An introduction to the mainstream environmentalism movement will often highlight campaigns urging communities to reduce waste or use metal straws to “save the turtles.” Additionally, activists often use protests to promote and advocate for policy changes that center on protecting the Earth’s beautiful natural landscapes.
While these earth-focused aspects of the mainstream climate movement are undoubtedly beneficial, this rhetoric loses sight of a fundamental aspect of the movement: the fight against environmental racism and the impact of climate change on communities around the world that are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice is the fair and equal involvement of all people, regardless of the identities they hold, in the development and implementation of environmental laws and policies.
To effectively address issues of environmental injustice, we must adequately consider the perspective of underprivileged communities in which the environmental crisis is felt more intensely. As Georgetown University students trying to address the climate crisis, we should acknowledge the privilege of our surroundings and seek input from communities that have felt and will feel the greatest share of the impacts that our actions produce.
We must recognize that not all environmental issues are felt equally if we hope to understand environmental justice. The movement was founded primarily by people of color in the 1980s to address environmental inequities created by biased policymaking, which occurs when policymakers fail to include affected community members in the policymaking process.
For example, there is an increased frequency of pollution hazards caused by power plants and landfills in disadvantaged communities consisting primarily of people of color. People who live in more heavily polluted neighborhoods will experience negative environmental and health impacts like asthma and exposure to toxic chemicals more intensely than those who live in less affected neighborhoods.
The contrast between the environmental stress that the Georgetown community and more exposed communities in the District face serves as a local case study into the pervasiveness of environmental inequity. Many D.C. community members, particularly Black individuals, face the consequences of environmental racism, a result of biased environmental policies and city planning.
For example, in 2023, the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) plans to build another school bus terminal in Brentwood, a predominantly non-white Ward 5 neighborhood. Brentwood already hosts three of the four bus terminals for OSSE. According to The Washington Post, Brentwood residents strongly oppose the new terminal. This additional terminal would increase the already immense amount of pollution and toxins in the community, which can lead to asthma, decreased lung function and premature death, making the cost greatly outweigh the marginal benefit of an additional terminal.
In contrast, Georgetown does not have a bus depot. Georgetown is largely segregated from the rest of the District, putting a barrier between us and the bus terminals in Ward 5. Therefore, Georgetown residents are not forced to deal with the same environmental consequences produced by the public transportation we utilize.
This is a clear example of the so-called “Georgetown bubble,” which shields the university and its students from the environmental racism experienced by other communities in the city. The proximity to power of the predominantly white and wealthy population of Georgetown gives the neighborhood more power in policy making. This is how they can avoid building bus terminals in the neighbourhood.
Georgetown students must recognize how our privilege affects our outlook on climate change. To work toward environmental justice, we can advocate for policies that will prevent the perpetuation of disproportionate environmental burdens on historically marginalized communities, and we can stand in solidarity with these communities against the implementation of environmentally unjust practices.
Moreover, when organizing or discussing sustainability on a local level, we must always have the larger D.C. community in mind. We can incorporate an environmental justice lens into our climate activism by broadening our perspective to consider issues that may not affect us directly.
Crucially, when we try to understand and address these issues, we must work collaboratively with the people who are most affected. Their knowledge as a result of their lived experiences is absolutely necessary to produce a solution that will most effectively address the issue. The climate crisis is a global issue, and embracing environmental justice in our work will encourage vital cooperation in the global community.
Camille Vandeveer is a sophomore in the College. Grace Jensen is a junior in the College.
Mark Wickstrom says
According to the Washington Post, the area where the depot is going has been zoned “Industrial” for many years. Where else do you put a school bus depot but in an industrial zone? Yes, it is probable that in many cities industrial zones have been placed in underprivileged residential areas but is it also true that underprivileged residential areas develop close to industrial zones. The concept of zoning isn’t perfect, but businessowners, homeowners, lenders and other investors need the certainty of zoning districts to be able to choose where to live, work, and invest their money. Industrial areas are currently an ugly necessity of modern cities.
A more immediate threat to the health of the city’s underprivileged class and working class seems to be to the city’s bus riders, where studies show at three-sided bus stops that face the street, particulates from diesel exhaust build up to dangerously high levels. The relatively safer school bus fleet is not diesel.