Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Effluent of the Affluent

Now that the damage to the people of Flint, Michigan from their contaminated water supply has been exposed, Americans are rightly outraged. The New York Times called Governor Snyder’s attitude toward residents who complained “depraved indifference.”

Time Magazine published a photo essay on an impoverished black child, two year old Sincere Smith, who is suffering the effects of his bath water. Public health officials announced that drinking water in some areas of the city had tested at more than twice the level of toxic waste, and that all of Flint’s children should be treated as if they had been poisoned.

Astute commentators are calling what happened in Flint environmental racism, pointing out that the poorest and most vulnerable communities, almost always of color, are the ones that serve as dumping grounds for the waste of the affluent. Whether it’s polluted water, pesticides, toxic smoke from incinerators, pig farm refuse, or factory toxins, environmental pollutants are more likely to be located in poor communities of color where complaints are ridiculed, disparaged, and ignored as they were in Flint, where forty percent of the population live below the poverty line and more than half are African American.

Despite assurances from Governor Snyder that his failure to respond to the water crisis in a timely manner had “nothing to do with race,” many Michigan Quakers are not convinced. We are quite sure of what would happen if Ann Arbor residents turned up at City Council meetings with jugs of foul-smelling tap water rife with floating bits of “organic matter.” Indeed, Ann Arbor Mayor Chris Taylor pointed out that the water crisis in Flint was not simply the result of a few poor official decisions, but can be traced to “decades of state neglect . . . decades of broken promises, decades of disinvestment in our communities." That’s another component of environmental racism: a political culture of ignoring poor people’s problems.

Six thousand miles away, in Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinians are facing a similar crisis – for similar reasons. As journalist Ben Lorber writes: Israel has historically used Palestinian land as a dumping ground, covertly transporting waste products into the occupied west Bank, polluting the Palestinian earth and water supply, while Israeli settlers deliberately poison the water, land, and livestock of nearby Palestinian villages. Solid wastes from Israeli settlements and military camps throughout the West Bank are dumped without restriction on Palestinian land, fields, and side roads, and industry regularly moves from Israel to the West Bank, where labor is cheaper, environmental regularions are lenient and wast products can flow freely down to Palestinian villages in surrounding valleys. 

Today, says Lorber, as Israel portrays itself as a "green democracy," an eco-friendly pioneer in agricultural techniques such as drip irrigation, dairy farming, desert ecology, water management and solar energy, Israeli factories 
drain toxic waste and industrial pollutants down from occupied West Bank hilltops into Palestinian villages, and over-pumping of groundwater aquifers denies Palestinians access to vital water scources in a context of increasing water scarcity and pollution. 

Environmental racism is not just an American problem, It is a problem of "depraved indifference" of those who see themselves as dominant, entitled, and superior to others, wherever they may live. As people of conscience, our response to institutionalized racism and injustice should be worldwide, as well.

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