LGBTQ+ Rights in Brazil

Back of person in white shirt and hat holding rainbow pride flag in the air alongside a colorful designed scarf.
Figure 1: Source: Yahoo Images, Ye Aung Thu; Pride flag held aloft. Back of person in white shirt and hat holding rainbow pride flag in the air alongside a colorful designed scarf.

You look around at the passing people, from old women and working mothers to teachers and police, any of them could want you dead. This is the unfortunate reality facing many LGBTQ+ people in Brazil, the world’s most dangerous country for trans and Queer people. With a stark rise in conservatism driving discriminatory legislation and a president that has publicly vilified “gender ideology” and Queer persons, the rights of LGBTQ+ people are threatened by institutions and public support of hateful rhetoric and discriminatory laws. 

The political climate fostering LGBTQ+ hate

The current president of Brazil is Jair Bolsonaro, who began his term on January 1, 2019. Bolsonaro is seen as a polarizing figure both within Brazil and by the international community for his disparaging comments against women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ individuals. A far-right figure, Bolsonaro claimed in a 2011 interview with Play Boy that he would rather have a dead son than a gay one. 

Figure 2: Source: Yahoo Images; An image of President Jair Bolsonaro. Shoulder to head image of a white male wearing a black suit looking towards the top right corner.

After the election of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s second openly gay congress member Jean Wyllys left their position and fled the country due to the increased level of violence against LGBTQ+ people and the number of death threats received. “It was not Bolsonaro’s election itself. It was the level of violence that has increased since he was elected,” Wyllys told local newspapers. Bolsonaro has been clear about how his convictions motivate his discriminatory rhetoric that disparages LGBTQ+ people, and his election and widespread public support have also translated to widespread violence. 

Bolsonaro represents a rise in conservatism further supported by a significant growth in Evangelism in Brazil over the last decade. Despite being the world’s largest Catholic country, Evangelical churches have been increasing, and now approximately one-third of Brazil’s population is EvangelicalJohn Otis, a reporter for the National Public Radio, found that “Evangelicals now make up 31% of Brazil’s population, according to the Datafolha polling firm. They’re still outnumbered by Catholics, who make up 51%. But evangelicals are growing at a much faster clip. They’re also more politically active than Catholics.” 

Evangelism is an umbrella term for Protestant denominations that emphasize the Bible as the ultimate source of morality and history and a desire to evangelize, or spread their faith. Evangelicals tend to be more conservative and opposed to more progressive values. The concern between the rise in evangelism and subsequent conservatism in Brazil is that these joint forces signal an erosion of secularism and democracy in Brazil.  

On his inauguration day, Bolsonaro said, “We will unite people, value the family, respect religions and our Judeo-Christian tradition, combat gender ideology and rescue our values.” On December 1, 2021, the Brazilian senate approved the appointment of Evangelical lawyer and pastor André Mendonça to a position on the Supreme Court. This is a signal of the key role evangelists play in the political climate of Brazil today with positions on the highest court in the nation and executive office. 

LGBTQ+ experiences 

Foremost, sexuality and gender identities are a focus of discriminatory laws and practices in a lot of states, but trans and Queer people are also the victims of torture, violence, and death.

The highest rates of transpeople and gender non-conforming people killed are concentrated in Central and South America. Most prominently, Brazil has the largest number of trans and Queer people killed in the world, and in 2021, Brazil maintained this position for the 13th consecutive year. 

The violence and deaths of LGBTQ+ individuals are in direct contradiction with the right to life and safety guaranteed to all people. Additionally, LGBTQ+ people face more barriers to healthcare access, and discrimination is conflated by additional minority identities such as being a person of color. Trans persons are particularly vulnerable to exposure to violence due to name and sex details in official documents. 

As a result of the violence, LGBTQ+ people have been responding by taking defense and martial arts classes. In large cities such as Sao Paulo, Porto Alegre, and Rio, defense courses are being offered to Queer people who increasingly doubt Brazil’s institutions will protect them. Carlos Renan dos Santos Evaldt, a banker and president of a gay sports club in Porto Alegre, was spurred to offer jujitsu classes not just to ensure personal safety, but “rights achieved through hard work and at the cost of many lives and years.”

Figure 3: Source: Yahoo Images; An image of people learning jujitsu. A group of four or five white men sitting on a blue mat being instructed by a black man in jujitsu.

Since 2014, there has been a growing passage of legislation, approximately 200 bills, at all levels targeting “indoctrination” and “gender ideology.” Bolsonaro’s Minister of Women, Family, and Human Rights, Damares Alves, an evangelical pastor said on her first day, “Girls will be princesses, and boys will be princes. There will be no more ideological indoctrination of children and teenagers in Brazil.” 

In 2011, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution affirming LGBTQ+ rights as human rights due to the discrimination and violence levied against this minority community. Alves’ promotion of anti-LGBTQ+ speech disparages the identities of all people, and moreover, signals a failure from the ministry with an objective in human rights to combat rhetoric against Queer persons. Brazil is a current member of the Human Rights Council and therefore has an obligation to promote human rights for all. 

Brazil requires comprehensive sexuality education (CSE); however, attempts to reduce or eliminate teaching about gender and sexual orientation represent a threat to the right to education, information, and health. These bills represent a process of silencing rather than honoring the diversity of individuals. 

Successes in face of growing anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments 

While there is still a long way to go in addressing the human rights violations trans and Queer people face in Brazil, there have been successes in the face of growing hate and violence. As previously mentioned, trans people face additional threats due to names and assigned sex at birth listed on official documents. In 2018, Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled that the government could no longer require individuals seeking a name or gender identifier change on official documents to undergo medical procedures or judicial review. Previously, transgender people had to undergo mandatory psychiatric evaluations, medical transitions, or obtain a judicial order. This represents a major step to ensuring the safety and validating the identity of all people. This is a confirmation of the right of a person to self-determination and a denial of any government to decide for a person who they are. 

In June 2019, the Supreme Court furthered its protection of LGBTQ+ people by criminalizing homophobia and transphobia. Under the law, homophobia and transphobia would be treated the same way as racism. In May 2020, the Supreme Court struck down a federal ban on blood donations from men who had sexual relations with men. 

Also, in 2020, the Supreme Court struck down a number of bills that aimed to censor “gender ideology” and sexuality in CSE programs. These cases established that municipalities could not override national education plans, and in these specific cases, changes represented a violation of the right to equality and education. And in April 2022, the Supreme Court affirmed that the “Maria da Penha” law against domestic violence applied to transgender women.

Figure 4: Source: Yahoo Images, Ben Tavener; Gay Pride parade in Sao Paolo, Brazil. A street filled with people to the end, a giant rainbow flag marches at the front of the group held over the heads of numerous participants.

In spite of political attempts to limit or deny the rights of LGBTQ+ people, there are institutions that still protect these human rights. As of this October, Brazil will hold its presidential election between incumbent Jair Bolsonaro and former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is leading in the polls. As Brazilians celebrated Pride month this year with the first in-person parade in two years they did so under the slogan “vote with pride, for policies that represent us.”

The Human Rights Campaign has partnered with Instituto de Políticas Públicas LGBT and Instituto Mais Diversidade in order to promote and develop more inclusive LGBTQ+ employment practices in Brazil and Argentina. By creating more accepting workplaces for Queer people, more inclusion can be fostered across all aspects of life in Brazil. 

To get involved, you can support the Human Rights Campaign by donating so these programs can continue to combat discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. Also, by creating dialogues in your own workplaces on LGBTQ+ inclusion, human rights in corporations will continue to be a standard of practice ensuring equality and equity on all levels, local to international. 

The Right to Vote And The 2022 Midterms

Though the right to vote was codified as a fundamental human right in Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the 20th century, voting has been a cornerstone of American democracy since the nation’s founding in 1776 (though it took a while to realize this right for everyone).  In order to call itself a representative democracy, the United States must represent its citizens through laws and elected officials, which is executed through free and fair elections with equal access to participating in the voting process. In this article, we will be covering the importance of ensuring voter accessibility, some upcoming voter issues from a human rights standpoint, and, of course, how your vote matters! 

Please scroll to the end of this article for information on voter registration, aid in accessing the polls, remote voting options, and how to find your local candidates and docket items.

Source: Steve Rainwater via Flickr

What are Midterms?

Midterm elections are held in the middle of Presidential terms. In midterm elections, eligible citizens vote for the House and Senate candidates that, if elected, shape national laws and policies. The 2022 midterm elections take place this year on Tuesday, November 8, 2022, and will have a major impact on citizens’ rights on both the state and national level. These elections determine which political party will hold the majority in the houses of Congress for the next two years, which can affect everything from the federal budget to national and international policy. Check the current midterms forecast here to see how the House, Senate, and your state elections are predicted to go.

Source: Joe Brusky via Flickr

Each Vote Matters

The most common response I receive when asking why my peers choose not to vote is the thought that, “one vote cannot make a difference”. History disagrees. The 2020 presidential election saw a record voter turnout, with nearly two thirds of all eligible voters (158.4 million people) showing up to the polls. However, midterm elections historically have 10-20% lower voter turnout than presidential elections. For example, the 2018 midterm elections only saw 113 million votes, which is roughly 53% of the eligible voter population; and that was still the highest voter turnout for a midterm election in four decades with a historic average of roughly 40%. That means the elected officials who vote on crucial national policies like minimum wage, education, housing and healthcare are only representative of less than half of Americas eligible voters.

In addition, following the Supreme Court’s decision of Dobbs vs Jackson in June 2022, we have seen a large change in voter demographics as historically conservative states like Kansas, Ohio and Alaska observe spikes in young, female voters and Democrat registrations. On September 13, 2022, Democrat Mary Peltola was sworn in as the first Alaskan Native to be elected as an Alaskan representative in Congress. States that have been dependably Republican for decades are now facing a new population of politically active citizens flocking to all forms of civil engagement in order to change their states, for the present and the future. 

The Voter Issues

As we get closer to the midterm elections, it is important that we recognize both the dangers and the potential solutions that could be determined by the vote this upcoming November. Below you will find some of the largest human rights realms that will be affected by the outcome of the midterms.

Voter Issue: Abortion Rights

In the wake of Dobbs v Jackson, the right to elective abortions has become a prioritized and contentious voting issue for the 2022 midterms. Currently, 26 states are likely, planning to, or have already restricted access to elective abortions following Dobbs. The Pew Charitable Trusts used recent data to create the map below:

Source: The Pew Charitable Trusts

For the first time in five decades, local and state representatives will now determine whether women and people who can get pregnant in your state will have access to what was considered a nationally protected right under Roe v Wade. Beyond the simple matter of legal access, those elected to your state governments have the ability to further restrict or protect the right to abortion in your state. On the national level, those elected to Congress this November will be voting on policies like the Women’s Health Protection Act; a piece of federal legislature that would protect abortion access nationwide. 

While we are still two months away from elections, there are many signals that abortion will be one of the largest voter issues this election season. The very demographic of voter registrations has shifted following the Dobbs decision in June, with a rise in female, young, and Democrat voter registrations nationwide. In Kansas, a state with a long history of voting red (56% of Kansas voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump in 2020), an anti-abortion referendum was struck down by 59% of votes. This is the first time since Dobbs was decided that restrictive abortion legislation was struck down by voters. It was also a clear display of voter participation shifting the partisan norm as a deeply conservative state was met at the polls by voters, impassioned with protecting reproductive rights.

Source: “Vote Earth Tree” by Earth Hour Global is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Voter Issue: Climate Change

The United Nations passed a resolution in July of 2022 that declares a clean, healthy environment is a universal human right. In addition, the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act plans to tackle both economic and environmental issues by majorly investing in clean energy production and creating jobs in the industry. Unsurprisingly, the Pew Research Center found that energy policy and climate change are two predominant issues voters will consider when casting their votes in November.

