Polluting the Poor 

Our destruction isn't merely environmental, it is cultural and willful. We've built our energy infrastructure on the backs of the world's poorest people.

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Like everyone else around the world with access to news, I watched with horror while raw crude spewed up from the depths of the Gulf of Mexico, then as it spread across and below the surface in great oxygen-depleting plumes, and then as it flowed ashore in wave after endless wave of suffocating slime. Months later, the oil spill largely has disappeared from the 24-hour news cycle. The immediacy of the spill's impact has dissipated, but the disaster raises an important discussion about poverty, crime and equality. These are the very issues that make me aware of climate change in the first place.

As director of the Peter-Paul Development Center in Church Hill and vicar of St. Peter's Episcopal Church across the street, I've dedicated much of my life to combating the crushing poverty of this area by providing opportunities and alternative pathways for the children and families forsaken in this community. My work in this area makes me an unlikely voice in the global climate-change debate. But there's a connection between the issues we experience every day in this community and how we as a nation get our energy. I don't consider myself an environmentalist, but the magnitude of the threat of global climate change is so large that even those who don't usually consider themselves environmentalists must begin to respond.

When you're poor, your voice is difficult to hear over the booming sound of powerful, well-funded and organized interests. Here's a brief tour of what that means to a place like Church Hill: An elementary school is built on top of a landfill near Whitcomb Court, and operates for countless generations. At one point the school is vacated because of high methane levels. Later an open-flame methane burner is installed, the kids return and the school continues to operate.

Lung cancer is rising among our aging community members and more of our kids are born with asthma and other airborne respiratory allergies each year because of rising environmental pollution. Billions in tax revenue is given away to businesses while health-care access for these kids gets cut back.

The point is this: We aren't all affected equally by the economic decisions we make, including our decisions to pursue cheap energy, whatever the cost to our environment, our health and our neighbors. The BP oil disaster is only the most recent and obvious reminder that in order to satisfy our need for cheap electricity, we're willing to risk entire communities and ways of life. In this sense, our destruction isn't merely environmental; it is cultural and willful. And we've built our energy infrastructure on the backs of the world's poorest people. 

There are two paths forward, and both are critical to the future of Church Hill as well as the African-American community at large. The first is inaction. We can continue to ignore the threat of climate change, to disregard what our books of faith tell us about our role as stewards of God's creation. Over time, heat waves will grow hotter and longer, and more of our neighbors and family will fall prey to heat stroke. Those on the margins of age, the young and the elderly, will get sicker over time. As the needs of the community grow, the ability to provide remains the same, and crime will increase.

The alternative choice, to take action, comes in two parts. First, it takes action in our personal lives and our communities. We have to be real and honest. We must understand how the choices we make locally affect people who aren't directly parts of those decisions. It happens with the more flat-screen televisions we hook up, draining power off the grid even when they aren't turned on. With the more we cut off the mountaintops in rural Appalachia to extract the coal we need to make more electricity — polluting streams, killing fish and choking off our air. With every mile we drive on cheap gas, the deeper we have to drill.
We need multiple farmers' markets in areas where fresh produce choices are limited and incidences of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity are high.

 But let's be real: It's also going to require change from state and federal legislators. We need to attach a price to pollution so that our entire society will realize the all-too-real costs of fossil fuels and create a healthy energy future for our nation.

In this future, clean and renewable energy grows throughout the state, bringing good jobs with it. Shipping and manufacturing careers (not just jobs) return because the energy — and subsequently pollution — involved in sending it from here to China and back is more costly. Air pollution is reduced, and our families live longer, fuller lives. Food deserts are eliminated, because it's cheaper to grow local fruits and vegetables than it is to import them from California and South America. It's a future in which the needs of the community may grow, but our ability to provide outpaces that need.

The choice for me is obvious, but it's going to take all of us waking up to the reality that climate change isn't some faraway environmental issue. It's local and human. And because we're both of those as well, it's also our responsibility. We must educate our children, design and create ways of fueling our economy beyond what they've learned for generations. We must think, and grow, into a green economy. 

The Rev. Lynne Washington is an Episcopal priest and executive director of the Peter Paul Development Center. Contact her at lwashingtonppdevcenter@verizon.net.

Opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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