church, through its Creation Stewardship Task Force, has stated that climate change will impact the poor more negatively than the rich. Limited financial resources provide them  little buffer in adapting; they cannot move to a more benign climate; they are more susceptible to social unrest and resource conflicts; and they have little access to technology for adaptation.
  • The National Association of Evangelicals has reported that the world’s poor are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In a report titled “Loving the Least of These,” the NEA states: “There are millions of suffering people in the world…. Unfortunately, the realities of climate change mean that those suffering millions may become billions. All of us who follow Jesus will need to respond.”
Since most of our readers are sincerely looking for ways to practice environmental justice, these findings may give us a whole new motivation for action.  Many of us hope for the day when the Son of Man welcomes his own with the words: “I was hungry, and you gave me food….” Of course, we will not understand, until he reminds us: “As you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:31-40).

As we repent of our abuse of the creation, and work toward a world which can sustain the world’s poor, perhaps we are beginning to learn what it might mean to care for “the least” of the brothers of God.

This is, after all, his world.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

More Climate Risk Index Data 

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