Source: Valeriya via Getty Images/iStockphoto

Voter Issue: Healthcare

The right to health is an inclusive right, defined by the United Nations as encompassing accessibility, quality, and availability amongst other qualities. While the aforementioned Inflation Reduction Act plans to lower drug costs for Medicare recipients, America still stands alone as the only developed nation in the world that does not have Universal Healthcare.

With chronic, severe or uncommon conditions, constant full-time employment may be the only way to gain affordable insurance that provides access to vital drugs and treatments. Insulin and Epi-Pens are two life-saving essential drugs that American citizens experience being denied access to because they cannot afford out of pocket costs. A simple ambulance ride can cost upwards of $1,200, an amount many Americans could not pay without incurring debt. With bankruptcy and extreme medical woes being legitimate fears for American citizens without health insurance, it is easy to see why 60% of voters say that healthcare policy is very important to their vote in the midterm elections.

Source: Victoria Pickering via Flickr

Voter Accessibility And Suppression

Voter suppression, whether passive or active, is a real issue in 2022. It is crucial that we recognize the ways in which voter accessibility is inhibited, especially in the discussion of voter turnout and how that affects who is truly represented in the US Government. Lack of accessibility and excessive voter registration requirements are detrimental to our voter turnout, and contribute to feelings of helplessness and voter apathy.

One of the largest inhibitors of active voters is pure accessibility. The US Justice Department states that, “Title II of the ADA requires state and local governments… ensure that people with disabilities have a full and equal opportunity to vote. The ADA’s provisions apply to all aspects of voting”. While some cite mail-in voting as a solution to physically inaccessible polling locations, the DOJ continues to specify that, “Any alternative method of voting must offer voters with disabilities an equally effective opportunity to cast their votes in person,” meaning that simply offering a mail-in vote option is not just insufficient; it is illegal. Despite this, the American Bar Association has found that “persons with disabilities made up one-sixth of eligible voters in the 2016 election, yet only 40 percent of polling places were accessible.” Both persons with disabilities and the older population are greatly impacted by this lack of accessibility.

While accessibility at physical voting locations is a major issue, the voter process begins with voter registration; a procedure that can be incredibly inhibiting. Voter ID requirements are one of the primary obstructions across the board when citizens attempt to register to vote. Burdensome voter identification restrictions are explained as necessary security measures, but their policy outcome is that citizens who are eligible to vote are unable to due to the expensive and time-consuming process necessary to obtain government IDs. While the average percent of eligible voters who lack a government-issued photo ID is roughly 11% per the Brennan Center’s research, that amount is significantly higher amongst minority groups, low-income people (15%), young voters 18-24 (18%) and old voters 64 or above (18%). The highest category though is African-American citizens, who reported a staggering 25% of voting-age citizens without eligible IDs. In a nation with a history of civil rights abuses, institutional racism and voter suppression, modern voter ID laws must be re-evaluated in order to uphold the integrity of the electoral system in America.

Additional voter restriction issues include lack of public transportation to polling sites, deceptive practices, racial and partisan gerrymandering, employers not providing time off, long lines, prolific jailed, previously jailed and ex-felon disenfranchisement.  A representative democracy must represent its people, and to do that its people must be able to vote.

Resources:

  • Please click HERE to register to vote. If you are interested in absentee or mail in voting options, please check out this page where you can speak to an agent if you have any additional questions!
  • VoteRiders is an amazing nonprofit that helps voters to obtain their necessary documentations, and can help provide rides to the DMV to obtain photo IDs and rides to the polls through their volunteer service! Their organization will also cover any fees necessary in the ID process, so please check them out if their resources would be helpful to you or if you are interested in volunteering with them! You can also reach their help line at 888-338-8743
  • Rock the Vote provides helpful information on voting in your state, walks you through the registration process and provides helpful reminders for upcoming voter deadlines!
  • To learn more about voter suppression or to join the fight against voter ID restrictions and voter suppression nationwide, please check out the ACLU and the Brennan Center today!
  • Find the forecast for your State’s midterm election results here

 

A Bright Future – Recent Human Rights Victories

Source: Yahoo Images, Unknown Artist

In the midst of a pandemic and international unrest, it is vital to stay encouraged and optimistic as we continue our efforts to uphold and protect human rights internationally. That is why we at the Institute for Human Rights at UAB will be using this article to break up the negative news cycle and put a spotlight on a few of the amazing victories and progress the international community has made during the pandemic that you might not have heard about. Though positive human rights news may not always make headlines, it is important to recognize each success, just as it is vital we address each issue. 

Source: Quentin Meulepas via Flickr

The UN Declares Access to a Clean Environment is a Universal Human Right – July 2022

Of the 193 states in the United Nations general assembly, 161 voted in favor of a climate resolution that declares that access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a universal human right; one that was not included in the original Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. While the resolution is not legally binding, it is expected that it will hugely impact international human rights law in the future and strengthen international efforts to protect our environment. Climate justice is now synonymous with upholding human rights for the citizens of member-states, and the United Nations goal is that this decision will encourage nations to prioritize environmental programs moving forwards.

Kazakhstan and Papua New Guinea Abolish the Death Penalty- January 2022

Kazakhstan became the 109th country to remove the death penalty for all crimes, a major progress coming less than 20 years after life imprisonment was introduced within the country as an alternative punishment in 2004. In addition to the national abolition,  President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has signed the parliamentary ratification of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 6 of the ICCPR declares that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of life”, but the Second Optional Protocol takes additional steps to hold countries accountable by banning the death penalty within their nation. Though the ICCPR has been ratified or acceded by 173 states, only 90 have elected to be internationally bound to the Second Optional Protocol (the total abolition of the death penalty), and Kazakhstan is the most recent nation to join the international movement to abolish the death penalty globally. 

Papua New Guinea also abolished their capital punishment, attributing the abolishment to the Christian beliefs of their nation and inability to perform executions in a humane way. The 40 people on death row at the time of the abolishment have had their sentences commuted to life in prison without parole. Papua New Guinea is yet to sign or ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, but by eliminating the death penalty nationwide the country has still taken a significant step towards preserving their citizens right to life. 

Source: Randeep Maddoke via Wikimedia

India Repeals Harmful Farm Plan – November 2021

Many of you will remember seeing international headlines of the violent protests following India’s decision to pass three harmful farming laws in 2020. The legislation, passed in the height of the pandemic, left small farmers extremely vulnerable and threatened the entire food chain of India. Among many other protections subject to elimination under the farm laws was the nations Minimum Support Price (MSP), which allowed farmers to sell their crops to government affiliated organizations for what policymakers determined to be the necessary minimum for them to support themselves from the harvest. Without the MSP, a choice few corporations would be able to place purchasing value of these crops at an unreasonably low price that would ruin the already meager profits small farmers glean from the staple crops, and families too far away from wholesalers would be unable to sell their crops at all. 

Any threats to small farms in India are a major issue because, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, “Agriculture, with its allied sectors, is the largest source of livelihoods in India”. In addition, the FAO reported 70% of rural households depend on agriculture and 82% of farms in India are considered small; making these laws impact a significant amount of the nation’s population.  A year of protests from farmers unions followed that resulted in 600 deaths and international outcries to protect farmers pushed the Indian government to meet with unions and discuss their demands. An enormous human rights victory followed as Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in November of 2021 that they would rollback the laws, and on November 30 the Indian Parliament passed a bill to cancel the reforms. As the end of 2021 approached, farmers left the capital and returned home for the first time in months, having succeeded at protecting their families and their livelihoods.

Source: Sebastian Baryli via Flickr

Sudan Criminalizes Female Genital Mutilation – May 2020

Making history, Sudan became one of 28 African nations to criminalize female genital mutilation / Circumcision (FGM/C), an extremely dangerous practice that an estimated 200 million woman alive today have undergone. It is a multicultural practice that can be attributed to religion, sexual purity, social acceptance and misinformation about female hygiene that causes an onslaught of complications depending on the type of FGM/C performed and the conditions the operation is performed in. Among the consequences are infections, hemorrhage, chronic and severe pain, complications with childbirth, and immense psychological distress. It also causes many deaths from bleeding out during the operation or severe complications later in life. We have published a detailed article about female genital mutilations, gender inequality and the culture around FGM before, which you can find here

FGM/C is a prevalent women’s rights issue in Africa, and in Sudan 87% of women between the ages of 14 and 49 have experienced some form of “the cut”. While some Sudanese states have previously passed FGM/C bans, they were ignored by the general population without enforcement from a unified, national legislature. This new ban will target those performing the operations with a punishment of up to three years in jail in the hopes of protecting young women from the health and social risks that come from a cultural norm of genital mutilation and circumcision.

Where do we go from here?

While we have many incredible victories to celebrate today, local and international human rights groups will continue to expose injustices and fight for a safer and more equal future for all people. Our goal at the Institute for Human Rights at UAB is to educate; to inform readers about injustices and how they can get involved, and to celebrate with our incredible community when we have good news to share! While the past year has been marked with incredible hardships, it is always exciting when we have heart-warming international progress to share!

You can find more information about us, including free speaker events and our Social Justice Cafes on our Instagram page @uab_ihr! Share which of these positive stories you found most interesting in our comments, and feel free to DM us with human rights news you would like us to cover!

Barren- Food Deserts and Hunger in America

What Is a Food Desert?

Source: Mike Mozart via Flikr

Currently in America, the neighborhood you were born in can affect your future income, education level, and your ability to consistently access nutritional food. The Food Empowerment Project (FEP) defines food deserts as “geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance”. The USDA has defined two types of food deserts: one that exists in both rural areas more than 10 miles from the nearest store and the second which exists in urban environments, where citizens face daily obstacles in obtaining healthy food due to lack of availability or resources. But, the average conversation about food deserts surrounds zones within American cities where citizens, hindered by lack of access to transportation and restricted budgets, are unable to obtain nutritional food. Food deserts play a critical role in food insecurity in the United States, and they are typically visible in urban areas where the residents are already living in extreme economic hardship. 

The Institute of Human Rights at UAB has recently published an article about food deserts in our hometown of Birmingham, Alabama that you can read here– but for readers in other parts of America, I want you to do an exercise with me. Think about your nearest big city, or an urban area you are familiar with. This can be in New York City, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, or whichever metropolis best applies to you. Visualize the roads you drive, the areas both wealthy and impoverished. Now, think of the few streets within that city where there are almost no Walmarts, Targets, Krogers or Publix chains. In this stretch, there are tons of fast food restaurants, cash bond and payday loan businesses, laundromats and gas stations. There is an abundance of drive throughs and minimarts, but you could drive for a few minutes before you find a grocery store. Can you see that part of your city in your head now? THAT, dear reader, is your local food desert. 

Note: The USDA compiled census and other data into an interactive map called the Food Environment Atlas, which allows any user to view rates of food insecurity, diet quality, and food prices in your area or any neighborhood you are curious about. If you struggle to think of a food desert near you, or want to learn about what areas are impacted by food insecurity, I recommend you try out the Food Environment Atlas here.

Source: DcJohn Via Flickr

The Cause:

Food Deserts have typically been attributed to socioeconomic status. One of the main characteristics that defines a food desert is lack of accessibility, which means people living in a certain region have limited resources, be it money, time or transportation to access nutritional, fresh food. Food deserts are most common in low socio-economic  areas, where residents are unlikely to own a car or have one that is not always working. Americans living here typically live paycheck-to-paycheck, and require both accessibility and affordability to make ends meet throughout the month. It is currently estimated that one in six Americans still experience food insecurity, and that roughly 19 million people are affected by food deserts or limited access to supermarkets in America. Recent studies by the United States Department of Agriculture confirm the connection between race and food deserts, stating in 2019 that “rates of food insecurity were substantially higher than the national average for single-parent households, and for Black and Hispanic households”. 

