Q&A with Breanna Byrd & Chris Lang
Graduate Student Interns for the AARC and POCSC
KSQD Interview by: Chris Benner, professor of environmental studies & sociology
Last month, the Institute for Social Transformation hosted Rhiana Gunn-Wright, one of the architects of the Green New Deal. Earlier in the day, Gunn-Wright met with UC Santa Cruz students in a conversation moderated by Chris Lang, a graduate student in Environmental Studies and intern for the People of Color Sustainability Collective, and Breanna Byrd, a graduate student in Feminist Studies and intern at the African American Resource and Cultural Center. We wanted to talk further with them about their experiences around environmental justice and the motivation for their activism.
When you think about environmental justice, what is it that’s important to you and how does your own experience and work speak to that concept?
Chris L: For me, it’s thinking about equity. We need to look at the process of creating goods, commodities, and distributing them geographically across national and international lines and where there are sites of concentrated pollution; whether that’s through producing, extracting or depositing waste. Historically, redlining segregation has played a part in relegating these environmental hazards to certain communities disproportionately, creating communities with higher rates of cancer and asthma. Taking an expansive approach to what the environment means is important. This could include considering the workplace and communities that are over policed, but also thinking about access or lack of access to green space and exposure to disproportionate toxins. We look at who has access to these consumer goods and then who pays the price. We could call that a sacrifice zone; paying the price for this “business as usual” consumption that tries to separate one group from the rest so that we can try to pretend that it doesn’t exist.
The environmental justice movement is trying to expand what we think of as an environment to include the social ecological: the study of the home and how you make a livelihood. It’s always a question of economics, especially right now with the housing precarity that’s popping up all across urban environments and forces of gentrification that push people further out of their communities. I don’t think we can separate the labor arrangements and the histories of segregation that have created such an inequality and a racial wealth gap that can also lend itself to environmental injustice.
Breanna B: I’m invested in disentangling the myth that the histories of slavery have nothing to do with our current series of economic and environmental crises. We need to disentangle the myth that slavery is in the past and bring it into the conversation providing clean water and good housing. This is important because when we think about capital, how it’s working, and what lines it’s using in moving across the world; it’s still moving across transatlantic lines.
I grew up in the South and witnessed what disparity looks and feels like intellectually, structurally, and environmentally. I want to disrupt the idea that those who are descendants of enslaved folks did not have solutions to these issues and did not have the ability to see what the slave system and the plantation system was doing to the environment. Research on the history of sharecroppers, like work by Fannie Lou Hamer, comes out to the forefront for me in environmental justice and following in those footsteps in different ways.
I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about hurricanes and how our response to that is shaped by this experience of the slave trade and how we can help think about that.
Breanna B: In a very literal way, the same winds that produce the transatlantic hurricane also brought ships here. We think about the literal wind and water carrying the history of this trade. We know water holds memory. Fundamentally, the elements we engage with on a day-to-day basis hold memory of this interaction, this violence, the mass death, and the illness, etc. This also impacts the way the nation responds to hurricanes. We see that they’re getting disproportionately worse in the way they affect communities. We see people building mass industrial buildings and tourist zones in these environments that cost billions of dollars when they collapse. So the economic crises that happen after these environmental disasters don’t reflect who is really impacted. In the case of hurricanes, they revealed a way Black folks become vulnerable and our relationship to property dictates the way we receive care from the government; if it’s even possible to receive care.
Chris, I wonder if you could reflect on this a bit, too. I know in some of your writings, you’ve talked about the experience of being in New Orleans post Katrina and how that had affected your understanding of environmental justice issues and hurricanes.
Chris L: Certainly. That question of properties is really central to this. Similar to the wealth gap, access to mobility and access to adaptability also follows along racial lines. Part of my work in New Orleans was with a group called LA Safe. We were trying to map adaptations to climate and climate precarity. What we noticed was that many communities and areas were losing land at the fastest rate in the world because of sea level rising and salt water intrusion. This is a result of the oil industry cutting into the marshland and the swampland. As a result of this apocalyptic forecast, we were seeing members of the community who had access to mobility moving northward and getting out of these Bayou areas. But those who are disenfranchised, who don’t have that access to the same mobility are forced to stay. That means that these communities might not have access to grocery stores or certain resources that are necessary for survival since most of the capital in these coastal communities are starting to move as a result of climate precarity.
What makes you hopeful about some of the national discussions and trends and what are you most worried about at the moment in national trends around climate and environmental justice?
Breanna B: I’m worried about the way some of our framing still naturalizes inequalities. In a structural way, part of what creates the crisis is this ongoing extractive method of engaging with our current lands.I am concerned that we still view this as a stagnant situation and we say that we’re “just vulnerable.” Rather, I want us to think about the way our current government structure requires this vulnerability; it requires this sort of experimentation for environmental disasters.
I’m hopeful that this conversation is coming to the forefront. We see folks like Rhiana Gunn-Wright talking about how social justice is required in thinking about environmental justice. I’m hopeful that as these policies are developed, they become more intricate in thinking about our relationship to settler property and our relationship, fundamentally, to Black liberation. When we talk about prisons as needing to be abolished, this has an environmental imperative on top of the imperative it has for returning folks to their communities. As we move forward, I’m excited for people to continue to join these conversations but I don’t want to keep naturalizing these inequalities.
Chris L: For me, one of the biggest worries is this issue of e-waste and its relation to Ghana in the current linear disposable model where e-waste goods go down into this gradient of national and international power structures. We need to think about the waste that comes from technology like electric cars and solar panels and how this enforces the structure of reproduction and required vulnerability. We have to be careful we don’t fall into these greenwash solutions that have us looking at solar panels as the final outcome. Solar panels are great but they typically last 20 years. What happens after 20 years when we have all of this waste from solar panels and lithium ion batteries that are not being de-manufactured or recycled? We want to believe in fixing climate change, but if we’re not doing it carefully we’re still reproducing the colonial histories that brought us here in the first place.
I look forward to the team the Biden administration is putting together, although it’s not perfect, and getting back into the Paris Climate Accord. I’m happy with the decision to nominate Deb Haaland as secretary of the Department of Interior. It’s huge to have an indigenous woman be responsible for something as important as land.President Biden has also stated a 30 by 30 commitment: 30% of the US territory’s land and water to be conserved by 2030. He has also expressed a desire to invest in communities most impacted by pollution and has stated that 40% of the benefits from federal climate investments will go to these communities. This might include sustainable energy, housing, infrastructure, and transportation. However, I’m worried that we will only tackle this from an energy perspective and not from a labor and livability point of view. We’re still not getting at these questions of fighting for livable wages; we’re missing the target. We might be getting a bit closer, but there’s just so much at stake to not think about this interconnected and intersectionality.