I live in the South Bronx. this small part of New York City receives more than 40 percent of the city’s commercial waste. It is home to two sewage plants and four power plants; 60,000 diesel trucks drive through each week. Some 50 percent of the residents live at or below the poverty line. The hospitalization rate for asthma is seven times the national average.
Unfortunately, race and class are reliable indicators of where one can find trees or waste facilities. We see this reality in many ways, from where good public schools and bad ones are found to sentencing disparities for possession of crack versus powder cocaine. Concentrating power plants, truck routes, chemical facilities and waste-processing plants among poor people with less clout results in dirty industrial design. And it happens because the decision makers don’t have to live amid their choices.
“Environmental justice” means no community should be saddled with more environmental burdens than any other. Achieving it serves many ends: cleaning up the air, water and soil improves the health and quality of life of local residents and lessens global pollution. If we fix “regional sacrifice zones” such as the South Bronx, we fix a lot of things.
Environmental justice can clean up social problems, too. The U.S. is home to only 5 percent of the world’s population, but it houses 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people—in the land of the “free.” A Columbia University study linked greater proximity to fossil-fuel exhaust with greater learning disabilities in children—making them better candidates for jail than higher education. Poverty also leads people to do things that land them in jail. A legitimate green economy can provide jobs that reduce these imbalances as well as clean the environment.
I founded Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx) in 2001 to prove that notion. We started by developing a new park where an illegal garbage dump had been. We then created the South Bronx Greenway, redesigning 11 miles of streets into a network that connects neighborhoods and rivers to one another. Our Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training program certifies formerly jobless and often incarcerated people in green-roof installation and maintenance, urban forestry, hazardous waste cleanup and, soon, in retrofitting our aging buildings for energy efficiency. We also work to get laws passed that fuel demand for these jobs. In 2007 we formed a green-roof installation business. And we are now collaborating with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the Fabrication Laboratory, a set of computers and fabrication machines that help local designers turn waste into new raw materials.
These and other SSBx programs improve the environment and produce local jobs. The fewer people living in poverty, the less likely they will be victim to the pernicious decision making that got us into the trouble we face today. As these efforts are replicated in other communities, less money will be needed for law enforcement and incarceration, making more money available for education and healthy economic development. Currently many politicians are “talking green,” but they are spending more on new prisons than on widespread green economic development.
You can help your elected officials understand the connection between their actions and societal outcomes with four short words: “green jobs, not jails.” It’s a recipe for success with multiple benefits. Major green trophy projects provide good ribbon-cutting ceremonies, but a well-supported environmentally conscious economic agenda, a Green New Deal, will keep dollars in our local economies, carbon out of the atmosphere and healthy families together.
Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Green Jobs, Not Jails".