The next disaster could be here
Storms such as the latest rash of hurricanes don’t discriminate, but too often the aftermath of those storms can disproportionately impact communities of color. Dr. Dorceta Taylor, a professor of environmental sociology at the University of Michigan, points out that to see this effect, “All people have to look at is what is going on in the U.S. Virgin Islands” and other areas recently impacted by hurricanes this month, including Florida and Texas.
Taylor, one of the country’s preeminent environmental justice scholars, traveled with a group of 40 students to the Virgin Islands in August and had just returned when Hurricane Irma hit land. She will be the keynote speaker on September 28 for the Friends of the Mississippi River’s annual fall event on Harriet Island. She will talk about the intersection of environmental history, politics and justice, and the importance of inclusion in environmental issues.
“They have no water, no lights, no electricity… The roads are down and the airplanes aren’t going in or out. [People] aren’t able to get off the island,” said Taylor, describing the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in the Virgin Islands.
“We went to the University of the Virgin Islands, an HBCU,” where she and her student group studied climate change, the rising ocean temperature, and the current impact on the island’s fishery. “That lab and most of that university was completely devastated. All the research [is] wiped out. The college itself — most of the buildings — is completely flattened,” Taylor said. “The whole college will need to be rebuilt.”
Although natural disasters and their aftermath don’t discriminate where and when they will strike, the same cannot be said for the money-motivated, man-made aftermath and human consequences of such “unnatural” disasters as Flint, Michigan’s contaminated drinking water caused by orders from city administration.
A September 2015 study found high lead levels in Flint children’s blood as a result of the water change when the city switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River in 2014 to save money. Health economists Daniel Grossman of West Virginia University and David Slusky of Kansas University published a report in the Washington Post recently saying Flint city officials and others ignored residents’ complaints about the odor and appearance of the Flint River. Officials assured people that the water was safe to drink.
The study also noted that the fertility rate in Flint, Michigan might have been greatly affected Between November 2013 and March 2015, 198 and 276 more children could have been born, had the Flint River not been contaminated.
The city eventually switched back to Lake Huron water in October 2015.
“The water was used to poison Black families for probably the next four generations,” said Taylor, “because the governor was so cheap to move off the Detroit water system, and put them on the really dirty, contaminated Flint water.” She predicted the impact of Flint water is so devastating that it will be years before the full impact is seen.
“If we are not diligent, things like that will happen in other cities.” She pointed out that “these sort of things” are more likely to occur in Black communities. Blacks, other people of color and low-income residents are the most vulnerable to climate change. “We need to deal with this issue,” she emphasized.
Taylor has dual doctorates in sociology and forestry and environmental studies, as well as two master’s degrees in sociology and forestry, environmental studies and forest science. Studying biology came naturally for the Jamaican native.
“When I moved to New York, I continued to study biology and ecology,” but when she took a course, she found she was the only Black among White students. “I never saw [studying] the environment as something that you didn’t do.”
When she asked the professor why there weren’t more Black kids in class, he said Blacks weren’t interested. “That was the first time I ever heard it said like that.” This convinced her to test whether or not the professor’s premise was true. If that were so, how could she change that belief?
Taylor teaches courses in environmental history, environmental politics, environmental justice, and sustainable food systems and sociological theory. In addition, Taylor’s research focuses on mainstream and environmental justice ideology and activism history and diversity in the environmental, urban agriculture and food justice areas.
In 2014, she also authored two national reports on diversity in environmental institutions. Among her books, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement (2016) examines how conservation ideas and politics are tied to racism, classism and gender discrimination.
Toxic Communities (2014) is about exposure to environmental hazards in communities of color. The Environment and the People in American Cities: 1600s-1900s is on the history of environmental inequality and urban environmental activism.
Taylor shared her concern about the Trump administration’s proposed anti-environmental justice, environment protection and climate change policies. She advised that we all should be concerned about environmental inequality. “The [Mississippi] river comes through Minneapolis,” and river protection is very important to all, especially if a bad storm hits.
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Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.