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Are there two different versions of environmentalism, one ‘white,’ one ‘black’?

invert_tree
Shutterstock

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers
The mountains and the endless plain --
All, all the stretch of these great green states --
And make America again!
- Langston Hughes, 1938

I really didn’t want to have to address this. While reading through University of Michigan professor Dorceta Taylor’s latest report, “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations,” and thinking about what I would write about it, I had hoped to focus on the solutions. Those solutions -- confronting unconscious and subconscious bias and other subtle forms of discrimination -- are the parts I had hoped environmentalists would be eager to unpack.

I thought they’d read about the “green ceiling,” where mainstream green NGOs have failed to create a workforce where even two out of 10 of their staffers are people of color, and ask themselves what could they do differently. I thought, naively, that this vast report, complete with reams of data and information on the diversity problem, would actually stir some environmentalists to challenge some of their own assumptions about their black and brown fellow citizens.

I was wrong.

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At this year’s big climate rally, most of the people won’t be pale, male, and stale

climate ralliers
People's Climate March

More than 500 organizations are planning a historic event for Sept. 21 in New York City, what they say will be the largest rally for climate action ever. Organizers and ralliers will be calling on world leaders to craft a new international climate treaty, two days before those leaders will convene at a Climate Summit at the United Nations headquarters. Jamie Henn, spokesperson for 350.org, the main convener of the event, declined to offer a precise target for turnout, but the current holder of the largest-climate-rally title, a February 2012 march on the White House, drew around 50,000 people, so organizers are expecting more than that -- possibly significantly more.

However many people show up, though, this march will likely be historic for another reason: its diversity and its focus on climate justice. More than 20 labor unions are among the organizations leading in the planning and turnout efforts. On Wednesday morning, representatives of a handful of them gathered in the Midtown Manhattan office of 1199, the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), for a press conference, and then they were joined in Times Square by more unions for a small pep rally to promote the September event. Other groups present included locals from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Transport Workers Union of Greater New York (TWU), and local social- and environmental-justice organizations such as UPROSE and the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance.

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In Detroit’s water wars, a pause that refreshes

detroit water protest
Heather Smith

Tuesday, as I drove around Detroit interviewing people about the city's water crisis, my email kept filling with congratulatory messages.

"I'm excited to let you know about a big win that happened today in Detroit," read one, from the organizers of Netroots Nation, the conference that helped call attention to the biggest and most celebrity-bedazzled protest the crisis has seen so far. "Control of the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) has been returned back to the hands of the people. Your activism, energy and help in generating media attention at Netroots Nation played a big role here."

"Victory!" read another one, from the Detroit Water Brigade. "Our water is no longer under emergency management. We did it!"

What had happened was this: Earlier that day, Kevyn Orr, Detroit's much-maligned emergency manager, had called a press conference and announced that he was relinquishing control of DWSD and putting it under the care of Mike Duggan, the city's mayor.

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Think people of color don’t care about the environment? Think again

dorceta_taylor
University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment

I need to get one thing out the way about “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations” report launched yesterday. In my blog, I wrote that the report was compiled by a working group called Green 2.0. Actually, all of the research and writing of the 200-plus page report was done by Dorceta Taylor, professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. She is also the first African-American woman to earn a PhD from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Before the diversity report (which was commissioned by Green 2.0), Taylor authored dozens of articles and studies on how to solve the problem of homogeneity among environmental groups, and about environmental inequities across the board. Taylor’s new book, Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution and Residential Mobility, has barely been out two months and has already been called the “standard-bearer” for the field of environmental justice by Fordham Law Professor Sheila R. Foster.

While it took months for Taylor to pull together all of the data and conduct hundreds of interviews with environmental stakeholders to produce the “State of Diversity” report, it took just minutes for people to attack the report’s findings -- that green groups and government agencies can and need to do much better in hiring people of color. (To get a sense of the reaction, check out the comments on my first post about the report.)

I’ll have plenty to say on that over the next week or so, but the first word belongs to the researcher. I spoke with Taylor by phone to clear the air on a few misperceptions about not only her study, but also misinformation on the attitudes of people of color in general when it comes to the environment.

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A century ago, Detroit’s “potato patch mayor” knew how to ride out hard times

pingree_statue_Detroit
Mike Russell

I'd been passing by the statue here in Detroit for days now without noticing it, but today something -- the gloomy weather, maybe -- made me slow down and read the inscription.

The citizens of Michigan erect this monument to the cherished memory of Hazen S. Pingree. A gallant soldier, an enterprising and successful citizen, four times elected mayor of Detroit, twice governor of Michigan. He was the first to warn the people of the great danger threatened by powerful private corporations. And the first to awake to the great inequalities in taxation and to initiate steps for reform. The idol of the people.

The idol of the people, huh? I had never heard of this guy. Growing up in metro Detroit, I had learned two things about Detroit's history: 1. Detroit used to be French, and 2. Henry Ford was a genius.

Hazen Pingree became mayor of Detroit in 1890, three years before the worst depression that America had ever experienced (until the 1930s, anyway). The railroads, which had used speculative financing to expand all over the country, began to collapse. So did banks -- hundreds of them.

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Ouch

Obama’s coal-leasing program is costing taxpayers more than $50 billion

coal and money
Shutterstock

It is common for the coal industry and its conservative allies in politics and media to complain that President Obama is waging a “war on coal.” It is certainly true that the share of American energy that comes from coal is declining. Obama doesn’t actually deserve much of the credit for that. It’s mostly due to the natural gas boom, helped along by the rise of solar and grassroots organizing efforts such as the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. Still, Obama is trying to move the energy sector further away from coal in the years ahead through his proposed CO2 regulations for power plants.

