Spare change

Consider this central paradox of U.S. environmentalism: In much of popular and political culture, the movement is dismissed as the pet cause of white, well-off Americans — people who can afford to buy organic arugula, vacation in Lake Tahoe, and worry about the fate of the Pacific pocket mouse. And yet, the population most affected by environmental problems is the poor.

This is a reality most of us recognize in the developing world, and it’s true that the confluence of economic and environmental injustice can be particularly extensive and devastating in poor nations. But it is also true — and far less remarked-upon — that poverty and environmental degradation go hand and hand in the United States as well. The lower your income in this country, the higher the likelihood that you will be exposed to toxics at home and on the job. The greater the risk that you will suffer from diseases — ranging from asthma to cancer — caused or exacerbated by environmental factors. The harder it will be for you to find and afford healthy food to put on your table. The less likely you are to live in a community that provides safe outdoor spaces for you and your family to enjoy. And, as recent history tragically exposed, the more vulnerable you are to environmental catastrophes, whether they are natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or human-made tragedies like the Exxon Valdez.

In short, the worst consequences of environmental degradation are visited on the homes, workplaces, families, and bodies of the poor.

In the United States today — that is, at a time and in a nation touted for prosperity — 12.7 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. In this special seven-week series, Grist will focus on the environmental realities facing those 37 million people, as well as the many additional millions of Americans who struggle to make ends meet. Our coverage includes investigative reports, opinion pieces, interviews, and profiles. And we will debut a series of multimedia “virtual walking tours” of poverty-stricken regions around the country, led by the community members who are fighting to transform them.

It is our hope that this special series will help shed light on some frequently hidden environmental problems and expose the connections between economic and ecological survival. Ultimately, we hope to challenge and change the received wisdom about what counts as an environmental issue, what we mean when we refer to “the environment,” and where, how, and for whom environmentally minded movements, organizations, and people should dedicate their energies.

Weeks One & Two: Land and People

What constitutes “the environment” in American environmentalism? The iconic images of the movement — California’s redwoods, Yosemite’s Half Dome, the arches at Zion — suggest one answer: the environment as wilderness, a pristine domain to be protected from human incursion. But, almost by definition, that’s not the environment we actually live in. The first two weeks of this special series on Poverty & the Environment will focus on the land where we do live — specifically, the land consigned to the poorest among us. This is a land where people live near the freeway or next to a power station or miles from public transit; a land where the neighbors include landfills, oil refineries, nuclear-waste repositories, factory farms. This is a whole different kind of environment — but one that is no less American, and no less deserving of a movement to protect and transform it.

Week Three: Consumption

Flat-screen TVs, iPods, plane tickets, supersized fries, tall skinny lattes, North Face jackets, motor homes, second homes: what (and how) we consume speaks volumes about our class background, our relationship to the environment, and what those two things have to do with each other. In week three of Grist‘s special series on Poverty & the Environment, we look at class, consumption, and environmentalism — from the price tag of environment-affecting essentials to the difference between “simple living” and simply surviving. Plus: photos of trash (no, really!) and an artist’s take on how the other half lives.

Week Four: The Midpoint

This week, the midpoint of our series, seemed like a good time to step back and take the long view. Hence, we present Matthew Klingle and Joseph Taylor’s look at the history of the environmental movement and how it came to be so white and affluent. Meanwhile, Oliver Bernstein talks about what happens when that movement rubs up against a very different environmental ethos, in a story on the Texas-Mexico border. Also, Tomasita González answers questions about her environmental-justice work with the SouthWest Organizing Project.

Week Five: The Movement

While the mainstream environmental movement is just waking up to the relationship between environmental and economic devastation, the environmental-justice movement has sought from its founding to protect the environment while simultaneously securing the political, economic, and cultural liberation of all people. This week, we feature an interview with one of EJ’s founding fathers, Robert Bullard, who has spent the last two decades helping to organize and lead the fight for environmental equity. We also feature some of the movement’s youngest members — children from Houston’s impoverished Fifth Ward, who used art and photography to document the Superfund site that is despoiling their community — as well as other voices pushing for environmental justice.

Week Six: The Good Fight

Poverty, inequality, environmental devastation — not exactly the most fun party in town, is it? Our magazinely mission forbids us from indulging in all gloom all the time, so in this penultimate week of Grist‘s special series on Poverty & the Environment, we turn our attention to the good fight: to the people, ideas, and strategies that are effectively countering economic and environmental injustice. We profile Sheryll Cashin, who is rethinking one of the root issues of the civil-rights movement — integration — as the key to improved environmental and social justice. We take you on a tour of the Sokaogon Chippewa tribal lands in Mole Lake, Wis., to profile their efforts to halt the reopening of a nearby mine — by buying it. And, to lighten the gloom in a different way, we turn to the movies, and to the burning question of why, from Silkwood to Erin Brockovich to North Country, downtrodden white women who fight environmental battles make such darn compelling film.

Week Seven: Looking Ahead

This last week of Grist‘s special series on Poverty & the Environment doesn’t so much wrap things up as open them up. We bring you a dialogue between a mainstream environmental leader (Frances Beinecke, president of Natural Resources Defense Council) and an environmental-justice leader (Eric Mann, of the Labor/Community Strategy Center), who together try to figure out how to move forward on securing a just and sustainable future. We hear firsthand about the challenges of doing so in an opinion piece by Na’Taki Osborne about trying to save Atlanta, Ga., from its reputation as the sprawl capital of the South. We look beyond our borders to the problem of global slums as a devastating nexus of environmental and economic catastrophe. Finally, we’re proud to bring you the last in our series of virtual walking tours — this one, a trip around Pacoima, Calif., a community of recent immigrants who are working with their better-off neighbors to form a multi-language, multicultural coalition to clean up the environment.