The conversation surrounding food deserts has shifted to include race in recent years. Originally, the term food desert was coined to represent the socioeconomic disparities that cause some Americans to face food insecurity. Now, organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) are pushing to recoin the term as food apartheid to accurately represent the way food insecurity affects those of minority race in America. The NRDC explains the term shift, saying that, 

“Many groups are now using the term “food apartheid” to correctly highlight the how racist policies shaped these areas and led to limited access to healthy food. Apartheid is a system of institutional racial segregation and discrimination, and these areas are food apartheids because they too are created by racially discriminatory policies. Using the term “apartheid” focuses our examination on the intersectional root causes that created low-income and low food access areas”. 

Essentially, it is vital that we recognize how a historical and current racial inequalities act as a cause of both the food deserts and the zones of poverty they’re found in. The historically black areas of segregated cities were underfunded and underdeveloped, plagued by lack of opportunity and equal access, and in some areas across the United States an economic shadow of that segregation still remains.

Source: Gilbert Mercier via Flickr

Their Effect and Why It Matters:

America has incredibly high rates of obesity and nutrition-based health issues in comparison to other developed countries. While there are decades of research connecting poverty and race to higher rates of nutrition-based disease and other health issues in America, science is now beginning to track the specific effects of food deserts on obesity and chronic illness. A corner store or a pocket-sized version of big supermarket chains like a Walmart Neighborhood Market, but if you take the time to walk inside you’ll see the fresh produce section is either neglected or nonexistent. These smaller stores have less room for inventory, their foods are less likely to be fresh produce due to the requirements to keep them fresh, and these foods are often packaged and processed. That means those who depend on these stores are limited to fast food, packaged goods, or other processed and low quality options that can contribute to malnutrition, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and more.

In addition to the effects of food deserts on health, the prices per unit are almost always more expensive than their suburban, chain-grocery counterparts. A person who can afford a Costco membership will almost always spend less on the same food products as a family living paycheck to paycheck or utilizing EBT for groceries. A 1997 USDA study found that “geographic location was the single most important contribution to higher nationwide average prices faced by low-income households”, and that smaller stores charged more per item than supermarkets nationwide. Food scarcity and cost disparities disproportionately affect minorities and those already living in financial insecurity, and each city has a part to play in ending this national crisis of inequality.

Source: Sue Thompson via Flickr

Join the movement to end food insecurity in the US:

Ultimately, the end to food desertification requires an effort between elected officials and businesses to make nutritious food affordable and accessible for all people. If you recognized a food desert near you in the imaginative exercise we did earlier, that could be the perfect topic to address with your local lawmakers through emails, calls or petitioning. If you prefer other types of action, there are countless ways to work as individuals to help your community in the meantime. Getting involved in the fight against food insecurity can be as hands-on and involved as you want, from donating non-perishable foods and needed items to local organizations, shelters or food kitchens to establishing a community garden, or everything in between. There are plenty of ways to make a difference at whatever level of involvement works best for you, and I’ve linked some of my favorites below!

A Few Ways to Get Involved:

  • Click HERE to find your elected officials on the state and local level and how to contact them about the food deserts affecting their voters. You can use your voice to push for changes that directly impact your community in a positive way.
  • Feeding America is a charity that uses your donations to help the 1 in 8 Americans experiencing hunger now. This link takes you straight to their front page, which features a zip code locator for the closest food bank to you!
  • Organize or contribute to a local food drive. Many public schools and local businesses run food drives for charities throughout the year, and Rotary International has an awesome guide available for starting your own community food drive HERE. Sharing surplus food is an excellent way to help others while reducing waste as well!
  • Use this link to find food pantries near you to donate, volunteer, and get involved in your state’s fight against food insecurity.
  • Find what works for you. Try searching for more ways to get involved that are tailored to your area and preferences…every contribution helps!

Bans on Youth Transgender Affirming Care

When it comes to children, parents almost always have full control over the healthcare received and how its administered. With the exception of some Jehovah’s Witness’s cases, abortion cases, and court-tied decisions, parent’s typically have the final say so when it comes to the healthcare treatment that a child may take on. While at times this level of parental jurisdiction can prove problematic, when there is a discrepancy between what a child wants and what the parents want, this jurisdiction in the case of those aiming to help their children receive gender-affirming care is becoming more difficult.

Older children smile and hug while wearing the Pride flag.
Children smile and hug while wearing the Pride flag. Source: Yahoo Images

Gender-Affirming Care & Gender Dsyphoria

According to the Trevor Project, more than half of trans and non-binary youth consider suicide annually. This striking statistic appears to be remedied by the the reception of gender-affirming care. Gender-affirming care is defined by the World Health Organization as care that “support[s] and affirm[s] an individual’s gender identity” when it conflicts with the gender identity assigned at birth. For those below the age of 18, this care rarely involves the use of surgery. Instead, puberty blockers, which delay the onset of puberty, and hormone therapy, which helps induce physical characteristics that align with their gender identity, are used to help minors work against gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is explained by the American Psychology Association to be “psychological distress” rooted in a discrepancy between gender assignment and gender identity. This condition is associated with high rates of mental health conditions and suicide. As such, the reception of gender-affirming care by children has the potential to address gender dysphoria and lead to better health outcomes for trans and non-binary children.

Preventing access to this life-saving care can have dangerous effects, but that’s exactly what proposed and brainstormed bills in several states have the potential to do. The rationale behind such bills varies with voices from Texas likening gender-affirming care to child abuse and with other states claiming that children aren’t ready to make such important decisions regarding their bodies. The interesting part in these bills is where the penalty falls. Both providers and parents are at the mercy of state employees and educators if they seek to either perform or connect the child with gender-affirming care. The irony is that in most cases, parents are needed to consent to medical care and that providers are encouraged to align with parental wishes. Parents have to consent to their children receiving vaccines. If a parent or guardian decides to go against the standards for recommended care, then the pediatrician must oblige. In the case of standards around gender-affirming care, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Association of Medical Colleges has made clear that there are criteria to determining whether a child should receive care and that gender-affirming care is the standard of care if these criteria are met.

White board with the words "Hello my pronouns are" followd by two open underlined areas with a slash where two pronouns can fit. The letters are in a variety of birght colors along a rainbow gradient.
Sign where people can fill in their pronouns. Source: Unsplash

Exploring a Right to Healthcare

In this sense, a denial of a child’s access to arguably life-saving and parentally sanctioned treatment goes against a right to health care. Alabama Rep. Neil Rafferty, the singular openly gay member of the Alabama Legislature, spoke to the matter before his state’s bill was ratified. “Y’all sit there and campaign on family being the foundation of our nation … but what this bill is doing is totally undermining that. It’s totally undermining family rights, health rights and access to health care.”

While healthcare as a right remains uncodified in the US, the United States has signed on to multiple international agreements, most recognizably the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, and is held to international suspicion and disfavor should it move towards legislation that hinders a human right and targets minorities. Whether this international judgement holds sway over the United States politically and legislatively is one thing, but for a country viewed to be a global hegemony, a stand against what can be perceived as a violation of fundamental human rights and protections for children is jarring.

Additionally, some bills, like Alabama’s, have enfolded restrictions and impositions on on trans children. For example, under an extension of the bill, students in Alabama must use the restrooms that align with the gender assigned at birth making education an uncomfortable environment for trans children.

Child with a shirt that says "Love who you are." The child has their hands on their hips akin to a superhero pose and has eye makeup on.
Child posing with a t-shirt and position expressing self-love. Source: Unsplash

As such, an attack on healthcare can operate as an entryway into further impositions on trans rights that have been long hard fought and won for years.

 

Though there’s no telling what the future holds for trans children, there are still ways to support them.

1. Donate to LGBTQ+ affirming spaces and support networks like The Trevor Project.

2. Write letters to your state representatives relaying your support of LGBTQ+ children and their ability to have access to quality, life-saving healthcare and urging their reconsideration of a politician’s support for legislation that may prevent said access.

3. Check in with people in your life who may be affected by such a decision.

 

The Consequences of Overturning Roe v. Wade

I wanted to immediately straighten out my perspective in this argument.
Figure 1: Source: Yahoo Images; An abstract image of a group of individuals holding a sign that reads “Our Body = Our Choice.”

This is an unprecedented time we live in. We are currently living through climate change, a pandemic on pause, and an international conflict that has the potential to turn global. People around the world are struggling with conflicts and atrocities, at times, due to the American military’s involvement, while hundreds more are dealing with increasingly dangerous heat waves as a result of the climate crisis. Still, others are trying to face the consequences of the pandemic, including the devastation left behind due to the loss of lives and the increasing financial insecurity that continues to widen the inequality gap between the struggling and the affluent. War in Ukraine wages on as we enter the fourth month since its beginnings, with what seems like no end in sight, while the Pentagon discusses options of US involvement in the fight against Russia. Now, the precarious attack on women’s rights seems to be the latest hurdle for Americans. This regression of rights in the democratic nation which has claimed countlessly throughout history to “spread democracy into the world,” seems beyond ironic and hypocritical.

The History of the Abortion Rights Movement and Context Behind Roe V. Wade

I wanted to include an image of what was considered proper family values, with a working dad, and a house wife tending to her children.
Figure 2: Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting a typical nuclear family structure that promoted “family values” of the Religious Right. A hard-working dad waves to his wife alongside his growing son as the housewife waves back dutifully.

Before analyzing the recently leaked draft of the Supreme Court decision attacking women’s right to privacy, we should examine the history and context behind the controversial topic of abortion. How did abortion become such a controversial, political issue? Well, in order to have a holistic view of this topic, we have to examine the Religious Right movement that took place in the 1970s in what is known as the Sunbelt states or the lower half of the United States. This movement involved the grass-roots participation of churches and other Christian organizations in politics to push for a more traditional, “moral” policy platform in response to the growing feminist and gay liberation movements of the time. These Religious Right organizations aimed to reverse bans on prayers in school, shift toward more traditional values, and limit sexual freedoms, including pornography, sex work, and even abortion rights. One specific organization, known as the Moral Majority, declared “war against sin” and was especially involved in electing officials to government offices who were sympathetic to their cause. The Religious Right movement was so successful in its “family values” campaign that it was in part responsible for the Equal Rights Amendment’s failure to be ratified, thaks to one devoted, conservative activist by the name of Phyllis Schlafly. They also vehemently opposed the right to abortion that was secured by the passing of Roe v. Wade, and they constantly attempted to have the decision overturned. To the members of the Christian New Right, abortion was a sin, and many believed it to be the murder of an unborn child. They provided Bible verses from the scripture to support these beliefs, disregarding the countless scientific developments that were being published that stated otherwise. While they were concerned about abortion rights and attempting to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Christian New Right has failed to consider the basis upon which the Supreme Court case was decided, and the precedent it would set if overturned.

Roe v. Wade is a Supreme Court case that was brought before the court in 1970 regarding the legality of an abortion law in Texas which criminalized abortion in most circumstances. The decision, in this case, was based on the right to privacy guaranteed in the “due process clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment, which states that a person should not be denied the right to life, liberty, and property without going through a legal process that is fair and meets some fundamental standards of justice. This essentially means that the state or federal government cannot limit fundamental rights such as the right to privacy.

What Overturning Roe v. Wade Would Mean

I wanted to showcase some examples of contraception methods that might also be impacted by the overturning of privacy rights.
Figure 3: Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting condoms and birth control pills, two contraception methods under attack as a consequence of overturning Roe v. Wade.

