For all our talk of polar bears and melting icebergs and “possible” future catastrophes, there are many, many people around the United States and the rest of the world who are already living in the midst of environmental disasters. Often, these people are poor and they lack the political power to stop our power plants, our garbage dumps, our sewage treatment plants, and our expressways from being built in or through their neighborhoods.
These are the neighborhoods, in other words, that bear way more than their fair share of the environmental burden for the way our culture lives. We’re not talking global warming here (though the problems that harm these neighborhoods often also contribute to climate change). We’re talking air that is already too dirty to healthily breathe and waterways that are so polluted that they can make your eyes sting. Not in the future, but now.
One of those neighborhoods is New York’s South Bronx, where some 39 percent of the 500,000-strong population lives below the poverty level (according to the South Bronx Environmental Health and Policy Study). Although they make up only 6.5% of New York's citizenry, the residents find themselves living alongside some 45% of the City’s private waste transfer stations (which process their portions of 20,000 daily tons of commercial trash).
Additionally, the South Bronx is home to the Hunts Point Terminal Market, the largest produce market in the world. It is the distribution point for all New York City’s vegetables. As a result of the waste transfer stations and the market, every day, some 3,000 trucks roar through the South Bronx, either carting New York City’s food out or carting its garbage in.
This makes the South Bronx, as one resident teenager said to me the other day, “the asthma triangle of death.” It has some of the highest asthma rates in the country (which combines particularly badly with residents' particularly poor access to health care).
In addition, the South Bronx’s waterways—the Bronx River, Harlem River, Westchester Creek and the Upper East River—suffer high levels of pollution, from PCB’s to “floatables” (the many varieties of garbage that makes its way into the sewers and then floats).
The water pollution is thanks largely to the wastewater treatment processing plants, which also grace the neighborhood, and the particularly bad “combined sewer overflows” (CSOs). CSOs, which I’ve written about before, protect the wastewater plants from being overwhelmed by purging storm water and raw sewage out of the system and into the waterways when it rains.
Anyway. All this is a long preamble to what I really want to say.
Last Thursday, my friend Kate Zidar and some young people involved in the organization where she works—Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice—took me on a canoe ride along the Bronx River. Encouraging recreation on the river is a YMPJ project with the goal of raising awareness to put local water pollution issues on the political agenda.
But what really impressed me—besides for the stunning resilience of wildlife in the polluted water—was the YMPJ young people. YMPJ’s youth development program centers on training them in community leadership in the hope that they will be inspired activists who will help to rebuild the South Bronx.
One incredible 18-year-old woman, with whom I shared my canoe, told me:
“My parents’ definition of success it to make a lot of money and to get out of the neighborhood. But I want to go to college and come back and make a difference.”
That, to me, is the definition of real environmental heroism.
PS If you think so, too, maybe you would care to make a donation to Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice? You can do so here.
PPS Sorry for the long post.