Why we need to join the efforts to protect the environment with efforts to eliminate poverty, racism and other forms of oppression.

Extreme income inequality, persistent racism, and increasing climate disruption are undeniably urgent problems, and many people in Tompkins County are currently involved in initiatives to address both. Many of us are working to reduce carbon emissions, such as, stopping gas infrastructure development, switching from fossil fuels to renewable sources, and conserving energy in housing, transportation, food, water, and waste. Many others are working on issues of racial and economic justice, such as creating living-wage jobs, removing barriers to reentry from the prison system, and ensuring affordable housing for all. 

Activists in both efforts are often driven by a sense of urgency about our own particular issues and are not as well informed about each other’s efforts. If we are white and middle class we may tend to see climate change as the most urgent priority. If we are people of color or low-income people, we may tend to see poverty and racism as the more urgent priority. In addition, persistent historic patterns keep us segregated from each other by place, race and class, perpetuating a gap in our understanding and our empathy for each other’s concerns. This separation is unnecessary and harms all of our work for our community.

One Underlying Cause: Our Wasteful System

The forces that treat our living environment as disposable are the same forces that treat people – especially people of color – as disposable. Social and economic injustice and extreme climate disruption are outcomes of the same inequitable and wasteful economic system. We don’t have to make a choice about which effort is more urgent or important – they are both connected. We can build an alliance between social justice advocates and environmentalists to create a strong, sustainable, community-oriented local economy that works for all.

How can Equity and Sustainability together benefit everyone?

  1. More and better paying local jobs as we Invest in a clean energy future.
  2. Workforce expansion: living wage jobs to meet the growing demand for energy retrofits, and solar, wind, wood pellet, geothermal and heat pump systems.
  3. Living wage for people with barriers to employment (not just for people in the employer’s familiar networks) will require appropriate trainings and apprenticeships, and inclusive hiring policies.

2. Reduced utility bills for everyone as a result of energy efficient homes fueled by renewable energy.

  • An energy efficient home can save a family hundreds or thousands of dollars a year, leaving everyone with more money for food, housing, transportation, and other costs.
  • Ensuring access to money-saving energy technologies for limited income people, including renters, will require subsidies and local access to credit.
  • Transportation options with lower costs will be available for everyone as programs to reduce carbon emissions make walking, biking, carpooling, car-sharing, and riding the bus more accessible.
  • Improved access and affordability will benefit youth, people with disabilities, older adults, and households with limited incomes, who rely on them far more than middle class, middle aged people
  •  Almost all of the $300 million we spend on transportation a year leaves Tompkins County immediately, as neither cars nor fuel are produced locally. With more transportation options available, more people can shift their spending on cars to modes that strengthen the local economy.
  • Saving money through other emissions-reducing actions, such as growing our own food, hunting and fishing, repairing things that break, recycling, and shopping second-hand  can build a stronger local economy.
  • We will be better prepared for spikes in food or fuel prices resulting from extreme weather changes.

We can Do This

We’ll never get to a healthy community with low carbon emissions if everyone can’t come along – no one is disposable – so we need to see poverty and racism as huge barriers we must dismantle together.  And racism and poverty will inevitably get worse if we allow the planet to continue to degrade. We all need to consciously reach out beyond our cultural comfort zone and learn from and with each other.

Environmental advocates need to educate ourselves about structural racism and poverty and how they perpetuate inequality today in our own community, and to see people from economically disadvantaged communities as partners with valuable experience and perspectives.

Justice advocates need to include in their toolkit  an ecologically conscious lens that sees clean energy and environmental protection as human rights and community health priorities, not elite luxuries. We all should be able to afford healthier and more locally sourced, earth-friendly food, clean water, and breathable air, and be free from the threat of climate change. 

In the civil rights vision of “Beloved Community” and in the indigenous wisdom that All Life is Sacred, we see that Equity and Sustainability are linked by what we choose to honor and take care of. As justice and environmental advocate Van Jones put it, with the two arms we are given, we can all hug a child with one and hug a tree with the other. It’s time to bring our causes together.