The environmental justice issue no one wants to talk about
Environmental justice is having a moment. The term, which encompasses the many ways by which low-income people and communities of color suffer an unequal burden from pollution, contamination, and climate change, has seen a surge in use, largely due to the recent American political campaign.
Democratic primary candidates frequently mentioned environmental justice (or environmental racism) in their stump speeches, campaign pledges, and in debates — an indication that ideas that were not in the political discourse a decade ago, may shape some future climate policies. Environmental justice came up frequently enough in the primary that the first-ever Presidential Environmental Justice Forum was held in November 2019 and drew Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren, as well as billionaire activist Tom Steyer. It’s been a big focus of President-elect Joe Biden’s climate platform and was discussed frequently as he unveiled his climate team in earlier this month. Beyond the race for the presidency, the racial unrest of the past summer, as well as the patterns of infections and death due to COVID-19, focused attention on a number of systemic issues in the U.S., including unfair environmental impacts felt by Black and brown Americans.
Into that political and social moment comes the book Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, written by Catherine Coleman Flowers, an environmental health researcher, MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, and a founding director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. (She’s also a 2017 Grist Fixer.) The book pulls the curtains back on how poor communities and communities of color in Lowndes County, Alabama — located between Selma and the state capital Montgomery — are reckoning with a lack of adequate sewage infrastructure and the health crises that accompany it.
Flowers moved back to Alabama, where she grew up, roughly 20 years ago, after living in Oklahoma, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., and Detroit. She returned to help Lowndes County build its local economy, but she would instead get a lesson in environmental racism.
As a Black woman who grew up with parents who lived through Jim Crow, Flowers rubbed elbows with community organizers and civil rights activists throughout her childhood. Early in Waste, she recalls how she became a student activist for racial equality during her college years in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. She learned how to organize and protest alongside other civil rights legends, working for voting rights and access to education for Black students.
Those formative experiences would make her a skilled activist whose talents would come in handy throughout her life. As a military wife, she was forced to advocate for her husband after a brain injury. As a public school teacher in D.C., she worked for fairer treatment of her students. And as an economic development consultant returning to Lowndes County, she encountered the waste problem she’s now spent two decades of her life on.
Flowers recalls growing up poor in Lowndes County and being accustomed to seeing outhouses and the use of slop jars. But she was under the impression that homes had been upgraded over time, while she was studying in college, getting married, and navigating her early adulthood. “I didn’t yet fully grasp how little things had changed in Lowndes County since I’d been gone, or that in some ways they were worse,” she writes.
In the early 2000s, Flowers and other community organizers met a pastor whose small church did not have a functioning septic tank. When the local government found out, the pastor had to suspend worship services in his church and was also threatened with arrest if he did not make repairs that he couldn’t afford. Though donations would eventually come in to help revive the church, Flowers points out that the systematic issues that allow poverty to be criminalized in the South (and elsewhere in the U.S.) are part of the reason why she is still campaigning for better waste management today.
Over the years, Flowers has taken journalists, celebrities, American politicians, and international leaders to the homes of Lowndes County residents, so they can see the situation first hand. During 2016 visit from New Jersey Senator Cory Booker to Lowndes County, the senator and a National Geographic production team had to spray their clothing with an insecticide that the crew often used when shooting in tropical countries in order to tour the property surrounding the home of one resident, which included an open sewage pit on the ground.
“We reached the pit, and Booker stared in disbelief,” Flowers recalls in Waste. “I had once filmed the pit because it was often full of both sewage and life. Mosquitoes were visible, and so were the bulging eyes of frogs semi-submerged in the human effluent.”
Because mosquitoes and other insects are attracted to moisture, the waste pits in the back of people’s homes put them at risk for parasites, including hookworm. The gastrointestinal parasite was thought to have been eradicated in the country decades ago thanks to increased access to medicine and plumbing. Because hookworm eggs are found in human waste, the prevalence of open waste pits Lowndes County led to residents testing positive for it when a research team from Baylor College of Medicine studied the population. A lack of waste management is often associated with developing countries in the Global South, as is the parasite. But Flowers reminds her readers that conditions hospitable to hookworm do exist within the United States.
Flowers told me that she wanted readers to see the issues in her book as problems that can get much worse if governments in this country don’t invest in better infrastructure for basic necessities, like access to modern plumbing. She worries that future infectious diseases will spread even more as climate change scrambles weather patterns in the South.
“People that are impacted the most will be those living around raw sewage,” she told Grist. “We see this already with the death rates for people that don’t have [regular] access to water — they can’t wash their hands. We’re also seeing parasites that are living and thriving that we thought had been eliminated. And they’re going to be moving further north as the climate changes.”
Waste’s epilogue delves into the current moment we’re in, with the U.S. and the world at the mercy of the coronavirus. Flowers explains how COVID-19 has swept through Lowndes County, disproportionately infecting the very people most affected by the lack of sanitation infrastructure. She tells the story of Pamela Rush, a single mother living in a trailer with no access to wastewater management, who opened her doors to environmental justice activists and politicians including Bernie Sanders, so that they could see her living conditions with their own eyes. Through Flowers’ advocacy, Rush was set to relocate to a new home with a septic system — but she succumbed to COVID-19 before she could move.
The book closes with Flowers thinking of the effort to come after the pandemic, connecting the dangerous waste pools throughout Lowndes County to the Confederate statues that dot the South — a reminder that the fight for environmental justice is inextricably linked to the fight for racial justice.
“To some, those monuments are invisible. To me they’re as visible as the sewage that pools behind Pam Rush’s trailer,” she writes. “It’s time to dismantle those monuments too.”