The Roe v. Wade decision was an expansion of privacy rights that had been referenced as a precedent for this ruling. Privacy rights range from women’s right to birth control to the right to same-sex marriages, was used to overturn sodomy laws, and even applies to issues concerning data privacy. Overturning such a monumental decision can have devastating consequences on not only women but all citizens across the nation. This regression of rights, in an attempt to end all abortions, will not have the intended effect. Women are going to continue to require and desire to have abortions, either due to health complications, personal preferences or after surviving traumatic instances of sexual abuse. Abortions are not going to magically stop happening and making it illegal to get or perform an abortion is not going to stop rape and incest from occurring either. If history is to be the judge, what is more likely to happen instead, is that women are going to attempt dangerous and untested procedures in desperate attempts to get abortions, which can be life-threatening for the women in many instances.

As part of their anti-abortion crusade, many states, (which includes Alabama, Kentucky, Texas, and seven others) are not providing exceptions for instances of rape and incest in the anti-abortion laws they have proposed, and many politicians, (such as Pete Ricketts, a Republican Governor of Nebraska, or Republican Representative Steve King of Iowa), have been asked for clarifications about this very issue on multiple occasions. What they constantly reply is that even a rapist’s child is still a child, meaning that women who are raped or have been victims of incest cannot receive abortions in these states and will be forced to carry to term the children of their abuser. To place such an expectation on victims of abuse and force them to live through the immense trauma that these laws would demand is not only unjust but purely evil.

Another cruel consequence of the anti-abortion laws many “trigger” states are prepared to pass is the impact these laws have on the ability of women to have an abortion after miscarriages and stillbirth. Procedures utilized to address miscarriages and stillbirths involve the same medications and procedures used for abortions. Outlawing these medications and procedures can tremendously impact women experiencing miscarriages or stillbirths and place caregivers in delicate positions legally. Due to the fact that many states have prepared to criminalize abortion and have encouraged neighbors to report anyone getting an abortion or helping someone else get an abortion, hospitals, and abortion clinics are also placed in vulnerable positions. Originally proposed by Texas, four more states have passed similar proposals for the enforcement of abortion laws through the involvement of citizens. While all this sounds like it came from a bad dystopian novel, we are only at the tip of the iceberg of consequences, so to speak.

Figure 4: Source: Yahoo Images; A woman depicted behind bars. Overturning Roe v. Wade would criminalize abortion in certain states, and some states even have laws that would press felony charges on medical professionals who provide aid in the abortion process. These consequences disproportionately impact women of color.

The denial of abortion rights portrays the backsliding of American democracy, but the criminalization of abortion leans toward fascist tendencies. The right to abortion is not simply a women’s rights issue but also a voting rights issue that can be catastrophic for the survival of our democracy. A brave Congresswoman, Lucy McBath, addressed a hearing on abortion rights conducted by the House Judiciary Committee after sharing her personal experiences with two miscarriages and a stillbirth. She questioned, “If Alabama makes abortion murder, does it make miscarriage manslaughter?” Many states, such as Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Utah, have already proposed laws incriminating abortions. In an extreme proposal, Texas “trigger” laws would deem abortions a second-degree felony with sentences up to 20 years, and in cases where the fetus is dead, (meaning miscarriages or stillbirth), the charges can become first degree felonies and the sentence can be anywhere between five years to life in prison. Many states are even proposing fines on top of prison sentences for abortions. These laws not only target the women getting abortions, but also anyone who assists in the process. People charged with felonies in many states in America lose their right to vote, even after having served their sentences. If abortions are criminalized and women and “abortion-sympathizers” are charged with felonies, this would be a form of state repression of an entire voting block. If women are sentenced to jail and prison time for abortions and using contraceptives, they will also be disenfranchised as a result of their “criminal” record. This can set dangerous precedents for privacy rights in general and is fundamentally a threat to democracy.

The Myth of the “Pro-Life” Argument and Why “Just Moving” is not a Practical Option for Many Americans

I wanted to include this image to showcase how passionate people on the anti-abortion side really are about this issue.
Figure 5: Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting women from an anti-abortion rally, holding signs that read, “Repent. Abortion is a sin against God,” with chalked outlines of fetuses occupied by women protestors.

The “pro-life” stance, one of the biggest misnomers in American history, has been responsible for forcing women to have unwanted births and taking away women’s agency over their own bodies. This sentiment mirrors the dystopian society of Gilead from the famous series by Margaret Atwood, “The Handmaid’s Tale”. The “pro-life” argument is only concerned about the birth of the fetus in question. Once the baby is born, families are left to fend for themselves, without any saftey nets in place to help these families raise healthy children. First off, there are very limited legal protections in place to ensure that once a baby is born, the mother and the child will receive all the assistance they require to develop a healthy and nurturing childhood for the newborn. Along these lines, affordable childcare options in America are minimal, and the foster care system has proven to be underfunded and ineffective, oftentimes even acting as a breeding ground for abuse and neglect of the very children they are supposed to care for. Maternal leaves are not mandated by states or the federal government, but rather left for individual companies to decide whether to offer them or not, and paternal leave, (for the father to have a chance to bond with the newborn child), is almost unheard of in this country. Additionally, people who are poor might not be able to afford the high costs of childcare, or even doctor visits during pregnancy and prenatal care to ensure a healthy pregnancy. People living in impoverished situations might not be able to feed another mouth in their family due to financial situations, and these hardships have been exacerbated due to the pandemic. Politicians and media platforms  stress the unborn “child’s” right to life while they argue why holding immigrant children in cages at the border is justified. The same “pro-life” supporters are also in favor of loose gun regulations and refuse to listen to the many children who are asking their representatives to pass stronger gun laws to prevent school shootings. The fact that the same people in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade are also in favor of banning forms of contraception that prevent pregnancies in the first place, signals that this decision is rooted in a far more sinister legacy of controlling women’s autonomy.  This has been the case throughout history, throughout the world. Women have been deemed second-class citizens until very recently when we secured the right to vote through the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment even though it never was fully ratified. Up until 1974, when the Fair Credit Oppurtunity Act was passed, women were not even allowed to own credit cards in their names. These “pro-life” arguments simply serve the purpose of restricting women’s right to privacy and the right to their own bodies. During the pandemic, anti-maskers cried, “my body my choice.” Those same anti-maskers today are adopting the “pro-life” argument to dictate what a woman can do with her body, in a shallow attempt to secure the rights of unborn zygotes.

Furthermore, there are many states, (13 to be exact) that have been set to pass extreme anti-abortion “trigger” laws immediately following the overturning of Roe v. Wade and a total of 23 states that are set to restrict abortions. These are predominantly red states, and one of the popular arguments from anti-abortion enthusiasts is that you can simply move to a blue state if you don’t like the policies your state passes. This is not a simple task. For one, it requires tremendous amounts of money to be able to even move anywhere in today’s inflated economy. Jobs have to be lined up, and if you have children, you have to look into school districts and make sure they can be enrolled with no issues. If you own property in your current state, you can’t just move. You have to be able to afford to either spend on a secondary living situation while your current home is being sold, or you have to wait until you can sell your home before you can move. For people who are experiencing poverty, those families that live paycheck to paycheck, will be forced to continue living in these red states, and as a result, be forced to live with these anti-abortion laws. Some states, like Missouri, are even restricting women from seeking out-of-state abortions, criminalizing those seeking the abortion as well as those who help with the process. With all this said, research shows how all these laws will impact poor and marginalized people the most, and this is yet another example of how the state criminalizes poverty.

Other rights that may be threatened by the overturning of Roe v. Wade

Figure 6: Source: Yahoo Images; Other rights under attack from the overturning of Roe v. Wade include LGBTQ+ rights like same-sex rights, and the right to contraception, and even challenge the livelihood of sex workers.

Since Roe v. Wade is fundamentally based on the freedom of privacy, overturning this law can set precedent to attack and target other rights. In the leaked draft of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito argues that Roe v. Wade was an unconstitutional judgment based on weak arguments and alleged that the case has been responsible for deepening the societal divide. In the draft, Alito argues that the basis for Roe v. Wade (mainly the right to privacy) was “invented” and “flawed,” insisting that the judgment was unconstitutional. Many scholars familiar with setting legal precedents claim that overturning this precedent, which carries the legacy of the right to privacy, can in turn have devastating consequences for other privacy rights.

One such group that might be targeted as a result of overturning Roe v. Wade is the LGBTQ+ community. The right to same-sex marriages can come under scrutiny, and based on Alito’s opinions on sodomy laws, the LGBTQ+ community can be specifically targeted. Although sodomy laws, which criminalized sexual behavior deemed inappropriate by the state, are general enough to appear as they apply to everyone, history has shown that these laws were used mostly to target the homosexual community and even the larger LGBTQ+ community as a whole. These scholars also claim that other rights, such as the right to contraception, are also under scrutiny. Their fears are reasonable, since the same arguments which supported the right to privacy applied in the ruling of Roe v. Wade (which is under attack on the basis of its constitutionality), are the same justifications used to legalize contraceptives in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965. Following this framework, same-sex marriages, which were legalized in 2015 through the ruling passed on Obergefell v. Hodges, can be deemed unconstitutional, and so too can interracial marriages, which were made legal by the ruling on the case, Loving v. Virginia.

While Alito reassures that this draft is aimed at overturning abortion rights alone, this decision sets a dangerous precedent for other privacy cases to be challenged as well. Should there be an attack on contraceptive methods such as birth control, plan B pills, and condoms, the freedom for people to lead sexually healthy lives is at risk, and as a result, can lead to even greater restriction of personal freedoms, and women who are raped or have been victims of incest will not be able to access these resources to prevent any unwanted pregnancies.

Sex workers are yet another community that will be harmed by the overturning of Roe v. Wade and other proposals that restrict sexual freedoms. Too many people in the media focus on the “picture perfect” cases, and many sex workers and their lived experiences are ignored as a result of this media bias. Sex workers use contraceptives and condoms to protect themselves from both unwanted pregnancies and unwanted sexually transmitted diseases. Their livelihoods are greatly impacted by these laws, and the wellness of these sex workers is put at high levels of risk. What’s worse, these sex workers of all genders and sexual orientations are among the most marginalized people in society, and as a result, will feel the implications of these rulings disproportionately. Although there is an immense stigma that surrounds this topic, sex work is also a form of work, and it is important to remember that many sex workers are simply trying to earn a living. Sex workers are already dealing with issues of having their contraceptive needs met, including spreading awareness of safe sex practices in their community, and fact-checking misinformation being disseminated about contraceptive methods and how they should be used. Restricting access to contraception can have life-changing implications for sex workers, and fundamentally cause more financial challenges as their stream of income is jeopardized.

So, Where Do We Go From Here?

I wanted to include this because so many times, people always like to remind a woman what her "place" in society is. This is the perfect message for those people.
Figure 7: Source: Yahoo Images; A protestor holds a sign that reads,” A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance.”

Regardless of your opinions about sex work, abortion, or any of these topics, these are incredibly personal issues and should be left for each individual to decide on what they believe is in their best interests. For too long, women have been restricted and controlled, mind, body, and soul, to meet the needs and pleasures of the patriarchy, and religion and morality have been misused as justifications to continue treating women like second-class citizens. The United Nations Human Rights Committee in 2018 claimed that the right to life begins at the time of birth, when the child can exist separated from the mother’s body. While this establishes an international legal standard on this controversial topic, the right to an abortion, (and right to privacy), is fundamentally being framed as an issue of constitutionality rather than a human rights issue, and as such, there is not much room for the UN to be involved legally in American affairs. On the national level, we can pressure our Congress to codify Roe v. Wade into law, so that it can be protected until a majority-Republican Congress reverses it in the future. For this to happen, Congress needs to be serious, and even though the majority of Americans support the right to an abortion, congressional representatives seem to be divided firmly along partisan lines. Still other abortion rights activists have taken to the streets, protesting outside of the homes of the Supreme Court Justices who are in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade, in an attempt to convince them to change their decisions in the final vote.

