Editor’s note: This story comes to us from Molly Presson, a college classmate of mine. Molly studied Politics and Environmental Studies at Whitman College. She currently resides in Oakland, CA.
A community that experiences high levels of poverty, homelessness and joblessness also experiences unusually high levels of pollution. West Oakland illustrates the parallel forces that both drive socioeconomic inequality and perpetuate environmental racism and injustice.
If you drive down the streets of West Oakland you see a story of government neglect and abuse. From the gaping potholes that fill the streets to the palpable stench of pollution, this area has become a dumping grounds for atmospheric and material waste and overlooked in terms of government protection.
Despite exorbitant poverty levels, West Oakland’s environmental justice movement is strong. The city has long been a hub of community activism, dating back to the Civil Rights era. Notably, the Black Panther movement took its roots in West Oakland in the 1960s. Today, the spirit of resistance and justice endures, and the environmental movement is no exception. Campaigners, artists and activists offer interdisciplinary responses to climate change, even in the absence of funding and official support.
Despite a strong volunteer force, however, residents face an incommensurate battle against government and business, whose actions and inactions disproportionately impact the environmental health and livelihood of the area.
Home to the first Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station across the bay from San Francisco, West Oakland feels the impact of the tech boom. As housing prices rise, more and more people are priced out of San Francisco and make their way to the East Bay in search of livable rent. This eastward migration means longer commute times to San Francisco and the Peninsula, leading to increased carbon emissions. Being one of the most convenient commuter access points to San Francisco, traffic to the West Oakland BART Station has increased considerably in recent years. Considering West Oakland’s placement in highway gridlock, air quality is poor.
There is far more at play in Oakland’s air quality challenges, however, than a simple increase in car traffic. West Oakland has long been neglected by policy makers, industry regulators and city planners. I spoke with Nate Duran, President of the West Oakland Green Initiative, who expressed his frustration with the environmental costs born by this area:
Of course climate change impacts this area. We’re minutes from the Bay and water levels are rising. It’s so much more than that though– the immediate impacts of environmental change are shocking as well. Industry is everywhere in West Oakland and it has become a dumping ground for waste. Beyond that, the Port is a huge issue. Diesel trucks idle as they wait to unload their cargo on the ships at the port and the wind blows directly from the Port into West Oakland. The air we breathe in our neighborhoods is filled with pollution. Respiratory illness and cancer rates are on the rise.
In 2010, a proposal was passed to eliminate the worst of the diesel trucks: those made before 1994 as well as those not equipped with soot filters. However, as Duran explains, “Idling is still an issue when trucks are waiting to load their cargo on ships. There isn’t enough funding to enforce the law.” Although enforcement reports as recent as 2011 have reflected implementation of idling limits, the reality is that enforcement is costly, difficult to administer and therefore largely ineffective.
Official responses, like the 2010 idling regulation, are uninspiring and often overlook the needs and welfare of residents, thus reinforcing cycles of environmental degradation and injustice. We see this clearly in the city of Oakland’s allocation of environmental funding. For instance, Oakland, Emeryville and Berkeley receive a subsidy from Caltrain to offset the environmental impacts of Highway 123, or San Pablo Avenue, which runs through all three of these cities. In Emeryville and Berkeley, the effect is beautiful. Trees, shrubs and other vegetation line the median, maintained by automated irrigation systems. In West Oakland, however, the scene is considerably different. The medians are bare and unkempt. There is no visible evidence that funds have been used to indemnify the environmental costs of the highway.
Volunteers have made attempts to clean up this sector of West Oakland, but without proper irrigation systems improvements are difficult to maintain, especially considering the drought.
Even though the community response is strong, in cases like this, official action has been neglectful. Resources given to the city to counteract environmental damage have been either diverted or misused. City officials declined to comment on the issue, but the city’s website diverts responsibility back to citizens. They advise: “If you want to plant your own sidewalk tree. Choose from the list of approved City trees and follow the guidelines for planting a tree. Oakland is a green city and the more trees the greener it is” (Tree Services). Unfortunately, most residents do not have the means to fund these projects on their own.
Consequently, West Oakland residents experience heavy pollution without any real means of eradicating it. As these examples illustrate, impoverished communities like West Oakland tend to experience more severe consequences of climate change than their wealthier counterparts. West Oakland, where nearly one third of people live below the poverty line, is a crucial example of the concentrated effects of climate change.
It is important to note the racial makeup of this neighborhood, which, according to the most recent census, is 64% African American, 16% Latino, 9% Asian, and 7% white. This compares to the racial/ethnic composition of the whole of Alameda County, which was reported as 41% White, 20% Asian, 19% Latino, and 15% African American. In other words, West Oakland’s population consists of 49% more African Americans than the whole of Alameda County.
West Oakland, a majority African American population, unduly shoulders the burdens of climate change. This occurs even despite the presence of community activists and environmental volunteers. Otherwise said, a community that experiences high levels of poverty, homelessness and joblessness also experiences unusually high levels of pollution. West Oakland illustrates the parallel forces that both drive socioeconomic inequality and perpetuate environmental racism and injustice.
We must look to impoverished areas like this to witness and understand the human consequences of our changing environment. Policy and development overlook these areas, allowing them to become landfills for our increasingly industrialized world. Regulation is weak and even more weakly enforced. Residents are suffering and their voices are being ignored. These are the true victims of climate change and the true measures of humankind’s impact on our changing world.
We must not only recognize the consequences of climate change, but also evolve in our methods of evaluating and understanding environmental degradation. Our climate is fatally apportioned between all people, plants and animals. We cannot, therefore, continue to pass off the consequences of our actions to impoverished areas. This practice is not only unjust, but it is also short sighted. It is only a matter of time before these effects noticeably permeate the boundaries of disadvantaged areas.
In fact, this process has already begun. As cancer and respiratory illness rates rise, residents must seek help from hospitals and social services for their ailments. Further, some residents must rely on disability benefits for their medical care. In areas like West Oakland,many residents cannot afford to pay the costs associated with these illnesses. Taxpayer dollars must be used to cover their expenses, spreading the burden of environmental degradation throughout the state.
Phrases like, ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ and, ‘not in my backyard’ need to be replaced by questions like, ‘What are the consequences of our actions?’ and, ‘How can we reverse both the environmental and social impacts of anthropogenic climate change?’ It is vital that we, as humans, recognize ourselves in our fellow citizens, regardless of their socioeconomic status. It is only in such moments of recognition that we can confront the reality of climate change that so often remains hidden in the poorest regions of our societies.
“Tree Services.” City of Oakland, California. City of Oakland, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
360bybike is part of ArtCOP21, a global climate arts festival surrounding the Paris conference. Learn more at www.artcop21.com/
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