Environmental Justice and Privilege

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The first wave of environmentalism that arose in the latter half of the last century was largely a white movement that grew out of idealism and a romantic picture of nature. It centered around the preservation of nature for the sake of nature rather than the impact that environmental destruction had on people’s lives, in particular the lives of marginalized peoples. It was therefore far removed from the lived experiences of people faced with the consequences of environmental destruction.

In the face of climate change the environmental movement has had to think in more global terms than ever. Terms like environmental justice and climate justice attempt to capture the intersectionality between environmentalism and other forms of social injustice, particularly wealth inequality and racism. And yet even today the environmental movement is largely a white movement, or at least the mainstream environmental movement is largely disconnected from grassroots environmental justice activism. By excluding people of color from the environmental movement, we are painting a picture in which only white people care about sustainability, instead of one where people of color care strongly about these issues and how they pertain to their communities, and where they are recognized as an integral part of the environmental movement.

One problem is that environmentalism and sustainability mean completely different things to different people. While to one person it might mean buying vegetables at the local farmer’s market or putting solar panels on their roof, for someone else it might mean demanding clean air or reliable access to drinking water. It is therefore important to realize that our experiences with nature are largely defined by our privilege. We cannot ignore the intersectionalities surrounding the environmental movement. This holds true within the US, but even more so across countries.

What does it mean when Hilary Clinton pats herself on the back after the Paris climate agreement while countries across the world are already experiencing increased droughts and famines as a result of climate change. Similarly, how much does it really help if a wealthy Palo Alto tech entrepreneur spends thousands of dollars on a Tesla while communities in Richmond are still faced with the pollution of the oil refinery?

We can so conveniently ignore these other struggles that are not directly connected to our own lives and pick out the aspects of environmentalism that appeal to us and fit comfortably into our privileged life styles, but in order to create a movement that addresses all people’s concerns with regard to the environment they live in, we need to understand how our own privilege influences the ways in which we interact with, and seek to protect, the environment.

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Gentrification in the Bay Area

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The tech industry boom has made the Bay Area one of the most popular places to live in the US, leading to a huge population influx. Not only has the housing market not expanded adequately to account for this influx, but there seems to be little intent or commitment from developers and government to do so. However, there is no easy solution to the Bay Area’s housing crisis. Should people not be allowed to move here? Should there be more affordable housing?

It seems to me that affordable housing is a fair and commendable way to provide housing for low-income residents in the face of gentrification, but it doesn’t address the root causes and is not realistic on the scale that is necessary to solve the housing crisis. It is understandable that the housing market hasn’t been able to keep up with the growth of the tech industry over the last years, but in the long run an increase in the supply of housing is the only thing that will stabilize and bring down housing prices, since they are being driven up by high demand and insufficient supply.  This means however, that people in the Bay Area will need to reevaluate what their neighborhoods looks like, and should look like in the future. Palo Alto is no longer a cute little town on the bay – that picture is simply incompatible with the presence of companies like Facebook and Google right next door.

I don’t think that industrial growth, in this case the tech industry, or the accompanying population influx are inherently bad. The problem lies in the decades of racial and socio-economic segregation in the Bay Area, as well as the wealthier population’s desire to preserve their suburban style towns from urbanization while welcoming industrial growth, which is driving up housing prices and pushing low-income families out of their homes.