red lung patient

Dr. A.H. Russakoff attends a patient with red lung, a respiratory disease that comes from working in iron mines
Photo: NARA/ EPA (1972)

There’s a new kind of environmental awareness in Oakland, California, and though the source is urban, it’s an outlook that might have greater traction in rural communities, too. This environmentalism concerns itself not so much with the threat to endangered species or a far-off ecosystem but with the impacts of pollution on the human condition.

The message comes from Van Jones, head the Ella Baker Center, a human rights organization based in the city of Oakland. Jones wants to direct environmental activism toward low-income people, those whose health is most damaged by dirty air and contaminated water.

In this video he talks about efforts to “green” the Oakland economy. He shares his hope that the city can invest in development that helps not just the environment but people who are living on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, as well.

Let’s face it. The snail darter may be threatened but people living on the economic edge have their own species to worry about. “In my neighborhood, you go around talking to people about polar bears, they are not feeling you,” Jones says.

What low-income Oakland residents are feeling is the impact of decades of environmental abuse, which he says leads to a greater incidence of chronic diseases. “When poor people talk about [the environment], “¦ we tend to talk about asthma, cancer, Katrina.”

Rural people who live on the economic margins are in a similar position. The raw goods that feed those urban smokestacks come from rural America. Think coal, for example, the cheapest fossil fuel for creating electricity but one the costliest in terms of the environmental harm it wreaks on the communities where it is mined.

Low-paid agricultural workers are exposed to harsh pesticides, and so is everyone who lives near industrial farmlands. Timbering and quarrying tend to extract a higher environmental price on the rural people who can least afford to pay for protections from such harm.

spreading sludge in Utah
Spreading sludge in Utah, 1974
Photo: Nara/EPA

Van Jones links concern for the environmental health of low-income Americans to the development of sustainable industries. “Let’s make sure that the communities that were locked out of the pollution-based economy are going to be locked in to the new clean and green economy,” he says. Places like Oakland, he says, should take the lead in creating, for example, new solar-powered products.

Jones’ goals won’t be easy to accomplish. But his strategy should appeal equally to both rural and urban communities. They have both paid high prices in the old industrial economy. Couldn’t the same “green” vision of development that Jones presents for Oakland take hold in the Dakotas, West Virginia and the Texas Valley?

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