What Is Environmental Justice?

On a sunny Saturday morning in February, I met with Elisa Soto-Danseco on the steps of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza. 

We walked down to the greenmarket in Grand Army Plaza, which runs every Saturday morning from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., year-round. It’s a weekly ritual for Elisa, who graduated with a Master of Science in Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management from The New School and currently works doing research for the Indigenous Environmental Network. 

Her work is largely focused on environmental justice, which she explains as, “just the principles of justice and principles of environmentalism coming together.” Though bringing justice into environmentalism, is “a much more political act,” she says, one that reshifted her perspective. Now, with a justice mindset, Elisa sees environmentalism as the relationship between you and the space you live in — which includes more than just nature, but our built environments as well, where people are part of our environments.

For example, Elisa said, “In having healthy food, it also makes sense that we don’t exclude people on the basis of class and make sure that [healthy food] is financially accessible.”

In New York City, one of the worst food deserts in the US, Central Brooklyn residents’ access to affordable, nutritious options, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, is entirely restricted or nonexistent. Mayor Adams has called it a ‘food apartheid’ highlighting the way in which food access falls along race and class lines, and disproportionately affects communities of color. Food deserts are both a justice issue and an environmental issue — affecting people in a way that stems from the environment they live in. 

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Climate injustice is bountiful in Brooklyn, and more broadly, New York City. For instance, in neighborhoods that lack public green spaces — many of which are comprised of Black, Latinx, or recent immigrants — the effects of heatwaves are drastically amplified

Further 350Brooklyn described Superfund sites in Brooklyn like the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek as being in “neighborhoods whose residents are predominantly people of color,” elaborating that these neighborhoods “have long-standing burdens of pollution from industrial infrastructure, burdens that are now exacerbated by climate burdens.”

Between neighborhood-specific climate impacts and Superfund sites in Brooklyn, it is clear that those with the least power also experience disproportionate environmental impacts within their own communities 

By her observations, Elisa found that the minute that steps are taken to improve a neighborhood, especially environmentally, it becomes more attractive and in demand (a process called green gentrification), leading to people being priced out, moving, and starting the cycle all over again.

At the greenmarket, Elisa bought an apple walnut muffin at one of the local orchard stands. I asked her if responsibility for the climate crisis falls to the individual or the collective. “I think that for a movement to be effective, you need everything,” she answered. “Of course you need people to change their individual lifestyles, but policy change is also welcome, so are more collective actions in the form of protests and demonstrations and social media and discourse and messaging.” 

As for solutions, Elisa sees, “No easy fix.” She explained that “There’s no one solution, there’s not one great policy that can be passed, or one amazing big park that can change all of New York. It’s going to take a lot of time, and it's going to require a lot of holistic thinking.” 

Involved in a holistic implementation of environmental action is a focus on individual neighborhoods. “Part of it is strengthening communities so that we’re not relying on formal paid services to provide all the things that we need. And when we have stronger communities, we have a really diverse set of resources, you have people’s skills, and much faster flows of communication and information.” Programs in Brooklyn like community fridges, community gardens, BK ROT, park alliances, PlantXChange, and the GrowNYC program all contribute to a stronger, more centered community. 

“Those little things build over time such that we don’t see these immense, stark differences across different populations in terms of having healthy food and having access to air that is less polluted, and clean drinking water.”

To make it to the other side of the climate crisis will require “An attack from all sides,” she said. One that can start by evaluating our relationships with food.

The second half of this conversation with Elisa, which focuses on food justice and our relationship with food as part of environmental justice, will come out with the next newsletter, on March 19. Subscribe to our bi-weekly newsletter to get the next instalment straight to your inbox!

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Michaela Keil
Michaela Keil
Michaela Keil is the Editor of Bluedot Living Brooklyn, and the Managing Editor, Special Projects, for the Brooklyn Eagle. When she's not writing, you can either find her outside — in the rain, shine, snow, or cold — or inside baking bread. Find her on twitter @mkeil16.
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