Your body makes itself from the matter around you. What you eat, drink, inhale, touch, and experience literally becomes you. You are your environment, and it is you.
Releasing toxic substances into the environment means injecting them into bodies, human and non-human.
The climate system connects everyone’s environments. It distributes warmth, water, wind, and weather around the world. The climate regulates the ecological systems that nourish and protect us, the ecosystems of which we form a part.
Spewing heat-trapping substances into the atmosphere destabilizes the earth’s climate. Global warming disrupts the seasonal cycles that bring rainfall, guide ocean currents, and determine all sorts of environmental conditions. We rely on these systems for food, water, and other essentials—the matter that then becomes us. By “we” I mean all beings.
Industrial capitalism pollutes the air, water, land, and global climate system. It transforms nature into wealth and waste. Mansions and mine tailings. Energy and emissions. Delicious desserts and desolate deserts.
The wealth and the waste are distributed unequally. A small, powerful fraction of humanity takes most of the former and forces the rest of the people on earth to live in the latter. This is environmental injustice.
Climate injustice refers specifically to the unfair distribution of benefits and damages related to climate change. Again, a handful of humans profit at the direct expense of many.
Mostly white Western men and their corporations and governments have reaped massive, unsustainable material wealth by burning fossil fuels, chopping down forests, building with steel and concrete, and participating in other activities that disrupt the climate. Wealth protects their bodies from pollution and the effects of climate change. Wealth is infrastructure, mobility, and the power to pilfer more nature from all corners of the earth.
Those that have not participated in or become wealthy from the bonanza of fossil-fuelled capitalism cannot buy their way out of dealing with the droughts, floods, acidifying oceans, and other effects of climate change. Poor people cannot pay polluters to stop polluting. Thus, the communities least responsible for climate change tend to be the most vulnerable to the harm it produces.
While the captains of capitalism have gained by changing the climate, the rest of the web of life, save for some opportunistic invasive species, stands to lose. Climate change intensifies already-existing injustices.
As I write this, my 30 classmates and I are preparing for the second week of a two-week field course on climate justice, taught by Ellie Perkins, professor at York University. The course is part of the Economics for the Anthropocene graduate student training program. It is the finale of the climate justice cohort’s first academic year.
The first week was intense—emotionally, intellectually, and, by extension, physically. Today is Sunday, and we students are drafting chapters for a book on climate justice from the perspective of North America’s Great Lakes region. Saturday, many of us explored Toronto, decompressing from the demanding week and integrating new thoughts and experiences from the course.
On Friday we visited the Aamjiwnaang First Nations community in southwestern Ontario on the Saint Clair River, across from the State of Michigan. Aamjiwnaang is chock full of, and surrounded by, petrochemical infrastructure like oil refineries and pipelines. Faraway corporations own and operate the industry that pollutes the area. A former asbestos factory sits nearby, closed but untouchable. It continues to poison this First Nations community and the tiny slice of land that Canada did not formally take from its original inhabitants.
Beze and Vanessa Gray, both E4A community scholars, led the class on a bus tour through the toxic landscape. The air smelled a little bit chemical, not quite clean or fresh, on the clear, breezy day of our toxic tour.
Our hosts told us that the refineries emit more on cloudy days, as the air emissions blend in with an overcast sky. Beze told a story about arguing with the fifth-grade teacher during a lesson on the water cycle, certain that the steam-spilling stacks of the factories surrounding their community were the real source of all clouds. The siblings spoke of bicycling through Aamjiwnaang on days when the air is basically unbreathable, of a childcare center at which every kid had an inhaler, of crossing ditches using exposed petroleum pipelines as bridges, of disintegrating frogs by dipping them in poisoned puddles next to derelict factories.
Toxic spills are typical, and they say that industry typically denies or lies about them. Mercury is found not only in the riverbed but also in community members’ hair, according to research from the University of Michigan. Benzene is everywhere, along with a slew of other carcinogens and endocrine-disrupting chemicals that mess with the reproductive systems of all the people and other beings that comprise the Aamjiwnaang community. Two girls are born for every boy in Aamjiwnaang. Residents live 55 years, on average.
Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment says that people can swim in a local pond once a week, provided that they somehow avoid touching the bottom so as not to kick up sediments that contain heavy metals and other pollutants. The officials who deliver this message will not bathe in the pond when invited. Aamjiwnaang residents are advised to eat no more than one fish they catch each month. One fish per month is purely symbolic, not a meaningful contribution to their diets.
Aamjiwnaang is a victim of environmental injustice. Businesses force dirty industry upon the least powerful communities. The environment degrades, people get sick, property values plummet, and polluted people are further marginalized, all so that oil-based society can go on.
No set of technological fixes will clean up the oil industry. An industrial economy powered by fossil fuels requires sacrifice zones to pollute, impoverish, and extract from. Ultimately, climate change will lay waste to ever-larger swathes of the earth’s surface. Sacrifice zones will expand until sacrifice zone becomes a useless term.
People with money and Western-country passports can get up and leave when pollution, drought, or flooding make their homes less habitable. Others do not have that option, or do not want to leave.
The people of Aamjiwnaang would not consider moving elsewhere, according to Beze and Vanessa. This is their sacred land. They have the responsibility to defend what’s left of it.
Many of my classmates and I struggle to grasp the concept of sacred land because we are rootless Westerners. There is no single place which all my great-great-grandparents called home. I have no idea where my great-great-grandchildren will live.
I come from a settler society with a growth-based economy. My ancestors conquered new land as their civilizations expanded. Somewhere along the way, we completely lost touch with the idea of enough.
Acknowledging climate injustice means indicting our Western culture for some big moral crimes. It means that I benefit from the systems that perpetuate environmental racism, speciesism, classism, sexism, able-ism, and so on. I participate in systematic oppression even if I actively oppose oppression. Inequality favors me even if I reject money and grow my own food.
Reflecting on these realities is difficult, but surely not as difficult as surviving them and fighting them every day. That Western-style civilization is ransacking the world comes with implications far more troubling than the emotional stress it causes privileged people to come to terms with reality.
This essay began as an email I wrote to my dad in response to, “How’s Toronto?” In his reply, my dad reminded me that we can be hopeful, and that hope is distinct from optimism.
Hope is what brought us to Toronto for this course. The students, instructor, guest speakers, and community scholars would not be here without hope.
The first week of the course was mostly about climate injustice. The book chapters we write will address ways that people in the Great Lakes region can work toward climate justice.
We must have visions of a more just future and ideas about how to achieve it. Our objectives and hypotheses will differ, and that is okay.
We can all agree that buying energy-efficient appliances and carbon offsets for our climate sins will not do the trick. Transforming the world for climate justice will be a co-evolution of culture, policy, ideology, technology, economy, community, governance, even morals.
This transformation will involve learning from indigenous peoples to see it as communities’ responsibility to defend the land, water, and atmosphere. It might require that we consider these entities sacred, and all beings that inhabit them our kin.
And it will take lots of effort from lots of people with lots of love for one another and themselves. Climate justice is not an academic exercise.
For more information:
Scientific American. 2013. Hormone-blocking chemicals found in First Nation families
Sam Bliss is a UVM graduate student and E4A fellow. He studies economics as humanity’s allocation of abundance, not scarcity. Rather than thinking of the earth system as the limiting constraint, he wants to study how communities and societies can practice collective self-limitation according to the world they want to inhabit now and in the future.