Let's Add Some Color to the Greening of America

By Mick Dumke
Sunday, September 16, 2007


For some people, "going green" is more than just a trendy cause, a way to score points on the campaign trail or a means to achieve the abstract goal of preserving nature for future generations.

For neighborhoods such as Chicago's Little Village, it's a matter of survival.

Standing on an abandoned railroad bridge over the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, Lilian Molina points to a mechanical claw scooping coal from a barge. A conveyor belt drops the coal into a nearby energy plant that will provide power to homes across the city. But it also spews nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and mercury, which eventually turn to toxic smog and soot and taint waterways.

Those who live in this mostly Latino neighborhood also have to worry about the steel-drum reprocessing facility around the corner. It emits glycol ether, which causes eye and skin irritation, anemia and birth defects. Another empty lot is a federal Superfund site, and another has an old oil-storage tank buried in contaminated soil.

Molina works for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, a nonprofit that raises awareness of and lobbies to eradicate environmental health hazards. "What we do isn't the same as environmental conservation -- we don't chain ourselves to trees," she says. "What we're really doing here is telling people, 'Our health is not disposable.' "

These days, the country seems to be experiencing a rebirth of environmental awareness, prompting discussion about climate change and corporate responsibility and passionate debate about the pros and cons of bottled water. But if a new and different "green revolution" is underway in America, it's not liberating everyone.

If you drive a Prius and buy tofu at Whole Foods, going green may be a lifestyle choice. If you live in a poor neighborhood near a toxic factory, going green is a human rights issue. The movement has been slowed by a divide that is visible in everything from local recycling policies to the complexions of environmentalists. On one side are mostly white middle- and upper-class populations with plenty of money and political clout. On the other side are minority and low-income communities with little of either.

The tragedy is that the communities that are left behind often have the most at stake -- and the most to contribute. Because not only is environmentalism a human rights issue, it is also an economic opportunity.

Many of the best-intentioned environmental activists assume that poor and nonwhite communities aren't interested in environmental issues. Poor folk, they seem to reason, don't have the time or energy to worry about pollution and global warming because they're struggling to make ends meet or just aren't educated enough to "get it."

Take recycling, one of the simplest ways that households can conserve natural resources and reduce pollution. It has now caught on in thousands of middle-class communities nationwide; nearly every suburb and midsize city offers curbside recycling. There is an initial outlay for the effort, but in the long run, recycling saves tax money that would have been spent on shipping and landfills.

In contrast, many of the country's most dense and diverse urban areas have been slow to adopt recycling programs. Recycling officials I've spoken with in several rust-belt cities have blamed cultural gaps, saying they just can't stoke environmental interest in working-class, minority neighborhoods. In response, environmental organizations have tried new approaches, such as "buy-back" programs that pay residents and community groups for their recyclable goods, in poor, isolated communities in Chicago and Detroit. But others have given up.

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