Guest Column | June 19, 2017

Just Like Social Causes, Environmentalism Is About Putting People First

Kate Zerrenner

By Kate Zerrenner

The 85th Texas Regular Legislative Session has drawn to a close. Now that we've had some time to digest what went down (and get some sleep), we can reflect. There is no doubt: This was a very hard Session. Emotions were high and lives were at stake.

Each Session ends up having themes or issues that remain high on the priority list throughout the five months legislators are in Austin. This year, the focus was on social issues, like transgender bathroom access and reproductive rights. And although the connection may not always be obvious, social issues are environmental issues, too.

All of these matters are fundamentally about people. When I fight for clean energy or water or taking action on climate change, I'm not doing it in a vacuum. We cannot disconnect these issues with the social issues we face in Texas and on a national scale right now. Immigration, health care, and education are all about protecting the most vulnerable among us and ensuring we treat each other with respect – and so is fighting for the environment.

The people-nature connection

As humans we are connected to nature. There is ample evidence that nature has mood-altering benefits to the human psyche. If my daughter is grumpy, spending some time outside playing in water or running in fresh air turns her mood on a dime. Our need to connect to nature and our planet is essential to our survival, and we are hardwired to remember that, even if our basic needs have been met.

Moreover, in the eyes of nature, we are all equal. Nature sees no skin color, no nationality, no ethnic or religious difference. Yet the effects of environmental pollution are not felt equally: Poor people and communities of color experience disproportionate impacts and health risks as a result of prejudice. So when we fight for environmental issues, we need to take that reality into account, and make sure we are fighting for people to have equitable access to a clean, healthy world.

Climate change is making this effort all the more critical. In fact, a recent report from The Roosevelt Institute has found that not only do the most vulnerable populations bear the brunt of a changing climate, but also social and economic inequality may actually be a driver that exacerbates climate change. This is because “when power and wealth are distributed more unequally, the rich and powerful (who gain more than others from environmentally degrading activities) are more able to impose environmental harm on the poorer and less powerful (who bear disproportionate costs).”

Room for hope

There is no silver bullet solution, but I am reminded of my China Studies professor who said, "Put on your Chinese ears and eyes." That is, think about it from the other person's perspective. We have sympathy for other people’s plight, but do we have empathy?

I like to think I do and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) does. So, we get up every day and put on a variety of ears and eyes and think about the solutions for the problems we face. We find partners, old and new, likeminded and sometimes our political adversaries.

Here are just a few of the ways EDF is working to protect people of all backgrounds in Texas and across the U.S.:

  • Our Texas team is partnering with the Texas Energy Poverty Research Institute to study Texas’ low-income communities and their relationships to energy.
  • Moms Clean Air Force, an EDF initiative, is helping spearhead the San Antonio Climate Action Coalition, urging the City of San Antonio to act on climate.
  • Our California team is working with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power on the development and implementation of equity metrics which use data to help ensure all residents have access to clean energy.
  • Our North Carolina team is advancing innovative mechanisms for financing clean energy in rural electric cooperatives so rural families and businesses receive safe, reliable, and affordable electricity.
  • Our health team is focused on getting lead out of drinking water nationwide.

It’s tempting to feel hopeless when today’s problems seem so vast and varied. But there is a common theme among them: People. People are at the heart of why we at EDF do what we do, and why so many other advocates across a broad spectrum of areas do what they do. We find common ground, we build from there, and we build each other up.

As Texas heads into a special session next month, I can only hope state legislators will put their ”put on their people ears and eyes,” and use empathy to make these important decisions. Regardless, EDF and other social advocates will be there to try to protect people and our planet.

From Environmental Defense Fund's Texas Clean Air Matters blog