On the state level, overturning Roe v. Wade will allow states to make decisions on abortion rights, so each state will vary in its laws. First, being aware of your own state’s abortion laws can be helpful in determining what your options are and how you can help. In Alabama, while access to contraception is still legal, almost all forms of abortions will be deemed illegal immediately following the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Additionally, medical professionals who assist in providing abortions will also be considered Class A felons. While Alabama abortion laws do not allow for an exception in the event of rape or incest, they do allow abortions in severe cases where the health of the mother or fetus is at risk, but only after two separate opinions from doctors advising to do so. With that being said, there are non-profit organizations and abortion providers striving to form an underground network to provide safe abortions for women that wish to have them. Some method these organizations are using is to invest in mobile abortion clinics to meet women at the border of the closest state where abortion would be legal to help make abortion more accessible for women living in red states.

Finally, you can help in two more simple, yet profound ways: participate and educate. It’s time to start paying attention. Participation is not just voting, but also organizing, and educating others about the injustices that are happening around us, and helping people understand the real consequences behind issues you care about, like the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Share your stories with others to help destigmatize abortions and normalize safe sex debates and practices in society. Educate yourself about your state’s policies, but also familiarize yourself with organizations that provide help to those who are impacted, whether medically or otherwise. Democracy is very fragile, and as hard as rights are to secure, it is just as easy to lose them if we don’t hold accountable the people in power. One of the most telling insights gained from looking back at the days of Nazi Germany was that in retrospect, one could see the accumulation of attacks on rights, but because the public chose to stay silent, the fascists kept pushing until it was too late for the people to stand up and defend their rights. Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen to us today, not on abortion rights, not on environmental rights, and not on our human right to life, liberty and human dignity.

Some Positive Approaches to Combating the Climate Crisis Over the Past Few Decades

This image lists some of the simple ways in which each individual can make a difference.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting some of the personal actions that we can incorporate into our daily routines to reduce our own carbon footprints, including suggestions like recycling, reducing plastic consumption, or even avoiding the use of herbicides and pesticides.

These past few decades have been filled with destruction and devastation, and the increasing severity of the climate crisis signals that what we are experiencing is just the beginning. The climate crisis will transform the way we live, whether we adopt to it or not, and it is crucial now more than ever to take all the necessary actions to slow down, and maybe even stop this growing existential threat to humanity. With that being said, there have been some attempts around the world at doing just this. In the midst of all this chaos, it is important to cherish and acknowledge some of the more innovative responses to alleviating the climate crisis. These are some of the sustainable ways other nations are attempting to address climate change, and the United States would do good to implement some of these ideas into its own society.

Planting Trees to Save the World

I wanted to include this image because it represents how any member of the community, including children, can get involved in their own way.
Source: Yahoo Images; Collectively planting trees can start to heal the environment, but also create a strong sense of community as well.

Countries all over the world are taking a simple approach to the climate crisis; they’re planting trees! Nations like India, China, Ethiopia, Pakistan, and the Philippines have planted hundreds of trees as part of their promise to the Paris Agreement. In July 2019, India planted over 220 million trees in a single day, while Ethiopia planted over 350,000 trees in one day! Students in the Philippines are expected to plant ten trees each before they are allowed to graduate, and in this way, a guaranteed number of trees are planted annually. All these nations are taking unique efforts to do their part in combating climate change. While planting trees alone won’t address some of the more serious environmental issues we face today, it does make a huge difference. For one, planting trees can help remove some of the carbon emissions and other greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere and release more oxygen into the air. This provides cleaner air for all living forms in the area. Planting trees can also encourage biodiversity, and depending on what type of trees are planted, can provide food sources that nourish the region’s species. In this way, biodiversity provides natural services, which are services built into nature that nourish and sustain the ecosystem for all life forms on Earth. These services include the food produced by the trees, the roots that guard the soil from erosion and flooding, and it even includes a natural filtration system that purifies water. In addition to this, biodiversity, (and the calculated, methodical planting of trees) can moderate temperatures, enrich the soil, and stabilize an ecosystem. As such, biodiversity is just as necessary for the continued existence of humans as it is for other forms of life. Of course, without stopping the use of nonrenewable resources and exploiting forest lands, any number of trees planted can only neutralize the carbon emissions. In order to fully benefit from the trees being planted, we have to shift to using renewable, sustainable forms of energy to rebuild our infrastructures and power our homes. The actions these countries have taken to combat climate change is one that ensures sustainability and inspires change, and it is with this mindset of sustainability that we, as a world, should proceed.

Europe’s Pollinator Highway

I included this image to show the pollinator bees and butterflies in action
Source: Yahoo Images; Bees and butterflies are an essential part of the pollination process.

Along this framework of sustainability, Europe seems to have taken a different approach in addressing some of the environmental issues we are facing today. One such environmental issue they have attempted to address is the decreasing number of pollinators in the world. Pollinators are insects, like bees, wasps, and butterflies, who play a vital function in our existence, by transferring pollen from the female part of a plant to the male part of the plant to being its reproductive process that later blooms into fruits, seeds, and flowers. Without the crucial role that pollinators play, there would be no nourishment for millions of species worldwide, including humans. These pollinators play a key role in the survival of any ecosystem, and without their services, the world would be plunged into a food famine. To address this issue, the city of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, has constructed an eight-mile walkway that connects six districts of the urban area. This was an attempt to encourage an increase in insect pollination, as well as provide city dwellers clean, green spaces to enjoy. Known as the Pollinator Highway, it is one example of how nature can co-exist in urban centers alongside humans. While the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has attempted to address the pollination issue, the use of pesticides and herbicides, which the United States continues to allow, leaves pollinators exposed to these harsh chemicals, resulting in their deaths. There has been more awareness about this issue, however, and many scientists have even suggested drones and robotics to mimic pollinator behaviors and artificially pollinate plants. These advanced technologies, however, can be very costly to produce and maintain, and their creation and upkeep only adds to the issues of depleting raw materials. As a result, it would be cheaper and more sustainable to protect our natural pollinators and appreciate their natural, free services, by promoting a safe environment for the pollinators to flourish.

Studies have also shown that greenery and time spent in nature can have positive impacts on an individual’s mental health, so Tallin’s Pollinator Highway would be mutually beneficial for both humans and pollinators alike. This walkway they created not only ensures the safety of bees, but also, through incentivizing citizens to walk and bike, has led to a decrease in emissions released by cars and other motor vehicles. This is also partly due to Tallin’s legislation which has made public transportation free since 2015, incentivizing citizens to switch from personal vehicles to public transport systems and making room in the urban center for cyclists and walkers to enjoy a breath of fresh air. The free public transportation system runs all day long, every day of the week, and Estonia was the first nation in the European Union to implement this system. Many European nations have included similar features since then, but the United States continues to fall behind its European counterparts. As one of the richest nations in the world, the United States has the ability to build more sustainable infrastructure and transform public transportation to better connect all parts of the nation. Then, American citizens too could incentivize the public to use free transportation provided by the state. Having a free public transportation system that runs 24/7 would also increase accessibility for many Americans living in rural areas and on the outskirts of urban centers. These are just some of the ways in which elements of climate change can be addressed.

Virtual/Hybrid Conferences and Climate Change

I wanted to include this image to showcase, for those who are unaware, what a zoom conference screen looks like
Source: Yahoo Images; Zoom has become a vital part of our post-pandemic lives, and among its many advantages, a decrease in carbon emissions and greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere seems to be one of them.

Along the same lines of promoting a safe and more sustainable environment, another interesting way to combat climate change is by simply continuing to use virtual spaces for conferences, meetings, and other such events. The pandemic has drastically forced people around the world to adapt to its contagious spread, and as a result, the entire world had to find new ways to keep functioning without meeting face to face. This is really when zoom became one of the most important tools for students, teachers, professionals, and artists alike. In the midst of all this trauma and loss, it is good to know that we accidentally discovered that hybrid and virtual conferences can actually help combat climate change in a significant way. The greenhouse emissions released so far from the conference industry worldwide are equivalent to the amounts released by the entire US; this is a significant amount of emissions, as the United States, in 2020 alone, released 13.5% of the global emissions. Virtual or hybrid conferences can help decrease those amounts significantly, and we can do this from the comforts of home. While people still use energy and electricity at home to attend these events virtually, it is nowhere near the amount used during in-person conferences. Additionally, this is a profitable development for businesses because it costs them less to host virtual conferences than in-person conferences where they have to pay for the attendees’ transportation, their housing, and for the actual conference hall where the event would be held. Also, virtual conferences increase the accessibility of the events to those who may not be able to travel the long distances due to other obligations in their lives. Virtual and hybrid conferences and meetings can also be timesaving for all those involved, from the attendees to the hosts themselves. Virtual and hybrid meetings should in no way replace face-to-face meetings because in-person meetings are more personable, and generally fosters more community among like-minded people. With that being said, this accidental victory we seem to have stumbled upon should not be dismissed or ignored. Rather, we should explore ways in which this newfound knowledge can benefit us as we begin to reshape our future.

Nature’s Right to Exist

I wanted to include this image to showcase one of the natural ways in which our ecosystem filters our waters for us
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting a rapidly flowing river surrounded by a canopy of trees. The rapid flowing water, combined with the many rocks and ridges it passes through, act as a natural water filtration system. This is just one of the many ecosystem services that nature provides us for free, yet we continue to take nature for granted and exploit its resources.

Another innovative approach to reshaping our future might include the securing of rights to the environment itself. This is exactly what Panama, in league with other nations like Italy and Mexico, has decided to do. Panama has passed a new legislation that declares nature’s right to exist. This law forces Panama’s legislations to consider its impacts on the natural world, and whether the existing laws on the books violate nature’s right to exist. This applies to its national policies, but also extends to its foreign policies as well, meaning that Panama cannot take any foreign policy actions that might endanger the environment’s right to survive.  Some of the other nations which have passed similar legislations aim to protect the entire environment, while others have given specific protections to rivers, enabling human representatives to sue on the behalf of rivers that have been harmed or polluted. This is an important piece of legislation for environmental justice, as grievances against the environment can be heard in a court of law, and violations against the environment can be addressed and held accountable. This would be especially significant in the US, because corporations already have a voice through the Citizens United ruling, which equated money with speech, allowing corporations to exercise their “freedom of speech” through campaign contributions to potential and elected officials. Passing such a law that protects the environment’s right to exist in the US would provide a voice for the environment, to fight against some of the harmful injustices caused by environmental racism and exploitative behavior from corporations, and would serve as a check on the power and influence of multinational corporations on US policy, both in domestic and international affairs. If the United States were to do what Panama did, issues such as the Flint water crisis, or the countless instances of exploitation of indigenous lands by big industries, could be stopped, and the perpetrators of such damages caused to the environment can be legally held accountable. Nature, with its many ecosystem services, and resources it provides to all life forms on Earth, deserves to be protected, and using such a rights-based language to call for environmental justice is another way to reduce our dependency on non-renewables. Ensuring the smooth functionality of these ecosystem services (which are free to everyone), is an essential aspect of fighting the climate crisis and without protection, these services would otherwise be jeopardized, costing us money, time, and lives as we try to mimic these services to simply survive.

The Fight for Humanity’s Future

Source: Yahoo Images; Fridays for Future is a movement created by the younger generation to bring awareness to the climate crisis and demand the transition of the global dependence on nonrenewable resources, to more sustainable, renewable ones.

