Why We Need to 'Sell' Environmentalism

To confront the urgent environmental challenges of the 21st century, we need to make sure that every community sees their stake in this movement.
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One of my colleagues at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently met with a leader from a national African-American advocacy organization, and spoke about raising the profile of environmental challenges in minority communities. The response he got was that, though the group shared his concerns, they didn't think they could "sell" environmentalism to their members.

Cynical as that sounds, they were probably right. Over the years, environmentalism has largely been seen as an enclave of the privileged. The term "environmentalism" brings to mind pristine wilderness and wide-open landscapes. What doesn't come to mind is an apartment building, a city block, or an inner city kid who has trouble breathing on hot days. Even issues like climate change are distant concerns for poor and minority citizens (and their advocates) who are struggling daily for equality in education, health care and economic opportunity.

It's the environmental movement's own inconvenient truth, and it has tragic consequences. Blacks die from asthma twice as often as whites, and have higher cancer mortality rates than any other group. Nearly 30 million Latinos -- 72 percent of the US Latino population -- live in places that don't meet US air pollution standards. Native American homes lack clean water at almost 10 times the national rate.

As a chilling reminder, this week marks the fourth year since Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast, leaving behind it a path of destruction that decimated poor and minority neighborhoods. Many Americans bore witness to the sad truth that the people hit hardest in my hometown of New Orleans were from the city's poorest neighborhoods, and it remains a tragic example of how our most vulnerable populations often bear the burden of our worst environmental threats.

We must also understand the role environmental threats play in what some consider more immediate issues, like the daily struggles on education, health care and the economy.

We need better education to help children reach their full potential. But we can't build schools in the shadow of polluters that will make our kids sick, and cause them to miss days of class with asthma or other health problems.

In the debate on health care, we have to talk about how heavy pollution is linked to respiratory illness, cancer, and heart disease -- three of the top four deadliest threats in America today. We must also recognize that the poor -- who get sick more often because they live in polluted neighborhoods -- are the same people who often go to the emergency room for treatment, driving up health care costs for everyone.

Struggling communities need jobs and economic opportunities. But businesses aren't going to invest in a place where pollution runs rampant. Poison in the ground means poison in the economy, a weak environment means a weak consumer base, and unhealthy air means an unhealthy atmosphere for investments.

We must talk about crime as well. When businesses won't invest and economic possibilities are limited, crime, violence, and drug use often increase, and the vicious cycle continues. But what have we taught our young people to value, to aspire to, or take pride in when they see that their communities are unclean, unhealthy and unsafe, and that the people around them seem unconcerned?

We have a chance to expand the conversation on environmentalism, and welcome new voices and new ideas to the environmental movement. The inauguration of the first African American president, and my confirmation as the first African American Administrator of this Agency, has begun the process of changing the face of environmentalism in our country. People are seeing more and more that environmentalism doesn't come in one shape, size, color, or income bracket.

Those of us who identify as environmentalists today must make room in this movement for the environmentalists of tomorrow. If we don't meet people where they are -- if we can't "sell" environmentalism to poor and minority communities -- then the individuals and groups opposing action on climate change, clean energy and other critical issues will. To confront the urgent environmental challenges of the 21st century, we need to make sure that every community sees their stake in this movement.

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