By Deeohn Ferris 9-26-2016 | Series:

Albert Einstein once said, “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.” He also said, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

What if we looked at the environment as a jumping off point for tackling racial inequity?

Everyone on the planet has the right to a clean, safe, healthy environment. The need to work together to protect and fight for that right is urgent — especially as climate change imperils every neighborhood, and indeed, human terrestrial existence. The green economy is an important new national platform to ensure that everyone, regardless of neighborhood, race, or income, shares a clean and healthy environment while participating in the economic and social benefits of transitioning to sustainability.

One critical lesson from the environmental justice movement is this: Racial inequity and economic disparities are intertwined fault lines running in different directions, crisscrossing the everyday lives of people of color. History shows by what means the two interact and the consequences. These crisscrossing forces downgrade the quality of life and narrow opportunities for health, housing, and financial stability. Meanwhile whole communities suffer. Remember Flint, Mich. Consider the Sioux Nation’s historic push against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Racialized environments — dumping grounds for toxic agents on lands and in places that people call home — create a distortion of all aspects of our nation’s systems of social and economic health. Jobs, business, housing, education, health, and criminal justice are all affected. These systems create the environment. When the systems suffer, the environment suffers. Environmental justice puts the spotlight on this connection linking the tenets of a clean, safe environment for everyone, sustainability, and community health, with the economics of community self-reliance, stability, and energy efficiency.

In the race equity framework of shifting the culture of social and economic institutions, changing policies, and tackling bias, environmental justice is prioritized. This nation’s transition to the global financial engine called the green economy poses the tremendous opportunity to advance race equity and protect the environment by engaging people of color in planning and investment decisions that connect them with the associated benefits and build wealth. In cities, suburbs, and rural towns across the country, targeted, sustainable, clean, and green economic development poses the chance to move the equity needle.

It is statistically well established that communities of color experience the environment differently than prosperous white communities. The former neighborhoods host more facilities, often combination pollution sources. Communities of color experience grave health impacts associated with disproportionate exposures that include lead, industrial facilities, power plants, vehicle emissions, toxic waste sites, and chemical discharges. Vulnerable populations – the elderly, children, and women of child-bearing years – are more susceptible to harm, and they are on the forefront of climate change endangerment.

Racially linked environmental impacts intermix with lower wealth and income, unemployment and underemployment, depressed property values, and sparse public or private investment. The environment converges with redlining, predatory lending, foreclosures, and contaminated and vacant properties, to stymie prosperity. But these challenging circumstances also present prospects, here, now, and in the future. Where disparities exist, the timing is ripe to integrate and invest in the environment as a sustainable economic development driver.

We often associate “sustainability” with notions of going green. Terms like low-carbon, organic, recyclable, and energy efficient are going-green vocabulary that people are likely to think mean sustainability. These are all desirable results, but they are not sustainable if people are displaced or left behind economically. Green economic development is good, but, standing alone, does not qualify as sustainable. Sustainability means green and more than going green. Equity is the most critical building block, and race equity is the essential transformative ingredient.

The environment — or more precisely, the nation’s transition to a green, or low-carbon economy — is a change agent. Leading economists, scientists, and scholars confirm that achieving sustainability is the next big economic wave. Tapping that wave can connect people to opportunities and revitalize disadvantaged places. An equitable and green or sustainable economy would be transformative, simultaneously delivering infrastructure and transit, building healthy and affordable housing, creating jobs, supporting businesses, producing renewable energy, cleaning up the smog and toxic wastes, and curtailing greenhouse gasses.

Compellingly, current market trends demonstrate the reach of the green economy in terms of the possibilities for community inclusion, factoring in achieving racial and social justice. In the U.S., by 2040, hundreds of billions of dollars will be invested in environmentally friendly construction and energy projects, generating estimates of more than a trillion dollars in revenue and employing millions. Retrofitting for energy efficiency, alone, is a major source of current and future jobs. Economic development, at this level, is a lens for people of color who live in disadvantaged places to see a path for environmental quality, social benefits, and financial stability for themselves.

The nation’s transition to sustainability is the environmental mega-opportunity to promote health and wealth for all.

Deeohn Ferris is president of the Sustainable Community Development Group.

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