Black lives matter. Climate justice is racial justice. And the fossil fuel industry is killing black people.
The decimation of our planet’s ecosystems has always been about the extraction of wealth from living systems. And every day, this methodical deprivation of natural environments disproportionately impacts communities that are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).
As the NAACP articulates, “Race is the number one indicator for the placement of toxic facilities in this country.” Black people nationally are exposed to 1.54 times more air pollution than white people. In the Northeast, communities of color breathe in 66% more polluted air from vehicles than white residents. The counties most likely to be impacted by natural disasters have an average population that is 81% minority, and they are more vulnerable to the damage left in the wake of these events. Recent studies have shown that after natural disasters, white people actually accumulate wealth on average, while people of color lose wealth. Given that our ongoing climate crisis is actively increasing the frequency of natural disasters, these are very worrying patterns pointing to the deep-seated racism of policies in the United States of America.
The concept of sacrifice zones has emerged as a way of describing those areas that businesses and governments have callously deemed “disposable,” along with the people within them. We know these stories all too well. Flint is one among many communities struggling with a national water crisis. The 2018 floods in North Carolina spread toxic waste from hog farms that further exacerbated health issues already affecting black residents living nearby. A primarily black, low-income Louisiana community has been known since the 1980’s as Cancer Alley because their risk of getting cancer from air pollution is 95% higher than most Americans. And now the residents of Cancer Alley are disproportionately dying from COVID-19 due to environmental health risks, as are people of color across America.
The root of this problem can be traced to the systems of power at play in the United States. Current campaign finance laws allow corporations—like Chevron or ExxonMobil or BP—to donate as if they were human beings. When you factor in the influence of super PACs and lobbyists, corporations are essentially buying the ability to write their own regulations (or lack thereof). Data shows that the public opinion of the bottom 90% of US citizens has no influence over whether something becomes a law, while the wealthiest 10% of US citizens have a 61% chance of seeing their popular opinions become law. Put simply, the wealthy have control over the entire structure of our democracy. Corruption is legal in the United States.
Fossil fuel companies donated millions of dollars to the current president’s inauguration. Billionaires in the energy industry continue to donate millions to his campaign. Since the start of his administration, two-thirds of his interior department’s external meetings have been with fossil fuel companies seeking bailouts. All of this money and influence has bought 100 rollbacks of environmental regulations—protections that were put in place to protect those who are most vulnerable.
The influence we give wealthy people in this country reinforces the structural racism that is killing BIPOC individuals every day. The wealth gap in the United States is stratified along racial lines. A recent report by Inequality.org, titled White Supremacy is the Pre-existing Condition, illustrates this point to a devastating degree. U.S. billionaires have as much wealth as 76% of all Black people in this country—all 41 million of them.
Let us not forget that the theoretical value of this wealth is based in many cases entirely on property ownership, often land. Let us not forget that this land was founded on genocide as it was stolen from the stewardship of Indigenous people.
Globally, Indigenous land is home to 80% of the world’s biodiversity. And yet, as Amnesty International puts it, “These lands are routinely appropriated, sold, leased or simply plundered and polluted by governments and private companies.” Deforestation of Brazil’s Indigenous land reached an 11-year high last year.
At the same time, greenhouse gas emissions are significantly lower within the Indigenous territories of the Amazon than outside. When we defend Indigenous land, we are protecting our planet’s lungs—the fundamental breathing mechanism of biodiverse forests that absorb global carbon.
Our planet can’t breathe. A fight for Indigenous land is a fight for the very life of the Earth. The water protectors at Standing Rock taught us what stewardship looks like—the power of resistance in slowing the grinding wheels of white supremacist land domination. The strength of direct action is in forcing a dialogue with those in power.
Over the last month, the protests that have swept the nation have had a massive impact on policy and public opinion. For the first time ever, there is majority support for the Black Lives Matter movement across all racial and ethnic groups. Change is sweeping the nation. Cities are reimagining law enforcement. Confederate monuments are being removed. Local governments and companies are recognizing Juneteenth as a paid holiday. Business leaders are stepping down and being deplatformed for creating a racist culture in their companies. Police officers are being charged for their crimes.
And there is still so much more we need to do. As the saying goes, “None of us are free if one of us is chained.”
So this Independence Day, join the resistance! There are protests and distance actions taking place across the country, from marches in Washington DC to protests by Indigenous people at Mt. Rushmore to a protest near you to local sidewalk chalk art that highlights marginalized groups.
If you can’t join one of these actions, consider voting with your dollar and donating to support racial justice.
Together, we can dismantle these unjust systems and build a better world.