So, what more can be done? For one, we should continue to support green initiatives and pressure our representatives to propose legislations such as the Green New Deal, or pass our own version of Panama’s “Nature’s Right to Exist” legislation. When proposing policies, we should consider the many ways in which climate change impacts different communities, and craft our policies through a rights-based approach. While ethical consumption under a capitalistic world can be challenging, we as consumers should be more aware of the brands we consume and the products we consume, to incentivize businesses to be more aware of their impact on climate change and actively try to address it through their operations. We also should start publicly questioning some of the corporations that exploit the nature and its resources, and hold them accountable for their actions. This tactic is known as “naming and shaming”, where we publicly challenge some of the exploitative practices these companies may use, and as a result, enforcing them to be more conscious of their operations. We also need to educate others about the reality in which we live in, and how each individual can make an impact on the climate crisis through changes in habits and lifestyles. We need to bring attention to the growing climate crisis through healthy civil agitation and educate others on their carbon footprint. Ask friends and family members to be mindful of their purchases, and boycott businesses that exploit the Earth and its vulnerable populations. This is exactly what the Fridays for Future movement is attempting to do. Created by a young generation of climate activists, this global phenomenon centers around awareness and action against the climate crisis. Students sacrifice their Fridays to fight for the protection of the Earth and their own future existence. We too, as students passionate about environmental justice, can support their initiative by hosting our own climate protests here on campus, or by simply boosting the movement in our own communities. Or, as India, Ethiopia, and many other nations around the world has proven, we can simply plant more trees. Whatever it is we do, the environment depends on the actions of everyone, and how we respond to this crisis will determine whether the human species, (and many other organisms with it), will be able to exist in the future.

 

A Wonderful World Withering Away: The Malignant Industry of Mining for Minerals

I wanted to include this image to show just how massive mining projects can be.
Source:Yahoo Images; An image depicting some of the equipment used for mining minerals.

Over the past few weeks, we have been examining, in this environmental series, the various ways in which our over-consumption, coupled with the negligent practices of industry, have led to the deterioration and devastation that climate change has yet to fully unleash upon us. We have observed the intersectionality between fast fashion, human rights violations within the industry, and how the fashion industry perpetuates colonialism and imperialism while simultaneously amplifying the climate crisis. We have also studied in detail the process of oil development, and the very real consequences that carelessness from industry can have on communities and ecosystems alike. We have further focused on the lasting implications of these industries, and how environmental racism and exploitation, both of resources and people, have led to global inequities in quality of life. Now, we shift our focus to the mining industry, which encompasses so many raw materials that are transformed into the products we consume on a regular basis around the world. These products include materials for constructing infrastructure like roads and buildings, raw materials used to build and support the electric grid, and even materials used in today’s newest laptops and smartphones. One can even argue that mining is a vital part of an advanced industrial society.

The Mining Industry

I wanted to showcase how mining can cause water pollution
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of a water source that has been polluted due to mining operations in the area.

The mining industry can be categorized into many different groups, but some of the most popular categories include, coal and Uranium mining, metal mining and industrial mining. Coal mining, and the mining for Uranium are largely used for energy purposes, such as generating electricity or using the mined Uranium for nuclear power. Metal mining consists of mining for metals such as zinc, gold, copper, iron, silver, and other such precious materials. These metals can be sold for use in technological devices, but, in cases like iron and zinc, can be turned into various products, from tools to jewelry. Finally, industrial mining digs up raw materials for manufacturing and industrial consumption, including raw materials and chemicals used in construction jobs. These three areas of mining alone impact so many aspects of our society, from our energy consumption to our smart gadgets and our stylish accessories, down to the buildings we work out of, and to the homes we live and grow up in. This is just an introduction to just how crucial a part mining plays in our lives, and why it is necessary for us as a world to begin to ween off of this dependency on mining and shift our focus toward sustainability and renewable resources. In order to fully comprehend the need for this shift, we must look closer at some of the mining techniques and the dramatic impacts their operations have on the environment.

Surface Mining Techniques and their Environmental Impacts

Strip Mining

I wanted to include an example what strip mining looks like
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting how destructive mining operations can be. This is only one of the methods used to mine for minerals.

A commonly used surface mining technique, strip mining is used to remove the surface layers of soil until the desired resource is exposed. Especially used for coal extraction, this process includes drilling and blasting portions of the earth to reveal the minable resource. These blasted off pieces of “overburden” are cleared and removed from the site, and chunks of coal, (or other resources), are extracted from the blasted site and loaded up onto trucks that transport them away for use. This method greatly impacts the environment in the surrounding areas. The earth is made up of many layers of minerals. These minerals are made up of decomposed organic matter that have been compressed over time into materials we extract today, such as fossil fuels and sand. One of these layers consist of topsoil, a rich layer of naturally composed, nutrient-rich soil that is crucial to the land’s ability to grow food or herbs. The strip mining method, along with some of the other techniques of mining, leaves the topsoil exposed to the natural elements, and the soil can begin to erode, leaving the land barren and jeopardizing its ability to support life. Strip mining can also pollute nearby sources of water by releasing certain acidic minerals that are dug out of the ground during mining operations and spill into the waterways, react to the water and oxygen, expose the marine life to toxic waters and pollute water sources used for domestic and agricultural consumption. These practices impact the biodiversity of the regions in which they take place, transforming more than just aesthetic beauty for us to enjoy. Biodiversity serves varying purposes, as each organism is part of a larger food chain, and having a rich, vibrant, biodiverse environment comes with its own benefits to the planet and its life forms. Certain keystone species play crucial roles in the survival of an ecosystem, and these mining practices endanger their existence, further deteriorating the conditions of survival for many species living in these areas, including humans.

I wanted to showcase the different layers of the soil
Source: Yahoo Images; The different layers of the soil

Open-Pit Mining

I wanted to showcase an example of an open-pit mining operation
Source: Yahoo Images; An open-pit mining operation that has carved out the sides of mountains and formed a concave pit.

Another surface method of mining is the open-pit mining technique. This process is similar to the strip-mining method, in the sense that it also requires the blasting of mining zones. It does differ however, in that these explosions are used to create large craters, and then machines are used to extract precious materials from these concave, open pits. Materials extracted from this process are also transported away via trucks, similar to the strip-mining method. This method is commonly used for both coal mining, as well as mining metals such as copper, gold, or iron. This method, just like the strip-mining method, causes severe degradation and destruction of the natural environment. Some of these impacts include polluted waterways, air pollution, soil erosion, and a destruction of habitats that support and promote biodiversity. The process of open-pit mining, during the blasting and drilling of the earth, release metals and radioactivity into the dust clouds. Anyone breathing this air is at risk of developing serious respiratory illnesses. In addition to the dust clouds, the emissions released by the heavy machinery also add to the polluted air of which mining workers as well as local residents have to breathe regularly. As if that was not dangerous enough, open-pit mining also causes water pollution, in similar ways to strip-mining. The release of sulfur into the local waterways, and its reaction to the oxygen turns the water acidic, endangering the aquatic life, and poisoning the local communities’ waterways. Similar to other surface mining techniques, the open-pit technique also requires massive amounts of ground water and freshwater for its operations, further threatening the local communities’ access to water.

Mountaintop Removal

I wanted to showcase how mountaintop mining can change the entire landscape of a region
Source: Yahoo Images; A mining operation that used the mountaintop removal method, where the crowns of mountains are removed to expose the minerals below.

One of the most landscape-altering surface mining methods, mountaintop removal is a technique used to mine coal by blasting off the tops of mountains (which are filled with biodiverse forests), tapping directly into the resources they want to mine. Like the other surface mining methods discussed above, this method also has similar environmental impacts to the air, the water, and the area’s biodiversity. The waters are polluted with the toxins released from the mining process, killing off marine life, while entire forests are blasted out of existence. This method of mining is especially harmful for climate change because it permanently alters the topography of an area, releases tons of carbon emissions and other pollutants into the air, while destroying the many trees and plants that could have helped store some of the carbon emissions being released from these operations. This method also leads to soil erosion which can cause an increase in natural disasters such as flooding, forest fires, and landslides, and leave the land barren, making it difficult for local residents to grow crops on it.

These surface mining techniques are some of many methods that are used to extract minerals and valuable resources out of the earth. We discussed in detail the process of oil and natural gas extraction, using drilling and fracking techniques, and many of us are also familiar with the underground coal mines and tunnels that go on for miles beneath the surface. Those extraction methods come with their own risks and hazards to both the environment and its people. While we will not be covering those mining methods in this blog, we will be focusing more on the mining industry more generally, and its impact on human lives.

Human Rights Violations in the Mining Industry

I wanted to include this image to showcase how the mining industry, similar to other industries like Big Oil and fashion, use child labor as a cheaper labor force
Source: Yahoo Images; A depiction of children working in an aboveground mining operation. Similar to Fast Fashion and Big Oil, the mining industry has exploited children and vulnerable communities in order to find cheaper labor forces.

One of the most horrendous violations of human lives comes from the mining industry’s use of child labor in their mines, especially in poorer nations of the global south. While this certainly has to do with issues of environmental racism and avaricious profit motives, child labor has also become an increasingly preferred labor force used in multinational industries like fashion, oil, and mining, to name a few. The use of child labor in mining practices denies these children their entire childhood, and instead exposes them to dangerous working conditions that end up impacting their health for the rest of their lives. These children are exposed to toxic chemicals and micro metals and radioactivity released from the blasting process that they end up breathing in. These are especially harmful for developing children, whose growth can be stunted because of constant exposure to toxins like sulfur, mercury, and uranium. They are also required to work in contaminated waters, leading to skin infections and other issues that can impact their hormone levels and their overall growth. In addition to these dangers, children working at these mining sites are also in constant danger of physical harm from heavy machinery and the possibility of landslides due to weakened landscapes caused by the explosions and other disruptive practices.

Due to the profit-centered nature of these multinational industries, children and adults are exposed to some harrowing working conditions to meet the profit margins. These conditions have serious health implications, including lung disease, hearing issues, exposure to radioactive materials, mental health issues, and even back injuries. Respiratory illnesses and risks of developing chronic lung problems such as black lung disease, are very real consequences of breathing in the polluted air around these mining zones. Workers can develop issues with their hearing due to the loud and constant blasts from the mining operations, as well as the noisy machinery used in the mining areas. The blasts themselves, as discussed above, add metals into the air, and release radioactive gas into the surrounding air. Although some miners are given protective gear against these dangerous gases, miners are frequently required to breathe in this polluted air, which has large amounts of radon, a cancer-causing gas, while simply trying to just do their job. Due to the physically straining work that miners are expected to perform, mining can induce incredible amounts of stress. Miners also are required to work long hours, expend a lot of physical energy, and as a result, are more likely to injure themselves on the job. Although miners in the United States and other industrialized nations have workplace protections that shield the miners from obtaining injuries at the job site (or holding their employers accountable should such workplace injury occur), those working in areas without these regulations are more vulnerable to being injured and receiving little to no compensation or assistance through these injuries.

I wanted to showcase just how much dust and other particles are released from these practices, resulting in air pollution for the entire region
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting an aerial view of a mining operation and the massive amounts of dust and other particles that are being released into the air. This is the same air that workers and locals living and working in these areas have to breathe into their lungs.

Why Should We Care and What Can Be Done About It?

Upon reflection, the mining industry seems to be damaging to the environment and, because of its harmful practices, a threat to the future of humanity. Even as we continue to extract more and more minerals from the earth, we are slowly running out of resources to mine. Some experts invested in the mining industry argue that the next step is to switch gears and expand our technological advancements to be able to mine asteroids and other elements in space. While this suggestion might address the issue of resource availability, it does not address the fact that these practices, (along with other industries), are adding to the climate crisis. Until anthropogenic actions are not regulated in industry, climate change is going to continue to be an existential threat to this Earth.

