On November 9, youth activists plan to organize a day of action for racial justice, immigrant justice, and climate justice called "Our Generation, Our Choice," which will include a gathering in Washington, D.C. to demand that our political leaders address these issues. The growing list of supporters includes organizations such as Million Hoodies, Working Families, 350.org, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Hip Hop Caucus. While this may seem like a hodgepodge of different social movements, they are, in fact, inextricably linked.
Justice for people of color and immigrants is dependent on addressing environmental concerns and economic inequality. Fixing economic inequality and environmental issues is also dependent on the liberation of people of color and immigrant populations. Communities of color and undocumented agricultural workers are in the most danger of hazardous environmental outcomes. Discrimination against these communities is also found to drive economic inequality and environmental destruction.
While each movement for justice has its own complexities, any attempt to address these issues individually cannot ignore the ways in which they are all linked. The Our Generation, Our Choice mobilization and its diverse range of supporters demonstrate that young people recognize these connections and want to see comprehensive change.
A new research paper finds that as a result of climate change, rising temperatures in prison cells are a growing health hazard for prisoners and prison staff in the United States. Prisoners, especially those who are older or on antipsychotic drugs (widely used in corrections), are at high risk for heat-related health concerns with potentially fatal consequences. This is an example of a phenomenon all too familiar to the environmental justice movement: Like the overwhelmingly poor, Black, and Latino population locked behind bars, poor communities of color across the US are also disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards.
By bringing together these movements to end mass incarceration and climate change together, we are better able to address both. In this specific case, adding air conditioners to improve prison temperatures would increase greenhouse gases (further exacerbating climate change), fail to address the prison industrial complex, and further drive up the cost of incarceration. Instead, we need policies that both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the size of the prison population.
The California drought is situated in a similarly complex policy web. As a result of climate change, widespread droughts pose a threat to farmers, who depend on massive amounts of water to grow their crops. However, all farmers do not experience the droughts in the same ways; communities of color and low-income individuals, and especially undocumented immigrants, face a disproportionate burden. Researchers explain that a population's vulnerability to climate change is "determined by a community's ability to anticipate, cope with, resist, and recover from the impact of major weather events." Major concerns for agricultural laborers are job loss and extreme poverty as a result of droughts. The looming threat of climate change is therefore inherently an equity issue. Possible solutions will require collaboration by reformers working on immigration, workers rights, environmental protection, and economic policy.
Economic inequality isn't a single-issue problem, either. Inequality not only hurts working families but also leads to increased environmental destruction, which further hurts poor communities of color. The relationship between economic inequality and the environment extends in both directions. For example, one study found that economy inequality drives the loss of biodiversity. Thus, addressing economic inequality is a major first step to improving conditions for poor people of color but is also essential to combating environmental degradation. Policy solutions to economic inequality could also address many other issues if reformers and policymakers account for the ways in which all of these social problems are connected.
Civil rights activist Audre Lorde writes, "among those of us who share the goals of liberation and a workable future for our children, there can be no hierarchies of oppression." For too long we have used a prefix with the word justice - environmental, racial, economic, the list goes on. By acknowledging that all oppressions are connected and taking away these qualifiers, the Our Generation, Our Choice youth mobilization demonstrates that justice requires us to think in terms of larger systems. It's time our policy agenda reflected that.
If you would like to get involved or participate in the Our Generation, Our Choice Mobilization, visit ourgenerationourchoice.org.