Throughout history, humankind has been blessed with prophets whose wisdom, insight and predictions have provided others with a pathway to prosperity. Unfortunately, as often as not, humankind has foolishly rejected the wisdom of its prophets and has suffered regrettable consequences.
One such prophet for our times was Marvin Gaye. I can say with absolute authority that we should have listened in 1971 when he sang:
Whoa oh, oh mercy, mercy me
Oh, things ain’t what they used to be, no no
Where did all the blue skies go?
Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and east
Oh, mercy, mercy me
Oh, things ain’t what they used to be
What about this overcrowded land?
How much more abuse from man can she stand?
Marvin’s song was a call to action, especially for Black people. He understood that most Black people were forced to focus on the daily, immediate challenges to survival more than predicted future environmental threats. But the future is now, and “responsible living” requires us to amplify our focus on the immediacy of environmental threats and what we must do to survive this new reality.
The current flooding in Jackson, Miss., serves to refocus our attention on environmental issues as we observe the unnecessary suffering of people who look and live like us. As described by Michael Goldberg of The Associated Press: The forecasted flooding in Mississippi could not have come at a worse time for Veronique Daniels, who became homeless three months ago and was sleeping on her mother’s back porch in Jackson…Daniels’ mother lives in Canton Club Circle, the same Jackson subdivision that flooded two years ago. Residents on Sunday were taking precautions as the previous flooding loomed large in their memories.
There are absolutes to this discussion:
1. We need clean air to breathe.
2. We need clean water to drink.
3. We need uncontaminated food to eat.
4. Natural disasters, toxins, and contaminants are detrimental to good health.
5. Racism is thoroughly enmeshed in discussions of environmental concern.
Few can disregard the issue of racism in a discussion of the environment. In part, Wikipedia summarizes Environmental Racism as:
There are four factors which lead to environmental racism: lack of affordable land, lack of political power, lack of mobility, and poverty… minority communities are left in the inner cities and in close proximity to polluted industrial zones. In these areas, unemployment is high and businesses are less likely to invest in area improvement, creating poor economic conditions for residents and reinforcing a social formation that reproduces racial inequality.
Jackson, Miss., New Orleans and Flint, Mich., stand out as examples of this definition of environmental racism. All have suffered life altering disasters of immense proportion. To varying degrees, each has fallen victim to recurring environmental disasters. They all reflect a benign neglect of interest in majority communities of color and poverty, and inaction in the resolution of long-standing environmental issues. According to census data, Jackson is 82.5% Black and 16.2% white; New Orleans is 59.2% Black and 33.4% white; Flint is 54% Black and 38.4% white. There are multiple factors creating their respective problems, but the common link is their disparate demographic numbers.
Jackson suffers from an aging water treatment facility and inadequate flood abatement infrastructure. New Orleans suffered from an aging and mechanically deficient levee/flood control system. Flint’s water problems are at least a century old with a history of the Flint River being used as an unofficial waste disposal for industry, a receptacle for raw sewage from the city’s waste treatment plant and rumored to have caught fire — twice.
These problems require allocation and spending money. Sadly, the choice has been the tolerance of acceptable human collateral damage.