An Earth Day Conversation About Environmental Justice With Pioneer Vernice Miller-Travis

April 22, 2020 | 5:52 pm
Anthony Eyring/UCS
Adrienne Hollis
Former Contributor

Today is the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, a day when we acknowledge and show support for environmental protections. I do not think that environmental justice communities would agree that there is very much to celebrate, given the number of environmental protections that have been rolled back in the last few years. Protections that communities depend on as they fight against the disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards they experience daily.

I had a conversation with Vernice Miller-Travis, an environmental justice pioneer and advocate who has been fighting for environmental justice for more than 30 years, to talk about her perceptions about Earth Day and its mission, 50 years later.

Here are some salient Points I took away from that great conversation.

#1 – Earth Day has changed and grown and morphed, from that one catalytic event in New York City to Earth Day Celebrations all over the world.

Vernice Miller with Cesar Chavez.

#2 – There is a profound difference between NOW and the first Earth Day–even though all issues have not been resolved, and some have not even been acknowledged properly. The environmental movement has come a long way, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

#3 – When that first Earth Day happened near Harlem, it didn’t occur to anyone to lift up the issues that were happening in environmental justice communities that were central to this conversation–with the one exception being the work of the United Farm Workers of America and Cesar Chavez to ban the use of the pesticide DDT.

#4 – There are those who still think that the narrative around Earth Day is primarily around conservation. Environment is so much more than just conservation. For some, that is their only agenda. But there are many agendas: Vernice’s agenda (which sounds pretty good to me) to “defend the life and well-being of people who live in places that are disproportionately impacted by environmental threats and poisons. Climate change is on the agenda, but it is not the only thing on the agenda.” There is also poverty alleviation, improving fundamental health status, having a living wage.

#5 – Everyone says they want to go back to the way it was “before” we were battling a global pandemic that is killing people around the world and has killed more people in the United States than anywhere else. But if we go “back,” that is where the fundamental inequities and the disproportionate exposures that have left the African American community so vulnerable and so devastated by this pandemic were unleashed.

#6 – My survival is inextricably tied to yours.

#7 – In the Environmental Justice space, we have redefined what environment is (#4, #7, #11, #13, #15, #16).

#8 – Justice and equity are related, but different, concepts. Climate equity is really a conversation about fairness, that everyone has the right to the same benefits of a low-carbon atmosphere, one free of the co-pollutants that come along with carbon emissions making sure that those benefits are equally meted out around the globe is a question of equity. Climate justice is a much more comprehensive concept. Climate justice is a much more comprehensive concept. Justice is a much bigger question and encompasses a lot more, including (but not limited to) human rights, economic justice, gender justice, the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

#9 – Where we went off the rails, where we went off the track, was when we separated the conversation about the environment from broader conversations about justice and social equity.

#10 – We should not accept the premise that we are not making progress and there is not transformative work going on, because there is.

#11 – We need to go forward, to a place where we identify the problems – and not just look them up every now and again and write interesting stories but identify plans to fix the problems. Then we will identify the resources and adequately target them to address the problems, we will give people the support that they need and we will think about fairness and equity as basic fundamental principles of what it means to be either a citizen of this country or a resident of this country or somebody that is contributing to the greater good. And that means ALL of the people who are – or were – working in this country. The ones who have legal immigration status and the ones who don’t, because everybody is contributing to the greater good.

#12 — These are some of the fundamental issues that we need to grapple with. How are we defining normalcy? What is the baseline? We don’t know what the baseline is. You can’t do research until you know what the baseline is. What is well-being? What is a living wage? What does it mean to have a basic income or fundamental access to healthcare?

#13 – Homelessness – the unhoused – and our brothers and sisters who are in prison and in detention, migrants on the southern border of this country, who nobody is talking about, we put them in detention and now we’ve forgotten about them. When this pandemic really starts moving, because most of the country has not really experienced coronavirus and COVID-19 yet, people are going to understand WHY we, who are at the epicenter of the pandemic now, are so freaked out about this.

#14 – There is something to be said about how we interact with all other living species.

#15 – We do not have the right to pollute the oceans to the point that ocean life cannot survive.

#16 – We are moving forward towards a total collapse of so many species around the globe. When that happens, it will have enormous, immediate implications for human survival.

#17 – This moment of total, complete societal collapse is the moment for us all to get on the same page.

#18 – The Earth is screaming, screaming at the top of her lungs. Stop what you are doing to me, stop it.

At the end of our conversation, I asked Vernice what SHE would want this 50th anniversary of Earth Day to be about if she had the power to design it. Her answer? Justice and fairness for ALL living things.

Wow. So simple and yet it seems to be an almost impossible, yet inspiring, task.