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January 25, 2022

Environmental Justice

The Overhaul of the EPA 

Q: How will the overhaul of the EPA help minorities? a high school student from Arkansas

A: The EPA undergoes an overhaul any time an administration changes. Of course, the change between the previous administration and the current one, in terms of environmental protection and environmental justice, is quite significant. The previous administration worked night and day to limit environmental regulations and enforcement, inevitably increasing environmental toxicity in every form, heavily impacting communities most vulnerable to exposure. The current administration is dedicated to a change in direction. It has hired and appointed professionals who have shown a lifelong commitment to protecting the people and planet and has set forth to correct many of the mistakes of the previous administration, with a focus on improving every aspect of the Federal Government’s response to environmental justice issues while prioritizing of communities of color, Indigenous communities, and lower-income communities. 

But, the process of creating rules and guidelines for any federal agency is laborious and complex. As a result, the EPA, like much of any nation’s government, tends to act slowly. And while the Biden Administration’s clear change of direction towards environmental justice is a step in the right direction, just how powerful the results will be is dependent on the quality of their efforts and the work we do to hold them accountable for creating a more equitable, healthy, and green world. The EPA, as an institution, still has a long way to go, but is well on its way. You can tell that by the diverse makeup of the leadership and staff of EPA and the efforts they are making to prioritize equity and social justice. 

The Earth's Rights

Q: Does the earth have rights? If not, who has rights over earth? a high school student from Washington, D.C.

A: This is such a beautiful question and the answer should be, unequivocally, yes! The Earth, the home for all human life and all planetary species, should have many enumerated rights in the laws of every nation. But, unfortunately, the human family has not agreed, in its laws, that Mother Earth deserves the right to remain a healthy, beautiful, functioning ecosystem. 

Recently though, many countries of the United Nations, the ones that make up the current Human Rights Counsel, just voted to recognize the human right to a healthy environment. But that is the reverse of what the question is asking about: humans having rights to enjoy the Earth, by living healthfully and happily wherever they are. This is a new idea in the law, but an ancient idea for many cultures. That every creature deserves to live and therefore is owed space to access the food, water, air, soil, and other bounties the planet provides, equal to every other. But the modern day system of laws is far behind the ancient understandings and is only now starting to recognize the inherent wisdom of these ideas. 

One day, the international community may come together to agree, in the form of a treaty, that the Earth itself deserves legal rights enforceable in courts, but that day has not come yet. Maybe that is the work of the student who wrote this perceptive question! The Earth needs every one of us to be her advocate. 

Achieving Justice 

Q: What needs to be done to ensure that justice exists in every neighborhood and environment and that justice is not served based on a person’s skin color or wealth? a middle school student from Washington, D.C.

A: This question is precisely the heart of environmental justice. The answer to this question is forged every single day by the incredible people who work on the front lines of overburdened and underserved communities to bring about a more equitable, healthy, prosperous future for everyone. But there is so much work to be done. 

The United States Government has yet to pass comprehensive Environmental Justice legislation, and that needs to change. Every state in the Union has communities dealing with toxicity, poor air quality, aging infrastructure, employment and educational issues, food deserts, lack of green space, and watershed management issues that need the support of every level of government, federal, state, and local. States like New Jersey and California have stepped up where the federal government has failed,  by creating important, new programs, measures and regulations to ensure more just outcomes. Many cities are also filling the void and doing important things. For instance, they are creating laws and programs that evaluate the overall environmental, social, and health burdens, sometimes known as a cumulative impacts analysis, on communities in order to identify and rectify problems. 

There are now, though, more people and organizations and institutions working to build this world than ever before, and our ranks grow every day. But ultimately, not enough is being done, and it will take the whole of society committing to a world where a healthy environment and real social justice are shared by all communities. The efforts to create a just world are a marathon, not a sprint, and each of us has a valuable role to play. It will take an evaluation of the systems and behaviors that got us to this place, and a commitment to rectify those wrongs. We all keep driving towards a more just moral universe, and one day we will arrive. That is our mission.