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Cars trudged through hip-level waters as rescue teams searched for survivors. Houses resembled skeletons as roofs and walls lay in the street. Fallen trees littered the ground. Hurricane Maria left millions in Puerto Rico as powerless as they felt, struggling to rebuild without access to electricity and running water.
The death toll: nearly 3,000 people. Nearly a year later, survivors like my grandmother and her neighbors lacked reliable access to electricity. This is a clear manifestation of environmental racism, which refers to practices that disproportionately burden people of color with environmental hazards, and our government is complicit in it.
As the United States continues to experience natural disasters like Hurricane Ida, deadly heatwaves, and the Great Texas Freeze last year, it feels like we’re walking on eggshells as we await the news of the next environmental catastrophe. Even in the absence of these extreme weather phenomena, environmental racism continues to work behind the scenes. Sometimes it’s the cancerous hazard of building oil refineries in predominantly-Black neighborhoods. Other times it’s the lethal disregard for crumbling infrastructure in these communities.
In elementary school, my younger sibling was regularly hospitalized for asthma flareups, trading birthday cakes and dollhouses for IV drips and nebulizers that looked more like creepy breathing machines. Although it felt normal at the time, it wasn’t until recently that I realized how daunting this annual tradition truly was. Asthma is the reality for so many Black children in America that “being Black” was nearly listed as a risk factor for the disease. Compared to their white counterparts, Black children experience asthma at higher rates because they’re more likely to live in polluted neighborhoods. Or rather, Black neighborhoods are more likely to be exposed to pollution with less regard for the well-being of their inhabitants.
To me, it’s clear that climate change and environmental racism have become silent killers of people of color around the world. It wasn’t until this realization that I started to care about environmentalism.
Including social issues in our discussions of climate change cultivates a culture of community-centered care in which members see climate change as a threat to their health and livelihoods and care about it for that reason. By contrast, mainstream environmentalism couldn’t be farther from this. Despite growing concern about climate change among Americans, the movement seems to be highly exclusive, reserved for the richest and whitest. If you don’t buy expensive clothes from slow fashion brands, grow your own vegetables, and bring your metal straw to every restaurant you dine at, you aren’t granted entry. The movement reads more like “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” campaigns, vague global warming claims, and headlines about bird extinctions. It discusses the effects of rising sea levels on animal habitats, not human ones. And in turn, no one feels personally threatened by the one thing that threatens us all.
Community-centered climate care takes us from a cycle of passive caring and wanting to one of acting with accountability. It creates spaces for marginalized groups that have been previously shunned, including low-income, disabled, and racialized communities. It demands that everyone be an environmentalist not only by belief, but by action. Adopting this mindset shifts the blame from the individual to the masses, while still maintaining a personal sense of responsibility.
Many of us at Harvard and similar left-leaning institutions already care about climate change, but we’re trapped in a cycle of talkative inaction. We vote for climate-conscious candidates, but continue to use next-day shipping on Amazon Prime and don’t bat an eye when it comes to our own food waste. Combatting the climate crisis requires cultural shifts and collective action, but we fail to remember that the collective is made up of individuals. Like environmental perfectionists, we’d rather not try at all if we can’t do everything perfectly. We have to start making these changes in our day-to-day lives, no matter how small they seem.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to have the options that Harvard students do: the option to take reliable public transportation, the option to eat plant-based without breaking the bank or traveling far. And depending on where we go home to, those in our own community may not always have these options either. So it’s important that we help set the pace when we can — if not for the bees and orange trees, then for each other.
If places like Puerto Rico are ground zero, then we are ground one. Any of us can be on the frontlines of climate change. And whether you get your turn on the frontlines or not is entirely dependent on the actions you and your communities take today.
Jordan A. Sanchez ’24 is a Physics concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column “Everyday Environmentalist” usually appears on alternate Fridays.
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