08/21/2013 09:38 am ET Updated Oct 21, 2013

Marching for Environmental Justice

On Aug. 28, 2013, people from diverse racial and ethno-religious backgrounds will come together to celebrate an American milestone: the 50th anniversary of the March for Justice and Freedom in Washington. This week's March takes place in the context of worsening worldwide ecological and social destruction. As such, we are moved to question to what extent race and ethnicity are part and parcel of the overarching issue of the environment. Uranium mining in Native American lands, Hurricane Katrina and the threats posed by the proposed Keystone pipeline to health and livelihood of indigenous people in Alberta, Canada, are a few examples of what is being called 'environmental racism', the disproportionate impact of environmental destruction on communities along racial and ethnic lines.

For centuries, economically disadvantaged and socially marginalized communities have borne the brunt of corporate and government policies damaging the environment in both the Global North and the South, and people of color represent an overwhelming majority of these groups. A leaked confidential memo written in December 1991 by then-Chief Economist of the World Bank, Lawrence Summers (the presumed next Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve) explicitly called for export of polluting industries to the Third World on the grounds of cost effectiveness. He argued that a "given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages.". Some environmentalist groups in the West also view social and economic justice as an impediment to environmental protection. Dave Foreman, the founder of the radical environmental group, Earth First!, for example, has been criticized for his Malthusian position that famines in Africa and the AIDS epidemic should be welcomed because they reduce the human population and mitigate harm to the environment caused by people.

Although environmentalism is still commonly associated with 'white privilege', people of color, especially indigenous people, have long fought against toxic dumping, mining, deforestation, and various other environmentally destructive practices on their lands. Historically, the efforts of poor people of color all over the world for environmental sustainability and protection are simultaneously struggles for ecology and social justice -- in other words, environmental justice. Bill McKibben, organizer of the catalytic global movement, which seeks to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, points out that most environmentalists are not "rich white people", they are mostly "poor, and black, and brown, and Asian, and young." He also says that in many cases these youth of color are even more concerned and interested in the environment, "because they already are dealing directly with the effects of global warming."

In the Modern age, resistance to the dominant forces of capital, modern science, technology, and the managerial state has taken many different forms. In the Americas and elsewhere, indigenous resistance to the commoditization of nature by Europeans constituted a dual attempt to preserve livelihood and an earth-based lifestyle and veneration of Mother Earth. Recognizing the intertwined nature of social injustice, ecological destruction and economic domination, many environmental and social justice organizations are building bridges today to strengthen their collective efforts, through nonviolent education campaigns, civil disobedience, and legislative action at the local, national, and global levels. The March for Jobs and Justice in Washington in August 2013 is a part of this twin global struggle for environmental sustainability and social justice.

The current trajectory of technological and market growth is displacing the environment and human communities. Indeed, more and more people are waking up to the extremism and dangers inherent in the dominant patterns of technological and market growth. Increasing concentration of global political and economic power in the hands of a small elite underlies the challenges of providing jobs and justice. As transnational corporations (TNCs) develop ever more sophisticated financial and technological networks, these "world empires of the 21st century" control larger shares of global resources and wealth and wield more power over people's lives than most governments. As 'short-term interests of societal elites' lead to the introduction of more and more robots (machines resembling humans and capable of replicating certain human functions), the employment picture in the future does not bode well for the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. The March for Jobs and Justice in Washington and the broader struggles for social and environmental justice must take account of these changing realities and the underlying problem of our estrangement from nature.

In light of our yearning for deeper human connectedness and connectedness to nature, we would do well to reflect on the words of paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson who discovered the 3.2-million-year-old skeleton of Lucy, a transitional fossil between an ape and human in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia: "Each and every one of us... regardless of the color of our skin, is an African... Whenever we grasp a branch of the human tree, its roots go back to Africa."