Little Compton Landscapes US Politics

“Environmental Justice for All”: Every person is a part of nature, not apart from it

Earthrise, taken on December 24, 1968, by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders (NASA)

Fifty-three years after the first Earth Day on April 20, 1970, just over 60 years since publication of Rachel Carson’s pathbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring, President Joe Biden on April 21, 2023 issued an “Executive Order on Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All.”

I lived through and came of age during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the American conservation movement evolved into the “environmental” movement. My own education and consciousness were shaped by the concept of “ecology,” a scientific term that became faddishly popular at the time, signifying the fundamental concept that all organisms and natural phenomena are seamlessly connected and interdependent.

With her usual gift for clear synthesis of historical events and themes, Heather Cox Richardson, a Boston College professor of American history and the creator of a widely read on-line newsletter, “Letter from an American,” on the occasion of this year’s Earth Day provided a concise account of the growth and evolution of the American environmental movement in those formative years. “Earth Day in 2023 is a poignant reminder of an earlier era,” she observed, “one in which Americans recognized a crisis that transcended partisanship and came together to fix it.”

Now an American president has articulated as a matter of official policy, at least under his administration, that all Americans are equally and inextricably linked with each other and with the natural environment. As a matter of logic and principle, all the world’s people are connected in that natural web, not just Americans.

The dense, formal prose and rigid format of Biden’s full executive order reflect its official and legal purposes. It does not make particularly pleasurable reading. However, its aspirational preamble and first paragraph, under the heading “Section 1. Policy,” offers a worthy and positive vision that most Americans, one wants to think, would find inspirational:

To fulfill our Nation’s promises of justice, liberty, and equality, every person must have clean air to breathe; clean water to drink; safe and healthy foods to eat; and an environment that is healthy, sustainable, climate-resilient, and free from harmful pollution and chemical exposure. Restoring and protecting a healthy environment — wherever people live, play, work, learn, grow, and worship — is a matter of justice and a fundamental duty that the Federal Government must uphold on behalf of all people.

In these divisive days, of course, many Americans will not agree with this vision, or with what they think it implies about the scope of government involvement, regulation, and power. Indeed, in recent days some Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives have demanded, as a condition of supporting an increase in the federal government’s debt ceiling, the repeal of provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act intended to reduce carbon emissions and address climate change.

The cause of environmental justice is not new. In fact, a previous Democratic president, Bill Clinton, issued his own executive order on the subject in 1994. At that time, he charged the federal government with addressing the “disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations in the United States and its territories and possessions, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the Commonwealth of the Mariana Islands.”

Robert D. Bullard, a prolific historian dubbed “the father of the American environmental justice movement,” traces the cause’s origin to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. “It should not be forgotten that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went to Memphis on an environmental and economic justice mission in 1968, seeking support for striking garbage workers who were underpaid and whose basic duties exposed them to dangerous environmentally hazardous conditions,” Bullard wrote in a 2003 essay. “King was killed before completing his mission, but others continued it.”

The scope of the environmental justice cause has necessarily evolved to included the entire global population and a wider range of environmental concerns, not least the impact of climate change on the world’s poorer and most vulnerable regions and people.

Writing on this year’s Earth Day, New Yorker environmental writer Elizabeth Kolbert summarized the latest distressing scientific reports about the accelerating rates at which glaciers and ice sheets are melting in Greenland and Antarctica. Her conclusions about the nation’s–and the whole world’s– political and social response are sobering:

Seeing how a political system as distracted and divided as ours can deal with a problem as immense and complicated as climate change is difficult, but, one way or another, it will have to. Rising sea levels will compel some coastal communities—possibly even entire cities—to relocate. Changing weather patterns will force state and local governments to invest in costly new infrastructure. Drought will remake American agriculture. . . .

At a certain point, lurching from crisis to crisis, Americans will wish that they had heeded all those scientific warnings and taken action sooner. There is still, perhaps, a chance to avoid melting most of the Greenland ice sheet and shutting down major ocean currents. But only if Americans of both parties—and, indeed, people around the globe—heed the message of Earth Day. Considering the immense problem we are faced with, we truly have to come up with new, bold, different ideas.

No community is exempt from the “immense problem we are faced with” or the need “to come up with new, bold, different ideas.” Nor is any community exempt from the necessity of taking into account issues of environmental justice while confronting such problems and developing new ideas.

Questions arise in every community about who benefits and who pays, economically and otherwise, from public policy decisions involving the natural environment. Such tensions and dilemmas have recently surfaced in my peninsular town of Little Compton in public debates about several current proposals and controversies.

One such issue involves proposed plans to construct vast arrays of electricity-generating windmills offshore from–and in some places within view of–the town’s coastline, in a swath of the ocean roughly bounded by the Massachusetts islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, and the coastlines of southeastern Massachusetts, Rhode Island, eastern Connecticut, and eastern New York’s Long Island.

At public meetings, in letters to the editor and opinion columns, and on social media, members of the public and public officials have argued the pros and cons of various potential impacts of the windpower proposals. How can decision-makers measure the towering windmills’ visual impact on coastal residents and property owners against the estimated lower electricity costs and lower carbon emissions those facilities may provide? Will the construction of multitudes of wind towers embedded in the ocean floor reduce the fishing stocks on which the local commercial fishing industry depends, or will they constitute artificial reefs that will amplify marine life, including fish?

Other current local concerns involving the use of land, water, and other natural resources raise questions about who benefits, and who does not, including:

  • Public access to the seashore and beaches;
  • Balancing land conservation for agriculture, habitat protection, and recreation against the use of land for housing to accommodate people of different ages, needs, incomes, and backgrounds;
  • Adapting to and planning for impacts of climate change, such as sea-level rise and coastal erosion.

