Social Movements Must Incorporate Environmental Justice

CJ Blair, Columnist

There’s no doubt that Oberlin is a place known for its conscientious and progressive students. While Oberlin’s sustainable Adam Joseph Lewis Center and a handful of environmental organizations demonstrate concern about environmental issues, day-to-day conversations between students tend to favor social, rather than environmental, justice. This is by no means a bad thing, but such conversations often fail to see the ways in which environmentalism is just as pressing a concern as social justice, as well as how the two are inextricably tied.

If it sounds like I’m going to condemn the social justice initiatives on campus, let me assure you that I’m not. The way in which Oberlin responded to the horrendous incidents of police brutality this fall was the most powerful and moving experience I could’ve imagined for my first semester of college. Even when tension between students and administration was at its peak, there was no denying the ability of the student body to use powerful rhetoric to promote action on campus. After speaking to John Elder, OC ’53, who has served on the Board of Trustees for years, he said that this passion has characterized Oberlin since he was a student. Why, then, is environmentalism not being so ardently championed?

Part of the reason may be a lack of urgency in environmental campaigns. With social justice initiatives, particularly issues like marriage equality that are currently being reviewed by courts and law-makers, the end goal is attainable and not too distant. Of course, it will be a very long journey before social acceptance of LGBTQ identities is the norm, but at least there is great potential for short-term achievement in the form of new laws or changes in policy.

In spite of all the media attention surrounding global warming, environmentalism provides less room for immediate satisfaction. By virtue of the movement, the goal is not to reverse a systemic injustice but to invest in the future. Conservationists are not wrong when they say that their movement is working to ensure a clean planet for future generations, but it’s quite a bit harder to fight for something you know you’ll never live to see than something you could possibly fix in a year, such as the lack of diversity in the Student Senate.

There is, however, some common ground here. Whether they are social or environmental, justice movements have the most power and potential to succeed when the focus is narrow. On campus, I work with Oberlin College Anti-Frack, and we are currently trying to stop Spectra Energy’s NEXUS Gas Transmission pipeline, which is due to go through the town of Oberlin when it’s installed. From the name of our group, you can tell that we’d like to see the end of hydraulic fracturing of land for natural gas. Yet we know we won’t accomplish anything unless we home in on a facet of this problem that can be combated locally. This narrowing of focus into a concrete and definite line of activism provides urgency and capacity for change for the people who fight for it.

It’s also worth noting that environmental justice and social justice, when seen on a smaller scale, can be combated simultaneously. The proposed route for the Nexus pipeline, for example, is slated to go through many low-income communities of color, where Spectra Energy is less likely to find resistance from residents toward this immensely dangerous pipeline. In my home state of Kentucky, mountaintop removal for coal mining has left vast tracts of the Appalachians barren and forever ruined. This occurred in some of the state’s most impoverished regions, and the residents have known nothing but poverty and urban decay for generations as a result.

Oberlin is a place of amazing energy, and that shouldn’t change. However, there is vast potential for that energy to be augmented if it grows to encompass environmentalism. The type of person who comes to Oberlin is one who can apply ample intelligence to solving problems, and when such people come together to fight, the results are always powerful. As long as I am here, I am going to fight for environmental justice, and I can only hope that even more bright and passionate minds will join me.