Environmental equity is frequently misunderstood—it’s used interchangeably with environmental justice and is often dismissed as a side effect of identity politics. But what people get wrong about environmental equity is far more profound and disturbing than a simple mix-up or accusations of political strategy.
Environmental Equity & Environmentalism
Quite often, environmental equity is lumped in with mainstream environmentalism and sometimes discounted as a subcategory that distracts from the primary cause. Environmentalism remains important; every human being stands to benefit from political, social, and economic advances that slow the effects of climate change, preserve natural resources, and promote global health. But environmentalism also places more of its focus on Earth itself and not necessarily on the people inhabiting it. And more specifically, the mainstream environmental movement places little, if any, focus on the at-risk communities most affected by environmental crises.
Environmental equity gives these communities a chance to become stakeholders in their health as opposed to victims or helpless bystanders. With a focus on equity, public health stays at the forefront of the discussion, and inclusion becomes more realistic. Lumping environmental equity into the greater category of environmentalism shows a disregard for the human toll of environmental racism and injustice.
Lack of Diverse Perspectives
Environmental equity often takes a backseat to mainstream environmentalism because the decision makers have no personal connection to the disasters and risks in underserved areas. In fact, environmental science is one of the least diverse categories in science. As reported in a study by Nonprofit Quarterly, “Ethnic minorities tended to be concentrated in the lower ranks and occupy less than 12 percent of the leadership positions.” In short, the people who could draw attention to these communities are being excluded from green organizations, and when they gain access, they’re rarely in a position to affect change.
A lack of diversity in green organizations doesn’t just deny qualified candidates a chance to excel; it also denies whole communities an opportunity to live healthy lives.
One way this inequity is being addressed is through education. Next Generation Science Standards are guidelines that direct science teachers to tailor curriculums to the communities they serve. For example, if water pollution is a concern in a specific neighborhood, the science curriculum would be adjusted to teach students about the warning signs of lead contamination. Equity in the classroom is a great place to start.
However, considering the speed at which environmental issues are progressing, more action is needed within existing organizations and leadership teams. There isn’t enough time to wait for these children to grow up and take action.
Lack of Government Cooperation
As powerful as environmental activists may be, and even if nonprofits become more diverse, progress is still heavily dependent on government officials who regulate air pollution, emissions, and water filtration, among many other policies and conditions. Environmental equity isn’t just about what happens in the science community. The industry’s passion and research must be translated and effectively communicated to lawmakers. Without that cooperation, progress will be limited.
For example, in just two years, the current administration has rolled back several Obama-era environmental policies, including a reduction in requirements for oil and gas companies’ methane releases. The current administration takes a different position on the importance of environmental policy, and unless they change, environmental equity faces a steep uphill battle.
Environmental equity is a right that every American deserves, but if we downplay its importance, deny green jobs to diverse candidates, and support government officials who don’t prioritize environmental issues, we will fail to create a truly environmentally equitable society. It’s only when we understand and communicate equity’s importance, and work steadfastly to remove the roadblocks, that we’ll start to move forward.