Jenny Price, a writer and Los Angeles Urban Ranger, is the author of "Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.," and contributes regularly to the "Native Intelligence" column on LA Observed. She shares her thoughts on how to share the burdens and benefits of a Green Revolution.
If I've been hearing nonstop these days about the what's, how's, and why's of going green, still there's a whole class of questions that are receiving a lot less attention amidst the enthusiasm for light bulbs, organic peaches, and solar and energy-efficient everything.
Who, exactly, can afford organic peaches? Who can afford the light bulbs and the Priuses and the nontoxic paints and carpets? Who works in and lives near the Prius factories and breathes the emissions? Who, exactly, benefits from carbon trading, which decreases pollution overall but moves it around unequally?
Yes, those pesky "who" questions. Not the kind I see on TV or in the New York Times or People every day--you know, "Who in Hollywood is building an all-green house now?" Rather, who can't afford to? Who suffers the worst consequences of global warming and other environmental messes? Who benefits least from the industrial activity that creates these messes? And who benefits least from green initiatives to clean it all up?
True, in the past 20 years, environmental inequalities have moved solidly into the mainstream environmentalist agenda. Yet how much do you really hear about inequities in, say, today's legitimate frenzy over global warming? "We are all in this together": that's been an old and powerful environmentalist mantra since the 1960s. But as my Dad used to eye his children and say, "What's with this 'we,' Kemo Sabe?"
Hence, two reasons that the Green Revolution absolutely needs to catapult the problem of environmental inequalities to front and center:
First, because you (and I and we) care about democracy. Social and economic inequities are fundamentally environmental. We create and sustain poverty and discrimination through dramatic disparities in access to clean air, clean water, healthy food, greenery, and park space. Think Katrina, and how the poorest and most heavily African-American neighborhoods lie in the most vulnerable parts of New Orleans. Think Los Angeles--where the dirty industrial air and the lack of parks in the lowest-income neighborhoods create and feed into basic problems with health, health care, jobs, and child care.
Second, because you and I and we care about you and me and us (and/or polar bears and whales). Maybe I can afford to avoid the toxic paints and "conventionally farmed" peaches (just maybe--I'm a freelance writer), and to live in a leafy Valhalla far from the factory zones. However, the emissions and pesticides still end up in the air and water we all share. Historically, our worst environmental messes have been driven in important part by the continued ability of more affluent folks to escape many of the consequences.
If you want a green planet, in other words, you have to work for a green planet for all. Al Gore just dubbed his new climate-change initiative We--as in capital W, as in "We are all in this together." But for this and other big environmental initiatives to succeed, we're going also to have to pay a whole lot more attention to how we are not always and entirely in this together.