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© Seneca Iroquois National Museum (Seneca Nation members were forcibly relocated for the Kinzua Dam)


Disproportionately Targeted

by Ife Kilimanjaro
July 30, 2020

This interview with Ife Kilimanjaro, Senior Network Engagement Director at the US Climate Action Network, was conducted and condensed by franknews

Could you start by introducing yourself and your work a little bit? 

I am Ife Kilimanjaro and I work for a network called the US Climate Action Network. US Climate Action Network is a network of about 185 organizations that work on a variety of issues but come together around climate change. Ultimately, we are trying to meet and exceed the targets of the Paris Agreement as best as we can from a civil society position. We are striving to be a formidable force against the forces that are trying to destroy the planet in the ways that they are.

I came to climate work through environmental justice work. The two are intimately related. It's because of the environmental injustices that climate change is accelerated to the levels it is at right now. Arguably, we might not see the rapid warming of the planet that is happening right now if it were not for environmental injustices.

How do you define environmental justice and injustice?

The term environmental justice came out of a fight that took place in North Carolina. The state planned to dump soil laced with toxic chemicals in Warren County, a predominantly Black community. The people fought back, and though they were able to stall for years, the company was ultimately able to prevail.

The History of Environmental Justice in Five Minutes | NRDC

This is a consistent pattern that constitutes environmental injustice. And it is only possible because Black and brown populations have fewer protections and power within the existing governance apparatus. It becomes common practice to locate toxic landfills, confined animal feeding operations, coal and ash dumping, and other harmful factories in vulnerable communities - namely native and Black communities. 

Conversely, environmental justice means behaving in a way that is morally right towards mother earth and her children. It means embodying a commitment to co-creating a better world for all - one not stratified by race, economic class, and gender. 

Environmental justice means righting wrongs of history and righting the wrongs in particular against those who have harmed by the policies and practices that have facilitated the contamination and the destruction of the earth.

How did we get to where we are today? What are the mechanisms that produce environmental injustice? 

I tend to think and speak in broader historical processes because I think that it is important to paint the big picture. The origins of the environmental justice movement can be traced to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, as Black communities had been raising concerns about the threats from hazardous wastes and other toxic chemicals in their communities. The term “environmental racism” was coined by Rev. Ben Chavis in a 1987 report he wrote entitled Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. Though the language of environmental justice and environmental racism emerged in the 1980s, the groundwork had been laid many, many generations before.

Even though we see environmental injustice operate as practice and policies, it is important to note that it is rooted in a broader cultural ideology.

There are a few mechanisms by which people are made vulnerable, and then exploited. The main ones within this country are settler colonialism, the system of chattel enslavement, and the formation of a government system whose policies and practices have reinforced systems of white supremacy and extraction of land, labor, and capital.

Can you expand on those a bit more - starting with settler colonialism and how we see that legacy today?

When the early invaders came to the shores of what we now call the United States they swept across the country, they took land and subjugated the early native populations into servitude. As they stole land, they established systems (legal, judicial, legislative) to support perpetual domination. They drafted laws that gave them grounds to say, well we can treat you this way or the right to push you off the land because our laws say so. And these laws were and continue to be enforced through a judicial-military system.

The Indigenous/native populations that survived were forced into reservations onto lands that were considered undesirable to the Europeans. But when coal and uranium were found on these lands, monied interests would go to their elected officials, who were representing their interests within the governing structure, and get policies changed to allow for them to go in and extract these raw materials. And the extraction is an incredibly toxic process that these populations are subject to. Because of the uranium mines, for example, cancer rates are still very high on some of the Navajo and Lakota lands.

Entity reports on the Army approving the Dakota Access Pipeline.

We see the modern iteration of this with the fight against the pipelines. When the oil and gas industry wants to build pipelines to move natural gas into new places for processing, they send their lobbyists to Congress and the Senate. They work through these very well funded channels to change folks' minds and pass legislation that makes it possible for them to build their pipelines. Fortunately, the folks who have been fighting on the ground to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, have seen a couple of wins, at least temporarily. It's still an ongoing fight because there's a tremendous amount of money that is to be made by developing those pipelines. 

We know that, if nothing else, folks who are determined to profit off of extraction and destruction will find a way to do so. 

This leads me to the next mechanism...

Chattel slavery and it's legacy.

Yes, the system of chattel slavery and enslavement. The moment in history that gave rise to the financial infrastructure of capitalism locked in black folks to the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy. African people were stolen from Africa and at a certain point, bred as fuel for a brutal system of enslavement and later exploited under debt peonage and industrial systems of production.

It is also where markets, stocks, bonds, insurance, etc. were born. The buying and selling of stocks on an exchange, the insurance industry, all emerged to ensure that landowners would be compensated for any losses of their property (which were human beings - children, women, and men) along the way. We also see manufacturing emerge at this time, and begin to require a larger pool of labor than the working-class poor whites were able to provide. As the industrial revolution found its way to these shores, and enslavement proved unprofitable for the emerging class of capitalists, a war was waged to abolish the formal institution of slavery and make way for a new group of low wage earners. And at a certain point, enslaved African people fled southern plantations for growing cities in the north and south, directed by emerging housing practices and redlining into specific parts of town, often in the polluting footprint of factories.

