Freedom Rider: Earth Day is for black people

April 22nd is Earth Day, and it is important to remember how this event came about. Far from the image of tree hugging mystics, the environmental movement was born as a political one. In 1969 millions of people took to the streets and demanded that their government protect them and their environment from industrial polluters. Members of congress, the so-called “dirty dozen” were targeted for defeat in 1970 and in fact seven of the twelve did lose.

Republican president Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency and declared himself an environmental president. Now that the 42nd Earth Day approaches, the dangers of global climate change are worse than any calamity that was imagined in the 1960s and 1970s.

New studies show that the extent of the crisis is so severe that the very notion of an Earth able to support life is in danger. The Gulf Stream, the flow of air and water which allows the United Kingdom and other northern European nations to be livable, is growing colder. Melting glaciers are sending fresh water into the ocean and lowering temperatures to such an extent that the Gulf Stream may cease to exist. The dangers caused by rising temperatures will incinerate Africa and other parts of the earth unless something is done quickly.

The very notion of an Earth able to support life is in danger.”

It is important to remember that the difference in world temperature which creates an ice age is but a few degrees. The two degree rise in temperature agreed to in the climate change talks orchestrated by president Obama is enough to create havoc with millions of lives and livelihoods. The continued degradation of the world’s environment is already costing human lives. As strange as it may seem, global warming creates severe winter weather, and is responsible for the harsh European winter just passed and is a forecast of things to come. Nations such as Bangladesh with low-lying land masses are endangered by increased tropical storms and flooding.

The earth will reach peak oil levels within the next ten years, and the response to this ongoing crisis is not what it should be. Instead of a planned and urgent response with increased wind and solar energy, our government tells us lies about “clean coal” and states and localities look to fossil fuels from hydro fracking and extraction from Canadian tar sands which create untold dangers to the air and water.

For too long, environmental issues have been viewed as “white” and of little or no interest to black America. The facts say otherwise. Environmental racism has long been rampant with industrial pollution being disproportionately located in black communities. Individuals around the country have struggled mightily against these events but there have been insufficient efforts to make environmental racism a priority for organizing and for political discussion. Our planet is being killed by human activity and there can be nothing more important than insuring the survival of humanity and other species.

Environmental racism has long been rampant with industrial pollution being disproportionately located in black communities.”

Haiti’s suffering is partly a result of environmental destruction. Its residents have cut down trees for burning and the production of charcoal. While the desperation of that population is understandable, those actions have created a treeless nation even more susceptible to damage from tropical storms. Haiti’s plight is of course partly political, but one of the results is a nation that is less and less able to sustain its population.

As always, we must look beyond our borders for solutions. Ecuador is an oil producing nation which is planning to leave the remainder of its vast oil reserves in the ground. This “under developed,” “third world” nation is far ahead of the supposedly advanced United States. The oil and gas industry use Congress and state legislatures to provoke even more damage, and tell us that we have no choice but to poison our water supplies in dubious efforts to get gas from fracking.

Charitable contributions from multinational energy corporations do us no good if we are all dead. They will find ways to pay off politicians and black “leaders” while we continue a slow march towards destruction of ourselves and of the planet. It can be difficult to see beyond needs for employment and housing which are so immediate, but Earth Day and the priority of environmental concerns must be taken just as seriously and have to be among the issues which create the movement we so desperately need.

Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well as at Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)