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Q&A: From Accidental Environmentalist to Father of Environmental Justice

Robert Bullard
Robert Bullard, Ph.D., the “father of environmental justice”

Hurricane Harvey dropped 51 inches of rain on Houston–a record in the continental United States and the same rain volume Houston typically receives in a year. The deluge forced displaced Houston resident and scholar-activist Robert Bullard to reschedule his August trip to Davidson for Jan. 23.

Bullard, who is popularly dubbed "the father of environmental justice," has devoted his career to exposing the disproportionate impact of environmental degradation on society's most vulnerable citizens. At 7 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 23, in the Duke Family Performance Hall, he'll deliver a keynote address titled: "Climate Change as a Human Right: Why Equity Matters." The free, public event will kick off campus programming and activities designed to raise awareness of climate change. Tickets are not required.

Bullard is the author of books including The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How the Government Response to Disaster Endangers African American Communities and Race, Place and Environmental Justice after Hurricane Katrina.

The following Q&A with Bullard has been edited for length and clarity:

How do you explain environmental justice to people who are unfamiliar?
Environmental justice transcends politics and ideology. Environmental justice is an extension of civil rights, and it basically argues that the right to breathe clean air, drink clean water and have food that's safe to eat are basic human rights. All communities should have equal protection under our environmental laws, and everybody has a right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

The environment is everything–it's where we live, work, play, learn, worship, as well as the physical and natural world. The built environment is influenced by our social environment. Things are built–landfill incinerators, chemical plants, refineries, transportation systems–and oftentimes, their placement is not random. For example, everyone produces garbage and waste. Where it's disposed of correlates with income–per capita, affluent people produce more waste than low income people, but affluent people are less likely to live near where waste is disposed. That becomes an equity question–everyone produces waste, but not everyone has the burden of living next to a waste facility.

When we talk about pollution and where pollution is concentrated, you see that the people with the least amount of resources are not able to escape the pollution zones and hazard zones because they don't have the means to move away. That places low income people and people of color at greatest risk for pollution threats, and increases the risk of individuals and families located in areas that are more vulnerable to climate change and sea level rise and these deadly storms that have gotten more intense over the years.

How does mobility affect communities during disasters?
Right now, even 12 years after Hurricane Katrina for example, disaster transportation evacuation is still dependent on a person owning their own car. Five percent of Americans don't own their own car. Half of the people in New York City don't own a car, but in other places, the ownership of a car will make the difference in whether you can get a job, or evacuate during a disaster and not have to wait for someone else to provide transportation for you. People who own cars have very little empathy for populations that depend on public transportation. Only when a major disaster hits does the idea of who gets left behind get put back on our radar–we saw that with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and months ago here in Houston. Whole segments of our society, because they are dependent on public transportation, were trapped because the buses couldn't get to them.
Our society is becoming even more economically segmented, with affluent families being able to move to and live in zip codes that are majority affluent, and poor people are becoming more concentrated in zip codes where the majority of people are low income. We're creating two societies where the affluent and poor don't have much contact–with Hurricane Harvey, for the first time, the affluent neighborhoods (where flood protection investments were made) flooded. In the history of Houston, low income communities, working class communities and communities of color have always flooded.

In a recent article you're quoted saying, "The southern United States is basically ground zero for climate change." Would you elaborate on how climate change is affecting the south and less affluent communities all over the country?
Climate change is the big one. It will not discriminate. We must protect all of our communities from the rising seas and monster storms–if we don't, we place everyone at risk. All communities should count, and equity should matter. If we talk about developing a resilient, sustainable city, then you can't have half the city being sustainable and the other part invisible.

Environmental justice is about more than pollution–it's about strengthening and building resilience and building sustainability across the board. It's not just about dealing with the negatives, like pollution, but it's about the positives, like building right and growing smarter.

The policies we put in place can exacerbate these natural disasters. So how do we build climate resilience? How do we ensure that going forward we get more of our energy produced from renewables? That's not political– that's a reality thing.

