Environmental Injustice

Renowned sociologist details link between environmental quality, race and class at Common Hour talk

Robert Bullard, considered the nation’s father of the Environmental Justice movement, recently urged Drew University students to join the effort to create healthy communities for all.

“If we are to have a livable, a sustainable, just society, then we must choose to put health at the center of all our policies,” Bullard said during a noon “Common Hour” appearance at the Simon Forum on Feb. 24.

In a fast-paced, hour-long talk sprinkled with humor, Bullard covered an array of societal issues that are eroding Americans’ quality of life, from air pollutants increasing asthma rates to a shortage of grocery stores and glut of fast-food restaurants fueling obesity.

Since the late 1970s, Bullard has studied the intersection of environment, equality and social justice. His research uncovered evidence that environmental hazards – landfills and toxic waste sites, for example – were disproportionately located in poor, minority neighborhoods.

“Everyone has a right to protection under our environmental laws,” without regard to income level or zip code, said Bullard, who runs the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Ga.

Seven of the 10 states routinely ranked most unhealthy are in the south, Bullard noted. Mississippi and Louisiana annually battle over who will wind up last.

But Bullard has seen the inequity in the Garden State: In Linden and Elizabeth, for example, pollution levels closely track race and class, he said.

The renowned sociologist has written 15 books on topics including the energy industry, transportation, and government’s response to natural disaster. But he sees them as parts of a single work, with health – of individuals and communities – at the core.

Bullard showed the students images of playgrounds in the shadows of oil refineries. “Our kids are playing in very dangerous places,” Bullard said. Bullard noted that many schools are “sick” and that old homes in urban areas remain a threat to children’s health.

He described “food deserts,” where people must travel long distances to find healthy foods. In one section of New Orleans, a single grocery store serves 60,000 residents, he said. Before Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, there were six.

Poor air quality has created an asthma epidemic, he said, citing statistics that one in 15 Americans has asthma and that it costs the country $18 billion a year. “The right to breathe is a basic human right. Most people I know breathe every day,” he said, getting a laugh.

Despite all the talk about green energy, only 7 percent of the U.S. power needs are met through clean, renewable sources, he said.
Studies have shown that cleaner air increases life expectancy. He wasn’t sure what the 19- and 20-year-olds in the audience thought of that but “at 62, I want my five months!”

Bullard’s passion impressed Drew junior Christopher Vance.

“The world we’re about to live in is going to be so different. These are the issues of our times,” Vance said.  The main point he took from Bullard’s talk was that to make the world better, “there is no substitute for organizing.” – Margaret McHugh

Posted: March 1, 2010