And of course, these are the folks in the neighborhoods and communities where the wealthy classes would consider it okay to dump in those neighborhoods, or even to form new neighborhoods and communities in the footprint polluting manufacturing centers. Over time, Black communities became the preferred locations for the siting of landfills, coal ash ponds, CAFOs, etc. I'm drawing all of this out because it is important to understand how we got to where we are today.

Political power and who has it seems to be the underlying question throughout all of this. What does it look like when these decisions are made, and what role does political power play?

So while I was living in North Carolina, there were efforts to construct the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. I remember attending an environmental justice summit, and I remember people in that meeting were arguing that based on the behavior of the corporation it was evident that the pipeline route was to go particularly through Black and Native communities and rural areas. These were the areas where, supposedly, folks would be expected to resist the least. 

And a few years back, Paul Mohai and Robin Saha found that people of color and low-income neighborhoods and communities in transition are disproportionately targeted by industries that follow the path of least resistance when deciding where to locate hazardous waste sites and other polluting facilities.

In other words, corporations deliberately selected these low-income communities and communities of color to locate their polluting facilities.

Ford Rouge plant through the years

It often seems, that though people can fight back, and garner political power on the ground, rarely does it translate into financial risk for corporations to the point where they decide not to proceed. How do you think about political power and trying to harness it within communities that have been excluded from traditional mechanisms of power?

Yeah, I think you've named the two major kinds of power. Of course there is the political power of the group, the ruling class, those who have the greatest influence of the elected officials. And then there's the power of the people, which can be far more powerful.

We've seen the power of the people in the civil rights movement, and we see it with the Black Lives Matter movement - people are coming out in mass to demand change. In response, you see companies changing their brands, shifting their language, and perhaps becoming more sustainable. There is a tremendous amount of power in people to do things like that, and perhaps even more power if the progressive wing wasn't as fractured as it is now. 

Then there is also the political power that's held by moneyed interests. And this is a group where it seems, in some ways almost impossible to defeat. They have the military and the police on their side, they have got a tremendous amount of money on their side, and they have representatives in the political structure advocating for their interests. 

But there are always weaknesses in something so big. The work of those seeking radical change toward a more just society requires that we continue to find those weaknesses and drill away at them. Ultimately the power of the people to demand accountability and change can organize in the face of that. At best, we can topple the existing power structure, and at the very least we can challenge and reform it. That happens through elections, boycotting, engaging in nonviolent direct action, and so forth. So there is power on all sides. From what I've studied in history, the most determined and the best-equipped win. So I think that justice can be on our side, we just have a series of fights and battles ahead of us.

I want to talk a little bit about solutions. Do you often think about solutions within an existing market-based framework? For example, cap and trade policies.

Well in terms of carbon pricing, one of our working groups developed a policy platform that took on the question of greenhouse gas pricing. They laid out some requirements that policy must have to work within to be equitable. For example, a carbon price should be progressive and must not be regressive, it must not create pollution hotspots or perpetuate environmental injustice, and it must not be a primary source of revenue for climate funding. Within that framework, a market-based pricing system is essentially nullified. So, we answered the question, “well what about pricing.” One, we haven't seen that it works. Two, it is not possible to commodify pollution in a way that is equitable. 


When you think about who's advancing these solutions, it makes sense that the people who benefit from the market economy would advance market solutions even if they continue to contaminate and cause harm.

There's a concept called "Just Transition" that began in the labor movement but has been picked up by a number of climate and environmental justice organizations in exploring what just transition looks like more broadly than in the labor movement. A regenerative economy is characterized by the sacredness of earth, ecological and social wellbeing, and democracy; it is about not taking more from the planet and one another than we're able to regenerate and recreate together. How do we move from an extractive economy to one that is regenerative, how do we do that? It requires divestment from extractive systems. It requires keeping oil in the ground, halting any new drilling, investing in creating the systems that support wellbeing, promoting a more locally based economy, and becoming less reliant on the oil and gas industry while becoming more dependent on what we can regenerate.

Shifting our entire framework.

Right. And those who argue for the market-based solutions, argue that it is impossible to live off of renewable energy and maintain the lifestyle that we have now. That's not completely true, but even if it was, do we need to live at a level of consumption that is endless and wasteful? This gets at the heart of our culture.

So many of our practices, our rituals, our ceremonies are incredibly wasteful. A transition requires us to re-envision what our families, cultures, and communities look like on a much deeper level.

We need to move away from systems that are based on extraction and exploitation and towards those that are based on regeneration.  

Screen Shot 2020 07 30 at 8.40.04 AM

Do you think we can get there? Are you hopeful? 

Yes. And what makes me hopeful is that it seems this moment has triggered something that was already kind of itching at people. People and communities are tired of extreme injustice, and they want to do something about it.  

We are also seeing the connection between the divisions that already exist within communities and climate change. Climate change is a threat multiplier; as the climate continues to warm, those divisions will worsen. If we see this as like the tip of an iceberg for more struggles to come, what I see and what I hope for, is that this time is used to get their teeth sharpened in these fights. People are learning in the process of participating in these fights, learning how to be strategic in the struggle moving forward, and seeing the ways that all of these fights converge.

And lastly, there are many who - in their efforts to reconnect with the cultural traditions of their ancestors - are relearning and regrounding in the “old ways.” This is incredibly important and promising as Indigenous people around the world lived in a generative relationship with the planet for millennia. There is much to learn from our ancestors. And that people are doing this is incredibly promising.