The vast majority of scientists agree that climate change is a major challenge–it's not made up, it's real. The frontline communities that will feel the negative impacts of climate change first, worst and longest, are already convinced. It [the impacts of climate change] needs to be better communicated, and the scientists are not good communicators. The icon of climate change probably needs to shift from the polar bear to children in vulnterable places whose lives are threatened. The human face of climate change needs to get lifted up more–most people can identify with children having to be airlifted from rooftops. How we communicate that makes a big difference.

As a southerner, I'm pushing to have a special initiative to look at climate change and what's happening in the Gulf Coast and in our region of the country. Our region is much more vulnerable to climate change and severe weather events. You just look at the data and you see our region has been hit harder. There are regional differences in how we adapt to climate change.

You've been interviewed by a variety of media outlets. What do you wish they'd ask?
Climate change as a health issue has not gotten enough attention–heat waves, rising ground level ozone, asthma and other respiratory illnesses, the potential for all kinds of waterborne diseases and illnesses coming from mosquitos, from Zika to West Nile. Our geographic location is ground zero for a lot of these negative impacts of climate change. We haven't been as attentive as we should be to raise the alarm and provide the resources to public health departments, research institutions, and our community and faith based organizations that oftentimes are the first responders. Climate change and health should be a major concern and a major priority.

How did you get into this work?
Back in 1978 I was a young assistant professor two years out of graduate school, and my wife was asked to file a lawsuit against a company that wanted to put a landfill in the middle of this African American middle class community in the suburbs. She asked me to collect data for this case, and the 10 students in my research and ethics class and took it on as a research project. That lawsuit, Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corp., was the first lawsuit challenging environmental discrimination, and since 1979 I've been writing, conducting research and working with communities on these issues. I'm an accidental environmentalist. My area of training was in sociology and demography, so I used those skills in an area where there was no research.

What was it like in the early days, before you founded the discipline?
It was kind of amusing. During that case, when we went to civil rights groups, they said "we don't do that," and when we went to the environmental organizations to show them the data we had on the landfills in Houston– five out of five of the city owned landfills were in black neighborhoods, six out of eight of the city owned incinerators were in black neighborhoods, and three out four of the privately owned landfills were in black neighborhoods–they didn't get it. More than 83 percent of all the waste being disposed of in Houston, from the 1930s all the way up until 1978, was being disposed of in black neighborhoods, even though blacks made up 25 percent of the population. It took 20 years for those two movements to merge and understand that it's about environmental civil rights. My colleagues in sociology had no idea what I was doing–it took 10 years for environmental sociologists to get it. Initially, it was a very lonely field. I recruited a number of people and it started to grow and expand. I sent my first manuscript to a dozen publishers and got rejected–they said the environment is neutral and asked why I was injecting race and class. Then I sent it to Westview Press in Boulder, Colorado, and they published it and made it a text book. It got adopted by a whole bunch of universities, and then they asked me to write a second edition.

After all these years, how do you feel about the movement's progress?
I'm an optimist at heart, and I'm encouraged by the fact that the environmental justice movement is still growing–and it's gone from a domestic movement to a global movement. The principles we developed in 1991 at the first International People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit are as relevant today as they were then. What encourages me is that we have lots of young people now working on environmental and climate justice–they have less baggage than my generation and are willing to work on all kinds of issues across race, class, gender and geographic lines. They are willing to own these issues. I see environmental justice as a marathon relay, not a sprint–that's how we have kept our movement alive and growing. We've had some setbacks, but ultimately in any type of challenge, the most committed end up winning.

The primary purpose of Davidson College is to assist students in developing humane instincts and disciplined and creative minds for lives of leadership and service. How do environmental justice and sustainability align with the college's purpose?
As humans we are connected to our physical environment, and as good stewards, we should be concerned with what happens when we alter that environment. The idea of justice permeates all of that–when we talk about environmental justice, we are using the equity framework to address these issues. We're asked to consider what it takes to have a just, fair, sustainable, livable society for all, and how those goals can make us a much stronger nation, and in the global context, create a less conflict driven world.

Bullard's visit is sponsored by the Office of Sustainability, Center for Civic Engagement, and departments of environmental studies and economics.

Lisa Patterson