In the recent 1619 Project, by The New York Times, Jamelle Bouie comments on one of the main reasons why the political climate in the United States today has become extremely combative: “America holds onto an undemocratic assumption from its founding: that some people deserve more power than others.” For decades, the features of our capitalist system have translated into an attitude that we all exhibit: the necessity to compete in order to succeed more than the next person, with success generally measured by monetary gain. As a result, Bouie mentions, our current system favors those who are cutthroat enough to step on others and dismiss them for being inferior or for lacking some qualification.
In the same way that there is an unfair distribution of social and economic benefits throughout our country, underprivileged and marginalized communities continue to suffer from environmental injustice. We have been able to conceptualize this idea on a macroscale, such as with the idea that regions in North America with more wealth to recover from natural disasters experience a better quality of life than some regions of South America or Asia. To our misfortune, our bureaucratic system hasn’t been able to realize that this phenomenon also exists on a microscale within our own cities and neighborhoods. That is, until now.
Over this summer, graduate students attending the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability developed a tool to identify the areas of environmental injustice in the state of Michigan. Combining techniques used in the tools developed to measure environmental injustice in the states of California and Minnesota, these students used 11 environmental indicators and six demographic indicators to determine a community’s risk of exposure to environmental hazards and vulnerability due to social factors. Ultimately, these indicators were used to calculate an overall environmental justice score for each census tract in Michigan. After applying this tool, Paul Mohai, a founder of the Environmental Justice Program at the University and past member of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, was able to make a conclusion about environmental injustice in Michigan: “A key finding of this report is that environmental injustice exists across Michigan, with residents of low-income and minority communities disproportionately burdened by environmental contamination and health risks — just as we saw in Flint.”
In addition, this study involved interviews with 30 Michigan environmental justice leaders regarding how they themselves experience environmental injustice and how they use data and assessment tools in general. The study concluded that “people” and “community” were the most utilized words by these environmental justice leaders who also responded that decisions were influenced more often by monetary value than by the interest of the people. These leaders went on to commend affected communities for being “resilient despite adversity” and noted that difficulties in achieving environmental justice in Michigan existed due to “lack of political will and the erosion of democratic processes.” In expressing desire to utilize this tool for measuring holistic impacts in Michigan, these leaders acknowledged that it needs to be administered statewide to become effective.
As a result of this study, the state of Michigan now has the capability to identify the areas that need to be prioritized in terms of socioeconomic and environmental restoration. While the statewide implementation of this tool is completely feasible, last year local and state government officials were restricted by the lame-duck session, the period between an election and the end of a lawmaker’s term. Regulations were to proceed only with legislative approval for those new operations that exceed federal standards. In other words, a vital assessment tool that measures the extent that environmental injustice occurring in our state is being limited to a legislative body that may or may not understand the importance of its immediate implementation.
I believe that this tool is groundbreaking and should be considered a top priority in existing efforts to improve our quality of life in Michigan. As this tool seeks to identify areas of environmental weakness and public health shortcomings, I believe that a sustainable future will be possible with similar tools that can be used for restoring socioeconomic equality along with a flourishing environment. As a student who has invested much of my attention and efforts into this University that serves the student body, I am extremely proud of the work that our graduate students have done for our community and urge that this University waste no opportunity to promote the beneficial work our students do for our state legislature.
It’s essential that our state legislature understands the necessity for environmental justice because, as we can expect, a beneficial tool means nothing if our legislature doesn’t understand why it should be used. The greatest misunderstanding comes from neglecting marginalized communities, and this neglect comes from having a predisposed discrimination against a type of person or group for what they are. Furthermore, it’s important that we urge our government not to neglect those who are underprivileged and disadvantaged because we are indirectly hindering the quality of our environment as a result.
There is a plaque commemorating the loss of Iceland’s first glacier to global warming that reads: “This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.” For the sake of our future, we must do what needs to be done, especially since we now know how.
Kianna Marquez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.