1
Perspective on Environmental Health*

Joseph Lowery

This workshop brings together many individuals from diverse fields to consider rebuilding the unity of health and the environment in the southeastern United States. The issues that confront us are far-reaching and complex. The complexity of the interaction of health and the environment is not a new experience for me. I have faced it before in my work in the environmental justice movement.

The term “environmental justice” had its beginning in the early 1980s, when a small community in Warren County, North Carolina, was selected as the site of a massive toxic waste dump. The location of this site in a predominantly black, and overwhelmingly poor, community led to public demonstrations that attracted national media attention and led to hundreds of arrests. As president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, I participated in the protest, and I was arrested twice.

During a protest one night, we were marching toward the courthouse, and I looked back to survey the nature of the crowd. Hovering over the crowd was a great cloud of smoke from the many protesters who were smoking. As we marched to protest against the depositing of toxic materials in the ground, the water, and our food sources, we were taking toxins directly into our systems. At that moment, the complexity of the interface between environment and health became startlingly evident.

In that era, 20 or 30 years ago, the nation made substantial progress in addressing issues related to the environment and health, even though scientific knowledge was still rudimentary. Passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974 and the Clean Air Amendments in 1977 was crucial to the future of environmental health in the United States. Key legislation in 1972 and 1976 required analysis of chemicals to which the public might be exposed through food or other pathways, and the Superfund statute in 1980 addressed hazardous waste disposal.

*  

This chapter is an edited transcript of Dr. Joseph Lowery’s remarks at the workshop.



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Health and the Environment in the Southeastern United States 1 Perspective on Environmental Health* Joseph Lowery This workshop brings together many individuals from diverse fields to consider rebuilding the unity of health and the environment in the southeastern United States. The issues that confront us are far-reaching and complex. The complexity of the interaction of health and the environment is not a new experience for me. I have faced it before in my work in the environmental justice movement. The term “environmental justice” had its beginning in the early 1980s, when a small community in Warren County, North Carolina, was selected as the site of a massive toxic waste dump. The location of this site in a predominantly black, and overwhelmingly poor, community led to public demonstrations that attracted national media attention and led to hundreds of arrests. As president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, I participated in the protest, and I was arrested twice. During a protest one night, we were marching toward the courthouse, and I looked back to survey the nature of the crowd. Hovering over the crowd was a great cloud of smoke from the many protesters who were smoking. As we marched to protest against the depositing of toxic materials in the ground, the water, and our food sources, we were taking toxins directly into our systems. At that moment, the complexity of the interface between environment and health became startlingly evident. In that era, 20 or 30 years ago, the nation made substantial progress in addressing issues related to the environment and health, even though scientific knowledge was still rudimentary. Passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974 and the Clean Air Amendments in 1977 was crucial to the future of environmental health in the United States. Key legislation in 1972 and 1976 required analysis of chemicals to which the public might be exposed through food or other pathways, and the Superfund statute in 1980 addressed hazardous waste disposal. *   This chapter is an edited transcript of Dr. Joseph Lowery’s remarks at the workshop.

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Health and the Environment in the Southeastern United States It is a sign of complexity that two or three decades ago, with so little knowledge, so much was done to safeguard health and the environment and that, since that time, with a wealth of knowledge, so little has been done. Twenty years of research has revealed that we, and particularly our children, are vulnerable to environmental injustice. Yet politicians and policy makers have not led the public to see the interrelation between education, environment, and health. They have not led because we have not demanded this leadership from them. A central message of today’s meeting is that we must become drivers of those who make public policy and hold them accountable for the condition of the environment. In a larger sense, we are all responsible for the condition of the earth. The earth is a gift or, more accurately, a lease. A lease implies accountability, and with any lease comes a bill that sets forth the specifics of this accountability. In this view, the earth is leased to us, to be cared for and maintained in good condition for future generations. We face accountability in our stewardship and trusteeship of the earth every day as we use it and take resources from it. Recently, a radio broadcast reported on the 100 most memorable songs of the twentieth century. One song near the top of the list fits the context of our discussion today: R-e-s-p-e-c-t, by Aretha Franklin. As we grapple with the relationship between environment and health, the key is r-e-s-p-e-c-t—for the whole creation, for ourselves, and for the environment. In its broadest sense, respect means appreciating and holding in awe the wonders of creation. The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset expressed beautifully the concept of respect in his words, “I am I plus my surroundings and if I do not preserve the latter, I do not preserve myself” (Meditations on Quixote, 1914). These words remind us that the very conditions that we render upon the environment, we render unto ourselves. In this era, we have become caught up in materialism and greed, and our greed has led us to exploit the poor and deprived. In this country, many are still waiting to gain access to the abundant life they see around them, including health care. The current debate on the patients’ rights bill shows some respect for the rights of patients and may lead to legislation, but it does not address the basic issue, which is that 43 million people in this country do not have adequate health care. Patient rights are irrelevant for these 43 million people, because they have no one to sue. This is not the way to honor the oneness of the human family and to show respect for the creation and the created. Instead, we must move beyond charity to love. Charity gives a hungry man a fish sandwich; love will teach him how to fish—but love will not stop there. Love and respect are interchangeable, and respect means providing training so that a person can get a job, buy his own fish, and buy his fishing equipment. Respect means providing a living wage, health care, and adequate means for retirement. Love and respect for all people, and particularly for the deprived, draw us to strong sense of advocacy.

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Health and the Environment in the Southeastern United States Our challenge, as we consider the interface between environment and health, is to see our environment and ourselves as one, and to understand that there is no path to fulfillment for any one of us that does not intersect the path to fulfillment for the rest of us. Acknowledging this creative source of interdependence, this brotherhood and sisterhood, compels us to have respect for this creation and for each other. This respect can spur us on to an effective advocacy that moves us from individual concerns to concern for all and that deals not only with effect but with cause. A story illustrates this point. In a village at the foot of a river, people lived peacefully, in harmony with themselves and the environment. One day a woman saw a baby coming down the river screaming, and she called for help. The men came running, jumped in the water, and saved the baby. They took the child to a warm place and gave him everything he needed. The next day another baby came down the river. The villagers did the same thing, day after day. Finally, they organized a children’s committee; they got the United Way. They did everything they could to take care of the children coming down the river from the mountain day after day. One day, someone said, “I quit. I’m not going to participate in this.” “But you can’t! We’ve still got babies coming!” others protested. “Yes, I know that. I’m going up the mountain to see who is throwing these babies in the river. I’m going to see if I can’t put a stop to it.” That is our advocacy—to fathom the root causes of harm to our environment, and ultimately our health, and to work as one human family to treat those causes and not just their symptoms. I am pleased that the series of regional workshops on rebuilding the unity of health and the environment has begun here in the Southeast. I believe that the Southeast can lead the nation on this issue. I think that the warmth of our area matches the warmth of our hearts as they flow with respect for the creation.