By Tania Valenzuela
If you’re reading this you most likely have an interest when it comes to our environment. You know about the effects of climate change, I mean at this point it’s almost impossible not to experience the effects or at least you have heard politicians trying to propose a way to mitigate the given effects. But when did you realize that this was an issue? For me it seemed like I knew for a lifetime.
Last semester I took a class that focused on environmental sociology. I was a Biology major at the time and had no idea that this class would lead me to change my whole perspective and ultimately change my major. I grew up in an area that was financially disadvantaged and filled with minorities, it was the neighborhood that I grew up in all my life. I remember there was a street lined with abandoned factories, the factory at the end of the road was the only one still in operation. You know when you eat Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and there are brownies in it, well that was the factory that would produce those brownies. The factory would expel the smell of brownies throughout the neighborhood and we all thought of it as some kind of reward. I agreed at a young age, I mean who wouldn’t be pleased will the smell of fresh brownies as you walk your dog.
It wasn’t until I was in high school that I started to recognize the effects that these factories had on the neighborhood. In high school, my friend and I would sit at the riverfront, since it was also very close to our houses, we would sit and talk for hours about our problems or whatever was on our mind. As we talked we would overlook a sugar factory as it burned its garbage into the water. This was a normal occurrence. We would be at the riverfront until midnight and watch the flames of fire come from the factory. I thought this was the way things worked, there had to be factories in order for society to function and there was no harm done to humans.
I would go into wealthier areas and see no factories in sight, there was no brownie smell, there was no blinding flame, it was simply an average neighborhood. I never questioned this observation, there were multiple differences between my neighborhood and wealthier areas and focusing on these facts seemed pointless. It wasn’t until my sociology class that began to discuss environmental inequality/injustice that I noticed something was off. To further explain, when it comes to poor minority neighborhoods they are more targeted when it comes to the placement of hazardous waste facilities. It all started to make sense, growing up there would be people who suffered various respiratory diseases, I mean my sister had asthma when it didn’t even run in the family. My neighborhood had been filled with people with disease that could be attributed to being worsened or caused by the hazardous waste being pumped into the air and the river.
Years later this still remains an issue, an issue that we never talk about. A recent example that everyone is familiar with is Flint, Michigan. Flint was an area filled with poverty and minorities, ultimately their water systems were poisoned and left with no water because of the high levels of lead. Various studies have been conducted that further strengthen the idea of this disproportionate effect, “The extent to which congressional districts are gerrymandered and exposure to environmental pollution was also telling. The more a district is gerrymandered, the less exposure to environmental pollution. To understand the true weight of this finding, it should be combined with the last question we answered that the more gerrymandering in a district, the less African Americans in that district” (Kramer). The environmental injustice we see in our day to day life is so hidden. It’s so hidden that I grew up my whole life thinking that the things I grew up around were normal and just a byproduct of life.
Although the issue is hidden there are those trying to fight against the injustice. There have been protest efforts going on for years. It may seem like a battle that is lonely but through various environmental policies the progress being made is steady. However, the fight is ongoing and we still have awareness to spread about these environmental injustices.
Tania Valenzuela is currently a sophomore at Stony Brook University studying Environmental Studies with a minor in English. She is passionate about environmental justice and finding solutions to mitigate our current environmental crisis. She is currently trying to learn more about different plant/animal species and hopes that through volunteering at the Ashley Schiff Preserve she will gain this knowledge.
Kramar, David E.; et al. Environmental Justice, 2018. doi: 10.1089/env.2017.0031.
“A Spatially Informed Analysis of Environmental Justice: Analyzing the Effects of Gerrymandering and the Proximity of Minority Populations to U.S. Superfund Sites”