In his historic address to the Hungry Club Forum in Atlanta, Georgia on May 10, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. described the three evils that plague the world as racism, economic injustice and militarization. As intellectually rich and empathetic as King’s speech was, he forgot to include the fourth infinity stone: sexism. The gauntlet which they all lay in common, though, is environmental injustice.
Even though King never perceptibly condemned those who gazed at the environment with gluttonous eyes and wreaked havoc and destruction, he worked audaciously to protect people from the capitalist by-product.
In 1966, he organized protests against poor housing conditions in Chicago. In 1968, he orchestrated strikes to the tune of workers in Memphis, Tennessee, who were working in unsanitary conditions.
The connection between activism and environmental justice is best made by King’s son, Martin Luther King III, when he wrote, “Climate change pries further apart the haves and have-nots. When Sandy leaves New York dark and underwater; when Katrina sweeps away homes in New Orleans; when coastal cities face continual worry as rising seas pollute drinking water -- it is low-income inner city families who suffer most." Historically, when droughts have risen prices, when overflowing waste has been dumped into communities and when pollution has taken the right to air away from populations, people of color have been the most affected.
According to the United Nations, women make up 80 percent of displacement due to climate change. Globally, women are more likely to enter poverty and have less socioeconomic power than men.
In an interview with BBC news, women and gender studies professor at Rutgers University Jacquelyn Litt Rutgers said, “In New Orleans, there was much higher poverty among the African American population before Katrina, more than half of the poor families in the city were headed by single mothers.”
In the movie “Good Will Hunting,” Matt Damon’s character Will Hunting is a genius who turns down a job at the National Security Agency. When asked why he wouldn’t work for the NSA, he cites reasons that range from militarization to the connected job losses that result from the authoritatively established free trade agreements.
When describing obtaining oil from imperialism, Will suggests that the NSA would probably hire “an alcoholic skipper who likes to drink martinis and fuckin play salom with the icebergs, and it ain't too long till he hits one, spills the oil and kills all the sea life in the North Atlantic,” thus concluding the explanation which ties environmental injustice to the insuperable knot of racism, sexism, economic inequality and militarization which will hang us soon.
Louisiana is all too familiar with oil spills, experiencing the great disaster BP caused in the Gulf of Mexico which destroyed natural habitats as much as jobs in Louisiana’s most cherished market, the wildlife and fishing industry.
Many Louisianians have been held in the dark by a second devastating oil spill in 2004, which was a result of Taylor Energy, the independent oil company founded by Patrick F. Taylor.
While the spill plagued mother nature and affected future socio-economic dynamics of those living close to the Gulf of Mexico, Taylor was ironically commemorated with a science and technology school in Avondale, Louisiana, and a $116 million building on the University’s campus.
So what is there to do for Louisianians who are concerned for the future? Organizations such as Louisiana Energy Agency Network, or LEAN, have long led the fight against environmental destruction.
LEAN was founded in 1986, when big corporations and polluters began mending Louisiana into a dystopia. The crusade on the Gotham-like state was headed by co-founder Marylee Orr. Orr had a life like most Americans. She aged pursuing a good home, a husband and a children. When her husband came down with a respiratory illness, almost like a sign from the pearly gates, she began her quest for environmental justice.
As LEAN’s leadership ages, it needs a youthful ebb to participate and carry it into the future. In a state with severe poverty rates, a large black and Latino population and gender inequality ranked last in the U.S., environmental activism is a civil rights issue.
In a state which regularly suffers from oil spills and will soon be drowned by mother nature because of its neglect to her temple, environmental activism is a necessity.
As the kindle of civil rights flickers, LEAN’s legacy must continue and grow stronger to protect the most vulnerable from the environmental consequences of the powerful.
It has currently launched a project to create a LEAN Community Archive and Empowerment Center to preserve the history and evolution of different communities impacted by the industrialization of the environment.
This includes the struggle of African Americans transitioning from slaves to sharecroppers to victims of environmental injustice and finally, environmental refugees. To keep its activism alive, LEAN needs all the help it can get. It is our civic duty to uphold lessons of the past, so we know where we're going in the future.
Soheil Saneei is a 20-year old Biological Engineering Sophomore from Metairie, Louisiana.