In other words, Little Compton cannot avoid facing the challenges of fairness, equality, and human rights encompassed by the phrase and concept of “environmental justice.”

* * *

In the Americas and elsewhere, of course, Indigenous peoples trace the genesis of environmental injustice to the elimination and exile of their ancestors and the dispossession of their ancestral lands and natural resources. Twenty or so years ago, I served for several years as president of the Sakonnet Preservation Association, one of the first land trusts created in Rhode Island in the early 1970s. I have been slow to appreciate the grim irony that the well-intentioned founders of the group, which remains conscientious and active in land and natural-resource conservation in Little Compton, appropriated the name of the town’s former long-time Native American occupants. We are “preserving” land in the name of those former occupants, whose living descendants are now absent, at least within the bounds of Little Compton.

As in many other fields and disciplines, questions of economic fairness and social equity have not until relatively recently been pro-actively addressed by the land-conservation and land-trust community. But examples of hopeful, constructive cultural bridge-building are producing some concrete results, including in our southeastern corner of New England.

Recently, at the annual conference of the American Society of Environmental Historians, held this year in Boston, I was in the audience of the well-attended plenary session titled “Relations with the Land and the Sea: Wampanoag History and Activism Confronting Climate and Environmental Change.” Moderated by J. Cedric Woods, director of the UMass Boston Institute for New England Native American Studies, and himself a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, the panel featured powerful presentations by two dynamic Wampanoag women. Melissa Ferretti, Chairwoman of the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe, offered a deep, rich account of her people’s history on a small reserve in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Her vibrant presence provided dramatic living evidence of her people’s persistence in the region.

The other speaker was Leslie Jonas, a Mashpee Wampanoag who is co-founder of the Native Land Conservancy (NLC), which describes itself as “the first Indigenous-run land conservation group east of the Mississippi with a mission to preserve healthy landscapes for all living things and help restore land back to its original state wherever possible.” Jonas forcefully described her group’s struggle to earn the attention and respect of mainstream land conservation organizations, especially concerning policies and decisions affecting lands once wholly occupied by Native Americans.

She also offered concrete examples of recent meaningful cooperation with traditional land trusts in adopting legally binding agreements to recognize Native American rights and access to ancestral lands. Jonas described a new form of legal instrument, a “Cultural Respect Easement,” modeled on conservation easements now used to protect the environmental values of preserved land. NLC and Cape Cod’s Dennis Land Conservation Trust (DCLT), adopted such a Cultural Respect Easement in December, 2021, “the first of its kind in Massachusetts … [ensuring] Indigenous access to all of the DLCT’s properties for traditional ceremonies and practices in perpetuity.”

A statement issued by DCLT in April, 2022 described the agreement’s meaning for both organizations:

During the fall of 2021, the Board of the DCLT approved a Cultural Respect Easement for access to all DCLT lands owned outright by the Trust. The Board of the NLC celebrated this unprompted move as demonstrating true partnership and commitment to advancing Indigenous cultural access movement at large.

NLC founder and President, Ramona Peters, said, “A Cultural Respect Easement is the closest expression of land repatriation to indigenous people achieved without an actual transfer of deed. It offers assurance for us to safely access areas of our ancestral homelands to exercise spiritual and cultural practices. Respect for our culture includes respect for our relationship with the earth, especially in areas where our ancestors prayed, danced, toiled, lived and were buried.”

The easement was forged in mutual understanding and respect. DCLT Board President Joe Masse said, “We wish to create an open and sharing relationship with the NLC, one in which we support one another, underscoring our mission to create and care for open space, as well as learning, together, how to create an environment of respect. Respect for one another. Respect for the land.”

* * *

Among President Biden’s early decisions after his January 2021 inauguration was the appointment of two Native Americans as chief stewards and administrators of some of the federal government’s vast and valuable public lands. Secretary of the Interior “Deb Haaland made history when she became the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary,” notes the department’s website. “She is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and a 35th generation New Mexican.” 

Charles F. “Chuck” Sams III, appointed by Biden as Director of the National Park Service, also has a deep and complex American ancestry. He “is Cayuse and Walla Walla and is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Northeast Oregon, where he grew up,” according to his Park Service biography. “He also has blood ties to the Cocopah Tribe and Yankton Sioux of Fort Peck.” That two Native Americans occupy these important federal government resource-management positions would have been almost unimaginable even a generation ago, totally beyond possibility a century ago.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (U.S. Department of the Interior)
National Park Service Director Charles “Chuck” Sams III (National Park Service)

The Indigenous backgrounds and perspectives of such influential officials can’t alone provide the solutions to current challenges and crises of course. (Park Service chief Sams, for example, is trying to buttress employee morale: A recent survey of federal agencies ranked the Park Service “371 out of 432 government agencies in 2022 – or in the bottom 15 percentile.”) But the appointment of Haaland and Sams is more than just symbolic. It is an acknowledgement that the concerns of and impacts on all Americans must somehow be considered and included in difficult decisions about environmental policies and programs.

“Environmental justice” is more than just a buzzword phrase. Every avenue of human activity entails costs and benefits that will affect different people differently, both individually and collectively. Policy decisions about such activities–or the passive avoidance of such decision-making–will all be subject to the law of unanticipated consequences. There are no perfect outcomes.

President Biden’s recent executive order is just one modest milestone, although a meaningful one, along a long road of collective human existence as a significant organic force within the global environment. That human force is not ultimately controlled or limited by boundaries defined in terms of politics, nations, ethnicity, race, income, or wealth. Nature will have the last word. ♦