01 Apr 1998 What Earth Day Means to Minority Citizens, by Edmund Peterson
April 22, 1998 marks the 28th annual Earth Day celebration, but like many other people of color I will not be celebrating. To me, Earth Day is merely an annual reminder of the environmental movement’s insensitivity to the needs and concerns of the nation’s minorities the other 364 days of the year.
Environmentalists say they want to save planet, but from whom? Apparently, from people just like me. Earth First! Founder Dave Foreman, for example, once said “I see no solution to our ruination of Earth except for a drastic reduction of the human population.” Since minority populations are rising while white populations are stabilizing, he obviously means that people of color are ruining the planet. In the U.S., for example, the number of whites is expected to drop from 73.6% of the population today to just 52.5% of the population by 2050. Meanwhile, the combined number of blacks and Hispanics are expected to rise from 22.2% to 36.9% of the population by 2050. Internationally, the discrepancy between white and minority population growth rates is even more pronounced. By 2050, the world population is expected to rise to 10 billion people, up from 5.7 billion in 1994. Nearly all of this growth will occur in the developing nations of Africa, Latin America and Asia. Europe’s population is growing by less than 1% while roughly half of all African nations are experiencing population growth rates exceeding 3%.
Environmentalists also say they want to act immediately to counter the threat of global warming, but at what cost to our nation’s minority citizens? To respond to global warming a phenomenon many scientists don’t believe even exists environmentalists want our nation to drastically curb its use of fossil fuels. Under pressure from environmentalists, Clinton Administration officials negotiated an agreement last December in Kyoto, Japan that will require the United States to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases by 7% below 1990 levels by 2012 or more than 30% below what they might otherwise be. According to Wesleyan University economist Gary W. Yohe, just stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2010 could have dire consequences for the U.S. economy in general and disadvantaged Americans in particular. The poorest fifth of all Americans would experience income losses approaching 10%, while the wealthiest fifth would experience income increases in the 2% range. The middle three-fifths of Americans would experience income losses ranging from roughly 2/3 and 2 2/3 percent. Since the average black wage-earner’s income was just $19,722 and the average Hispanic wage-earner’s income was just $18,568 compared to $26,696 for whites in 1994, people of color would bear the brunt of the income losses.
At the same time, these restrictions would significantly increase the cost of energy, reducing standards of living. For instance, the cost of electricity and natural gas two common home energy sources would rise significantly, reducing overall consumption by 32% and 18.4% respectively. Those in lower income levels blacks and Hispanics would be particularly sensitive to such price increases.
Environmentalists say they want to end environmental injustice, but precisely what do they mean by “environmental injustice?” Over four years ago, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898 instructing federal agencies to identify and address “disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their programs, policies and activities on minority populations and low-income Americans.” The order did not specify that they need only look at environmental influences on human health. The order did not specify that economic influences on human health be ignored. Yet, this is precisely what many environmentalists called on the Clinton Administration to do last year when they urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to invalidate a permit allowing the Shintech Corporation to open a plastics plant near Convent, Louisiana. The $700 million plant, which was to be built in an industrial corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, would have brought 2,000 temporary construction jobs and 165 permanent jobs to this rural area where unemployment has historically been high and where close to 40% of the population lives under the poverty line. Despite objections by the local NAACP, community groups and the Louisiana state government, the EPA stopped the plant from being built. The citizens of this predominantly black parish in Louisiana will now have to do without the jobs, improved health care, and better living conditions that the Shintech plant would have made possible. And environmentalists have the nerve to call this “justice.”
No, I will not be celebrating Earth Day this year. I will not celebrate Earth Day until environmentalists show as much concern for the needs of people of color as they do for the environment.
Edmund Peterson is Chairman of the Advisory Council of Project 21, the African-American leadership network sponsored by The National Center for Public Policy Research.