On an international level, therefore, regulations need to be passed on mining practices, and the working conditions of miners. Along with these regulations, multinational corporations that fund this industry should be stopped from exploiting vulnerable nations for their cheap labor and loose regulations. Just like with other natural resources, many of the economies of nations that are exploited for their resources and labor are heavily dependent on the sale of these resources. It is important, therefore, to ensure that they can shift their economies into stable ones that depend on renewable resources before abandoning these already vulnerable nations to deal with the consequences of the exploitation of the mining industry. On a more domestic level, the United States needs to transition into a greener, more sustainable economy so that there is no pressure for constant exploitation of these nonrenewable resources such as coal, oil and gas, and other such minerals. Stopping mining practices can allow the earth to heal and grow back some of the biodiversity that has been lost from centuries of exploitative mining practices. In addition to transitioning into a greener society, we should provide some sort of relief for communities that have been impacted by these careless practices and ensure that remediation attempts take place to restore the impacted lands to conditions that existed before the mining practices took place. On a more personal level, we as consumers have some power over the industries we incentivize. This is still true when it comes to stopping some forms of mining, (such as mining for gems), but largely out of our individual hands when it comes to stopping the use of certain resources that are a crucial part of our infrastructure, such as coal. Even with this in mind, one thing that each person can do is educate one another about the various impacts these mining practices have on the environment and on human lives as a whole. Bringing awareness to issues such as this can help alter the public opinions about using such resources, and in turn can lead to a much-needed paradigm shift in our approach to ending climate change.

A Wonderful World Withering Away: Crude Oil, Cruelty, and the Climate Crisis

I wanted to include a visual image of how much impact oil spills can have.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting an oil spill over a body of water that caused a fire to break out.

As gas prices continue to skyrocket in response to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, many people are feeling the impacts of our global reliance on nonrenewable resources and reconsidering the pros and cons of our collective consumption of these natural resources. Many nations are worried about how their access to natural resources is closely related to the foreign relations and policies they support. Others, like Germany, see this as an opportunity to relieve their dependency on nonrenewable resources as a whole, and to transform their societies to use greener, more sustainable, renewable resources, such as solar and wind energy. As climate change continues to be a growing threat to the future of humanity, transitioning our societies and our infrastructure to support and even incentivize the use of renewable resources can serve the purpose of not only combating climate change but can also create new job opportunities worldwide. To comprehend the need to shift to a more sustainable society, we need to focus on the details of the oil development process. This includes the development, transportation, and distribution of the oil products, and how oil wastes are managed. Examining these issues more carefully can help us better understand how these processes impact the environment around us. The oil and gas industry is responsible for countless environmental and human rights violations, and their practices and international influence have horrifying consequences. It is crucial, now more than ever, to realize just how dependent we are on this resource, how that dependency can lead us to make flawed foreign policy decisions, and why that can have irreversible consequences on the future of mankind.

Crude Oil and the Environment

Crude Oil Extraction and Development

I wanted to provide an image of some of the technology used in oil extraction
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting some of the oil development infrastructures, like the oil rig in this image.

The process of developing and refining oil is a complex one, in which the crude oil is separated into many different products throughout the process. Crude oil is separated into gasoline, diesel, petroleum, jet fuel, and even propane gas, to name a few. To explain a complex process simply, oil development infrastructures are built near sites rich with natural oil and gas, and this infrastructure drills the resources out of the ground in an extraction process. The extraction process, after the initial extraction of the resources, also includes the practice of fracking. The process of fracking includes the use of fracking fluid, made up of water, sand, and chemicals, which are injected back down the drilled site forcefully, in order to extract any remaining amounts of oil and gas hidden inside of rocks. The extracted oil, known as crude oil, is then processed in various ways to refine the crude oil into petroleum products. Crude oil goes under a distillation process, where it is heated up in a furnace and distilled in a tower that separates the various products based on varying temperatures and density and is treated in special vacuum units and cracking units to deliver the final set of products. The special vacuums help separate the various products based on temperature and density, and the cracking units alter the molecular weight of hydrogen atoms to form the final products. Each barrel of crude oil can produce about half a barrel of gasoline, a quarter of a barrel of diesel fuel, a tenth of a barrel of jet fuel, and the rest can be refined to be used as other petroleum products.

In this part of the oil development process, one of the most environmentally impactful practices is the process of fracking. This process has harmed both the environment and its residents, and in this way, can have long-term consequences. It includes the possibility of fracking fluids leaking into groundwater, or surface water, and polluting these sources with cancer-causing chemicals. Also, the process of fracking alone requires tremendous amounts of water to extract the last bits of oil and gas trapped inside rocks. In this way, fracking is not only polluting the underground and above water sources, it is also using the remaining clean water for the fracking itself. Since the rise of fracking practices over the past few decades, even American residents who live in places such as Flint, Michigan, have been struggling with health concerns and having access to clean water due to fracking practices in their community. These are all consequences of simply one part of the oil development process. Once the oil is developed, how is the waste from the process managed?

Managing the Waste from the Oil Development Process

I wanted to visually portray some of the real consequences of irresponsible disposal of waste.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of an unlined sludge pit, where the wastes from the oil development process are being stored without a barrier between the waste and the soil. This can lead to polluted groundwaters and aquifers, as well as cause soil pollution.

Following the extraction and refinement of the crude oil, the wastes that are derived from this process, which is a mixture of water, minerals, chemicals, oil waste, and the toxins released from the process, are required to be treated, stored, and disposed of in specified ways outlined by regulatory legislations. These requirements maintain that the oil waste referred to as sludge, is to be treated so that hazardous chemicals are removed from the sludge, stored in safe areas, (such as above-ground pits that are lined to prevent the wastes from seeping into the soil or the groundwater), and disposed of in secure, underground landfills with specific disposal instructions.

Failure to adhere to the safe disposal of these hazardous wastes can cause environmental, physical, and social harm. Even during the disposal process, including treatment of hazardous waste, storage of the sludge, and safe disposal of this waste, pose incredible risks to both the environment and the health of both the employees and the local residents exposed to this waste. Hazardous waste is generally treated through various methods, like incinerating the waste, which leads to greater air pollution in nearby areas. These chemicals in the air can then be breathed in by employees, or can even be carried to nearby civilian populations, increasing the risks of respiratory illnesses among its citizens. As with the case in Ecuador, (explained below), some oil and gas companies have been reported to store these wastes in unlined pits, and incinerate them in the open, instead of in an enclosed, controlled environment. These corrupt practices further cause respiratory issues for local residents in the area.

Water is also used throughout the oil development process, and because it contains chemicals and toxins that have mixed in with these products, the leftover sludge is supposed to be treated and disposed of with extreme caution at the end of the process. In order to do this, massive pits are dug up and lined in the ground, where the sludge is stored until it can be treated and disposed of. Not doing so can endanger the surrounding environment, as the sludge can leak into the ground, polluting the soil and rendering it infertile for plant growth. It can also seep into nearby streams and rivers, polluting drinking water used by local populations and the area’s species alike. Similarly, although many nations have strict laws on the books requiring oil companies to store waste in lined pits, many wind up storing the sludge in unlined pits, polluting the nearby waters, and leaking oil sludge into the soil. This not only impacts the ecosystem that depends on the soil and the nearby water sources but also prevents the polluted soil from being used for agriculture, impacting the local food security.

I wanted to showcase how oil spills impact wildlife and marine life.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of a pelican covered in oil. This is an example of what happens to the wildlife that encounters oil spills.

Additionally, people who use those streams for recreational purposes, end up developing skin rashes, cancer, and other health issues. When disposing of hazardous waste, if it is not done properly, or if the waste begins to seep into the earth, it can continue to accumulate and pollute our lands and waters. Furthermore, because of the longevity of these hazardous chemicals, if they contaminate our groundwaters or aquifers, they can be very hard to treat, and the water can stay contaminated indefinitely. These chemicals can even accumulate in the species that use these waters for nourishment, and as a result, bioaccumulate inside humans through the web of consumption. Throughout the process of treating, storing, and disposing of the sludge, oil companies attempt to extract and reuse as much of the exploitable oil from the process, attempting to recycle as much of the resource as possible. Even though this process of recycling the resource is less wasteful, it still ends up adding pollutants into the atmosphere and environment and impacting the lives of all the organisms sharing the land and its resources. Although we have been exposed to the countless impacts oil development, and oil waste treatment have on the environment and its life forms,   the transportation of oil poses risks that are equally horrifying.

Oil Transportation and Distribution

I wanted to include this image to show how dangerous it can be for the local residents if there are leaking pipelines. The massive lengths of these pipelines increase the damage their leaks can do.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image showcasing how long and disruptive pipelines can be to the environment, and some of the potential hazards from defective pipelines

The dangers that come from the irresponsible handling of oil and gas do not only pertain to the development of the oil products, or the disposal of their waste. The oil can pose grave dangers to the environment through the process of transporting refined goods, either by land or across the seas. Pipelines have been constructed to transport oil domestically and they run along hundreds of miles of populated land putting the residents near these pipelines at risk. Many protests have broken out against the building of new pipelines. One such example is the protests that broke out against the building of the Keystone XL pipeline, which was proposed to be built over the Ogalala Aquifer, a source of water for residential and agricultural use that serves millions of Americans living in nearby states. Many people opposed the pipeline being built because of the danger of oil spills polluting one of the main sources of drinking water for people in this area. These pipelines can also cut across the migration routes used by many species that reside in those areas, injuring, or even killing many organisms that travel these routes and further jeopardizing the biodiversity of the impacted areas. Biodiversity is an essential element to the survival of all life forms on Earth. Each organism plays an important role, (no matter how small or insignificant it may seem to us), to maintain the functionality of various ecosystems. Part of the dangers posed by this threat to biodiversity comes from the fear of losing keystone species, ones that play a fundamental role in the existence of certain ecosystems. Without these players, the entire ecosystem can be altered in disastrous ways, and this would in turn lead to more loss of biodiversity, feeding into a positive feedback loop that helps accelerate the climate crisis.

Furthermore, there are many dangers posed by shipments of oil across large bodies of water, including the possibility of oil spills occurring in the middle of the ocean or large bodies of water, destroying marine biodiversity. Oil spills are not only damaging marine life but are also tremendously difficult to clean up on large bodies of water. This has been a constant issue that the oil industry has struggled with. Some of these massive spills, such as the Exxon Valdez spill, or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, have left the impacted communities with immense consequences. The Exxon Valdez spill was responsible for spilling 11 million gallons of oil into the waters of the Gulf of Alaska, destroying countless species of fish and marine wildlife, and polluting the waters, impacting the livelihood of the local communities whose economies depended on the marine wildlife. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which occurred off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, was caused by the fracturing of a weak core inside the oil rig. This fracture released natural gas into the rig, and caused an explosion, allowing for the leakage of oil into the gulf. Approximately 134 million gallons of oil spilled into the waters, marking this event as one of the biggest oil spills in American history. Along with the environmental impacts that both these spills brought about, the process used to clean up the oil spill also uses many chemicals that can lead to a number of health issues, including cancer, developmental and reproductive issues, respiratory issues, and even food poisoning from consuming contaminated seafood and wildlife. These health issues impact not only the people that live near these spill sites but also the workers who are part of the clean-up team, inhaling the fumes and toxins from the cleanup process.

I wanted to include this image to showcase just how intense the clean-up process can be after encountering an oil spill.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting a clean-up crew, dealing with the aftermath of an oil spill

Environmental Racism and Big Oil

Environmental Racism

After learning about how oil is produced, distributed, and the ways in which oil waste is disposed of, it is equally important to examine who is largely impacted by these practices. As with many other industries that have practices that cause pollution, oil companies have long been accused of being negligent and careless when operating in disenfranchised areas, whether it be domestic, or international. In America, oil infrastructures and waste disposal sites are generally located in impoverished areas, and these areas are largely occupied by people of color, especially African Americans, and Native Americans. African Americans have historically been forced into impoverished and polluted spaces, and forced to work the most dangerous or strenuous jobs. The targeting of Native Americans by these industries is especially cruel due to their spiritual bond with the environment and its many wonders, and their cultural dependence on the environment as a whole. In a similar fashion, on the international stage, the disproportionate exposure from the oil infrastructures seems to be more prominent in poverty-stricken nations, and because the oil companies operating in poor nations have a greater political and economic influence over the governments and their people, they are able to evade the strict environmental regulation policies, endangering the planet, and its people in the process.

