Hypothetical scenario: a large company offers to buy a piece of land you own, farmland adjacent to your house. You would get to keep the house because it’s the fields they want, or what’s under them actually. Because the fields are adjacent to a larger piece of land that the company wants to frack.
You are a poor settler-farmer just getting by on a few thousand dollars of produce sales each year and some odd jobs. You don’t sleep because you don’t stop thinking about the expired warranty on your truck or the second mortgage on your house, the fact your kids can’t wait for university and careers in a faraway city.
This deal would make you pretty well off. But you’re concerned that if you sell the land and keep your house, you’ll be living next door to a daily dose of heavy duty chemicals, thousands of them. Your family will be exposed, maybe get sick.
So it’s poison or poverty, take your pick.
That’s when the word environment gets real, no longer an abstraction, no longer about a jungle in some country you’ll never visit or invisible things surrounding you that you know are important but you don’t give much thought.
1. That land you own is actually on Mi’kmaq territory. If you’re a settler, you’re really only a guest.
2. A lot of Mi’kmaq and black communities in this province (Lincolnville, Pictou Landing First Nation, Africville) have faced this sort of scenario for real, except they haven’t even been offered the financial compensation. Their choice was poison and poverty or get lost; surrender your ancestral territory.
The more real environment gets, the more people it involves, and people are diverse. And while equality has long been our stated goal, we rarely achieve it. So when we drill down to it, we see that environmental threats and inequality are much the same thing.
These days we’re having, via mass and social media, some of history’s most open discussions about important social issues, all orbiting around the axis of inequality. I’m talking issues of race, gender, and occasionally, poverty.
These conversations have become pervasive, with a recent snowballing of #blacklivesmatter and the #metoo movements, groups demanding equity, truth, and reconciliation. They may or may not progress toward improvements in the human condition. But at least we—most of us anyway—are acknowledging the existence of inequality, oppression, violence, and hate.
Meanwhile, the other conversation that might hold relevance to our hypothetical farmer, explicit talk about the environment, seems to have stalled outside a fairly tight circle of professional, passionate policy wonks, some of them still willing to chain themselves to one another to protect living things or essential habitats.
Maybe this is the hangover of the Harper years, during which our government’s own scientists were banned from speaking publicly on their findings. Or maybe Trump’s realignment of the Environmental Protection Agency with climate-change denial has us all too flustered to think too far into the future. The concept of human extinction is a little too heady for most of us.
In North American mass media (our conversation “of record”), we don’t see the kind of enthusiasm for sustainability we’ve seen recently for social justice or anti-oppression. Yet the stakes, in a sense, are the highest: all our survival.
Interestingly, when Elsipogtog First Nation land defenders and their allies took on Texas big gas company Southwestern Energy, it made national news. When the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies fought the Dakota Access Pipeline, it sparked a long national and international debate about pipelines, fossil fuels, and renewable energy.
Increasingly often we are hearing the phrase “environmental racism.” Dalhousie sociologist Ingrid Waldron has been conducting studies on the subject for years and has an insightful new book, There’s Something in the Water, which analyzes the historical and current health impacts of environmental racism on Indigenous and Black communities in Nova Scotia, and the resistance from those communities.
Environmentalists—the professionals and also anyone who hopes our species will still be around in another century or two—should take heed of this resistance, where it has succeeded and failed, and where white settler Canadians have either succeeded or failed to follow, to help or impose.
With the rise of, at least, talk about social justice, equality, and resisting oppression, there is perhaps a reason to hope we can also talk about how inequality also hurts the environment we all need to survive, and how the effects of that harm are harder on some groups than others.
Morally, any solutions to our environmental problems without involvement from all sectors of society will invariably be unjust.
Practically, a day planting trees is nice and all but we need a change of vision. We need to see a sustainable society and a just society as the same thing.