But coal extraction keeps chugging along, with much of the coal being exported to Asian countries that are hungry for energy to fuel their growing economies. And a lot of this mining is taking place on federal land. The Bureau of Land Management sells leases to coal companies at far below their market value, and even farther below the cost of their pollution on society. As we’ve previously noted, this is one of the ways the federal government subsidizes fossil fuel production. Such subsidies have actually grown during the Obama administration. Environmentalists say that Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy contradicts his professed commitment to reducing CO2 emissions, and undermines his efforts to do so.

"Leasing Coal, Fueling Climate Change," a report released on Monday by Greenpeace, attempts to quantify the scope and social costs of federal coal leasing. Here are the most important statistic-filled bits:

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In Michigan, the drilling wars are infesting the Twitter stream

Michigan from Space
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

I've been in Michigan for the last few days, researching Detroit's water crisis. Yesterday, it became pretty obvious that my phone had figured out that we had arrived in the Mitten State:

energy

Why no, I was not aware that "energy development" contributes $15.8 billion to Michigan's economy each year! It's super thoughtful of you to bring this to my attention, because I often spend my Sunday mornings drinking coffee, doing the crossword, and trying to quantify the exact dollar value that a vague phrase gives to the equally slippery word "economy."

Twitter's pricing structure is a little mysterious, but the cost of a promoted tweet campaign like this is pretty modest -- a small sum debited from a budget each time the message is retweeted or favorited. So imparting this fun fact to me and the few thousand other Michiganders scrolling through our feeds on Sunday to see if any of our friends had more fun than we did last night probably only cost Energy Citizens a few bucks.

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New report expounds on old problem: Lack of diversity in green groups

paper dolls
Shutterstock

President John F. Kennedy once told an audience of American University grads, “We can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air.”

That was 1963. We did not inhale the same oxygen then, and we certainly don’t now. In 2011, scientists found that American counties with the worst levels of ozone had significantly larger African-American populations than counties with less pollution. A recent study from the University of Minnesota found that black and brown Americans are more often trapped in neighborhoods laden with nitrogen dioxide than their white fellow Americans.

And despite civil rights laws, organizations whose mission is to clean the air don’t seem to have grown much more hospitable to people of color. A new report, released today, shows that the staffs of mainstream green groups have been overrepresented with white men despite the groups’ intentions to be more colorful. One of its most damning findings is that “the dominant culture of the organizations is alienating to ethnic minorities, the poor, the LGBTQ community, and others outside the mainstream.”

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These young people are pioneering Appalachia’s post-coal economy

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Catherine Moore

In the Hunger Games novels, heroine Katniss Everdeen comes from a coal mining region known as District 12. Her people are poor and looked down upon, but they’re also resourceful and know how to work together. In the end, it’s those skills that allow Katniss and her friend Peeta to win the games against better-trained rivals from the wealthy capital.

The books are fiction, but many readers believe District 12 is set in a futuristic version of Appalachia’s real-life coal country. And, these days, the real Appalachia needs all the resourcefulness and cooperation it can get.

Appalachia tries to make a life after coal
Appalachia tries to make a life after coal

The coal industry, which in many counties has dominated the economy for more than a century, is not providing the jobs it used to. Coal reserves are dwindling, mechanization has made it easier to pay fewer workers to extract more coal, and there’s new competition from cheap natural gas. In Boone County, W. Va., for example, about 40 percent of coal jobs have disappeared since the end of 2011, according to research firm SNL Financial. And the same trend is going on across the region.

You could say Appalachia needs an army of real-life Katnisses -- and, luckily, it’s found them. The Highlander Center, a training center for social movements with deep roots in the South, just launched its "Appalachian Transition Fellowship" -- a program to mentor and support 14 young Appalachians as they work on economic development projects throughout the region. Their goal is to accelerate the creation of a diverse economy by working on projects that create jobs and livelihoods in the wake of coal's decline.

Through this fellowship, Highlander’s fellows will spend a full year working on economic transition projects in Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio, and North Carolina.

I recently had a chance to meet the Appalachian Transition Fellows as they took a kick-off tour through the region. We talked about how they got interested in economic transition and what their fellowships will look like. Here’s what a few of them had to say.

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Letter from Detroit: And now for a completely different kind of Canadian pipeline

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Ricardo Bernardo

I was loading boxes of water onto a truck in Detroit yesterday when I heard the news: A convoy from the Council of Canadians was coming over the Ambassador Bridge from Windsor, bearing gifts of water. "Really, Canada?" I thought. "We're practically in each other's backyards. Basically, the only thing separating us from you is water."

That's not the kind of water you can drink, though. And also: Protest is storytelling, just like the rest of politics. I had been interviewing some people downtown about Detroit's water crisis, and they were all going to see the water arrive, because why not? When we were done with the last water delivery, we walked down to the Spirit of Detroit sculpture, where the convoy would be arriving.

Campus Martius Park was packed with people celebrating Detroit's birthday, which I had not even thought of the city as having. I passed a huge banner, unfurled across the modernist facade of one of the tall buildings on Michigan Avenue. Decorated with neon confetti and party hats, it looked like the kind of banner you might buy for a little kid's birthday party, but on a colossal scale.

"Happy 313th birthday, Detroit!" it read. "You don't look a day over 300!"

Read more: Cities, Politics