The reality of environmental racism in the oil industry, and its negligent practices, may be influenced by historical tones of colonialism and imperialism. Ecuador is one such nation that has been exposed to environmental racism, and one that has been fighting for environmental justice from the recklessness of the oil industry for over twenty years. Ecuadorians have been struggling to hold Chevron accountable for its faulty oil infrastructure, and the consequences to the environment and the local residents as a result of its operations. Commonly referred to as the “Amazon Chernobyl,” the oil development process in Ecuador has had environmental and health impacts that are magnificently larger than the Exxon Valdez spill. During its operation in Ecuador, Texaco, (and Chevron, through its ownership), has been responsible for spilling over 17 billion gallons of oil into Ecuadorian lands, and over 16 billion gallons of toxic waste into the local sources of water. The Ecuadorians addressed many of the health issues that were caused by the operation of the oil infrastructure and brought attention to the corrupt practices of Chevron. The Ecuadorians argued that Texaco, (which was bought by Chevron in 2001), had dumped their toxic wastes into unlined landfills and water sources both above and below the surface. Over 900 unlined pits were discovered through the investigation process of the class-action lawsuit filed against Chevron. At times, when the pits were overflowing, the oil company would just spread excess amounts of crude oil wastes onto the roads traversed by locals. Additionally, they argued that Texaco had violated their right to live on their ancestral lands, forcing them to migrate away from the water sources that were crucial for their survival. Furthermore, Texaco’s practices polluted their soils and waterways, endangering their food sources, and destroying the biodiversity of the environment. The Ecuadorians filed a class lawsuit against Chevron, arguing that Chevron had lied about its remediation attempts, (where the environmental damages are addressed and reversed), insisting that Chevron had just covered over large unlined pits with mounds of soil instead of properly treating the wastes. This lawsuit as investigated and processed in Ecuador recognized the pain and suffering of its Ecuadorian plaintiffs and rewarded them with a $9.5 billion settlement from Chevron. Instead of paying this settlement, Chevron has continually tried to downplay its egregious acts and has been attempting to shift the attention from the Ecuadorian lawsuit, to propose unfounded claims of corruption during the trial process in Ecuadorian courts. Chevron’s response to this lawsuit has been a massive overreach of corporate influence over the judicial process, in which they have been attempting to control the outcome of the lawsuit against them. Chevron’s latest attempts at influencing this outcome have been to harass human rights lawyer Steven Donziger, who worked on the Ecuadorian case against Chevron.

The Ecuadorian case is just one example out of many that exist around the world. Poorer nations are exploited for their resources and their cheap labor, and exposed to harmful chemicals and the pollution of their air, waters, and lands, slowly killing off the inhabitants of the Global South, or leaving them behind with multiple health issues and contaminated resources. These negligent actions are impacting the immediate areas of oil development but also wrecking the livelihood of its inhabitants nearby. Although the impacts of the oil industry’s practices are so widespread, because of its scope and political influence on the global stage, Big Oil continues to exploit vulnerable populations without much regulation or accountability.

I wanted to include this image to showcase how easily freshwater sources and groundwater sources can be polluted by the process of extracting, transporting, and irresponsibly disposing of oil sludge.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of a river polluted from an oil spill

Big Oil and its Impact on International Affairs

Big Oil, referring to the massive influence the oil and gas industry has worldwide, is largely responsible for the public belief that oil and gas are necessary resources for human survival, and as a result, holds a great deal of influence over policies both domestic and abroad. There are many reasons behind Big Oil’s power, and its massive wealth (and its access to resources as a result), allow the industry access to political leaders (and policy decisions) throughout the world. Some of these oil companies have more money than the financial capabilities of entire nations. For example, according to Business Insider, Chevron, alone, has enough wealth to rank as the 46th largest nation in the world. They have more wealth than the GDP of the Czech Republic.

Along with this massive wealth, comes an immense amount of political power, especially since these oil companies have access to markets worldwide, and rely on the vulnerabilities of Global South nations as a cheap labor source. Big Oil companies are usually multi-national companies, where they have access to global markets, and due to the sale of highly valued resources such as oil and gas, these companies also have immense influence over how regulatory laws are created in economically vulnerable nations. In exchange for the host nation’s connection to the global market and an increase in job opportunities, these companies, like other multi-national companies, employ locals for a cheaper labor force, under loosely regulated conditions, to maximize profits. In this way, nations with harsher environmental regulations, predominantly Western nations, and even within them, communities with more environmental oversight (predominantly wealthier communities), are less vulnerable to the predatory ways of Big Oil.

To maintain this global influence, Big Oil has helped launch and has funded campaigns against climate change. Many of the think tanks that propose “evidence” to debunk climate science is funded by Big Oil. These climate deniers have transformed the climate issue from an existential crisis that requires global cooperation to a controversial issue, delaying the much-needed global actions to stop climate change from destroying the planet. In this way, big oil controls the geopolitical policies among nations, and because of the global dependence on these resources, Big Oil has immense control over the climate discourse and the global struggle against climate change.

What Can We Do?: Releasing Big Oil’s Global Stronghold

There are various levels at which this issue can be addressed. Globally, all nations need to shift from an economy that depends on nonrenewable energy sources, to one that is more sustainable and greener. This means transforming our infrastructure to support renewable sources of energy, preserving what little biodiversity we have left, and engaging in a global remediation project to possibly reverse some of the effects of climate change. On the international stage, the United Nations needs to establish a system that is in charge of regulating multi-national corporations and holding them accountable for instances of human rights violations, such as exploitation and environmental racism, and propose an environmental rights charter in the same way we have charters on civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), like Amazon Watch, are bringing attention to the exploitations and environmental degradations of the Amazonian Rainforest, and its impact on the local residents. Supporting such organizations can be a start. We can also pressure our representatives and political leaders to vote on greener legislation and denounce subsidizing oil companies. Additionally, we can urge our lawmakers to help shift the society and economy to support a more sustainable future. This can only be done by holding policymakers accountable for their campaign donations, urging them to refuse campaign funding from Big Oil companies, which can influence their loyalties on policy positions. We also need to be in favor of bettering our infrastructure and public transportation systems. Doing so would allow us to be less reliant on oil and gas for private consumption while improving our public transportation systems to provide better access to all those living on the outskirts. On the state and local levels, we can pressure our school boards to include teaching environmental science in the core curriculums. Doing so would introduce younger generations to living more sustainable lives, and in the process, establish the global realities and consequences of anthropogenic climate change. There also needs to be more discussion about instances of environmental racism and how best to combat it with social policies. Finally, if you want to make personal changes to your lifestyle instead, you can do your part by paying attention to what’s going on around you. You can stand up for the plight of those who are being forced to deal with environmental racism by educating your friends and family. Also, you can make incremental changes to your behavior to transition your lifestyle into a greener, sustainable one.

 

Profile in Justice : Catherine Coleman Flowers

Activists come in many forms. An activist can be defined roughly as “one who advocates or practice activism a person who uses or supports strong actions (such as public protests) in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue“. Activists may be seen as nuisances or annoyances to society at large, but their perseverance as changemakers drive society forward by bringing attention to the real issues that affect marginalized groups within our society. Alabama, a southern state with a rich and diverse history, has produced many an activist. There are a multitude of reasons for this, including Alabama’s long history of racial injustice and other issues which affect the working class. Alabamian activists include titans of American history such as Rosa Parks, famous civil rights activist, and Hellen Keller, author and disability rights activist. Despite Alabama’s current national reputation as a backwards and deeply conservative state, many Alabamian activists are fighting the deep inequality still present in our state. One such activist is Catherine Coleman Flowers, who came upon the defining issue of her advocacy “by accident”.

Catherine Flower
Catherine Coleman Flowers is an Alabama native and environmental advocate who has spent over twenty years fighting environmental racism after discovering horrific sanitation conditions in Lowndes County, Alabama. SOURCE : Yahoo! Images

Crisis in Lowndes County

In the early 2000s, Flowers was working as an economic consultant in Lowndes County, Alabama. Lowndes County is a historically black county in rural Alabama, and was part of the route during the historic civil rights march between Selma and Montgomery in 1965. Visiting with some of her constituents over threats of eviction and arrest, Flowers was shocked to find “a stream of brown fluid flowing down the road…a pool of dark foul-smelling effervescent water that had collected around a pipe running from the church” that she was visiting. She quickly discovered that Lowndes County, deeply entrenched in generational poverty and harsh neglect from local officials, had a severe lack of public sanitation. Flowers was shocked to discover that the burden of sanitation needs fell on residents, and private septic tanks were often beyond the means of Lowndes County residents. In what she later came to call “America’s dirty secret”, Flowers was seeing that basic sanitation was not a guarantee for all citizens in the wealthiest nation in the world.

Flowers, who quickly reported the incident, saw little action from the “predominantly white and Republican-controlled local government”, who instead continued to threaten Black families in Lowndes County with eviction or even jail time. While shaken by the horrific sight, it set Flowers on a path of working towards environmental justice for BIPOC Americans. She states that her mission is to “expose the reality of life for the rural poor, and the racism and negligence that lies behind it”, saying “We see this as a third world problem, whereas in actuality it is right among us in a country that has allowed such inequality to exist since our founding as a nation”.

As Flowers continued her work, she came across more and more violations of human dignity. She spoke with the mother of an autistic child who was being threatened with jail time because she did not have a septic tank, though the cost of installation was more than ten times that of her monthly income. Other families she spoke with had no proper air conditioning or heating systems, and would huddle together in the winter time to keep warm. After one house call in which she came in close contact with an open septic pool filled with mosquitoes, Flowers developed a severe rash over her entire body, and she began to wonder if tropical diseases, which are considered extremely rare in the United States, may be affecting people in Lowndes County.

lowndes county map
Lowndes County is a historically black county located in rural, Central Alabama. Lowndes County was part of the route between Selma and Montgomery during the historic 1965 Civil Rights March. Today, over 90% of Lowndes County residents do not have access to proper sanitation. SOURCE : Yahoo! Images

International Attention and Continued Advocacy

Flowers organized a scientific study to reveal the affects of improper sanitation of the health of residents within Lowndes County. Horrifying results awaited her. The study found that “34% of those surveyed tested positive for genetic traces of hookworm, a parasite that thrives amid poverty and that had been thought to have been eradicated from the US in the early 20th century”. The disease is thought of as normally associated with central and southern Africa and Asia, and is known to have lasting negative effects on physical and cognitive growth in children. Hookworm treatment, which normally consists of one dose of albendazole, has a high cost in the United States and is unattainable for many residents of Lowndes County. Flowers confirmed her dark theory with this study, and her advocacy for the end of discrimination against poor, Black Americans in rural counties led to a wake-up call for America. Through Flowers’ work and advocacy, the United Nations became involved in an investigation of extreme poverty that centered around Lowndes County, Alabama, as well as areas in California, West Virginia, and Puerto Rico. Despite criticisms from those in local government, Flowers continues to work towards eradicating the “deeply ingrained inequality” in our nation, authoring a book entitled Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret. Flowers has also founded an advocacy group – the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. Many prominent figures in U.S. politics, including former Vice President Al Gore and U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders have taken Flowers up on the offer to tour Lowndes County, increasing awareness for the extreme poverty that still exists in our nation today.

Over twenty years into her fight, Flowers has still not seen the changes she has been fighting for across America. Figures from 2021 state that over 90% of Lowndes County residents still do not have access to proper sanitation. Flowers has also seen the issues of environmental justice extend beyond even Alabama or the southern United States, seeing issues in all American locales where poverty and public neglect continue to coexist. Despite this, Flowers continues to advocate for the rural poor across America. The beginning of the 2020’s decade has been marked with cautious optimism, as day one of the Biden administration saw several executive orders aimed at reversing the Trump administration’s anti-environmental legacy.