Why Car Overreliance is a Human Rights Issue

By Lexie Woolums 

Sustainability means a lot of things to many different people, and I view that as a positive thing. One part of sustainability that is usually highlighted is the focus on environmental sustainability, given the real-time effects of climate change. Individuals apply this to their lives in many forms, such as my grandmother, who refuses to throw away food, or my supervisor, who walks to the office. 

When talking about sustainability, people are quick to bring up things like recycling or electric vehicles (EVs). In essence, this is the low-hanging fruit (not necessarily in price, but they require the smallest amount of effort or change). These are the simple things that make wealthy people feel better about unhealthy consumption habits. This blog is not intended to point fingers. I want to highlight this black-and-white perspective of sustainability, which is misguided. Still, it remains a popular view in much of the Global North due to inadequate education or pure convenience.  

In 2024, we would rather feel good about ourselves for putting plastic bottles in the recycling bin than examine why we are still using single-use plastic bottles. For some, these reasons are significant, as not everyone has access to clean and safe drinking water. For others, not so much. The ultimate truth is that it is more convenient to adapt sustainability into our current habits than to change our habits to be more sustainable. Essentially, this view is a type of “convenient sustainability”—or capitalistic sustainability— and is a bit of an oxymoron, considering that capitalism thrives on maximizing profits at the expense of any consideration of long-term social or environmental sustainability. 

I am not here to encourage anyone to stop recycling and refuse to buy only gas automobiles but to challenge them to think about it in a less binary way. At a basic level, most of these choices are better for the environment than the alternatives. However, they do not get to the root of the problem, which, for this blog, is a society dominated by a reliance on automobiles rather than on diverse modes of transportation. 

Painted sign that reads "Capitalism is the crisis" in black and red text.
Figure 1: Protest Sign that reads “Capitalism is the Crisis.” Painted sign that reads “Capitalism is the crisis” in black and red text.

Beyond that, the narrative that buying something new will solve climate change is not only false but reinforces the narrative that innovation under capitalism can save us from the repercussions of climate change, which is the same mentality that has gotten us here. 

To get to the root of this problem, we must look at different aspects of the life cycle of products to really get at what true sustainability is—not just environmental sustainability but social and economic sustainability, too. In this blog, I will use the case of car overreliance to illustrate true sustainability. Not only is it poor for the environment, but car overreliance also has human rights concerns due to its impacts on air pollution, communities of color, and the global supply chain. 

I want to be clear that I do not think it is reasonable to expect us to eradicate the use of automobiles in this country, nor is it necessary. Cars are needed in many rural areas, and the United States is a large country. But in a culture that loves to flaunt the benefits of a free-market system and increasing consumer choice and freedom, why have we accepted that cars are the only option? This acceptance benefits the automobile industry and the fossil fuel industry, even for EVs. 

 

The Rise of the Automobile 

It may be difficult to imagine, but automobiles are a relatively new technology, and they are extremely inefficient. The average American automobile spends 95 percent of its life parked, which seems like a crazy statistic at first until you actually think about the amount of time you spend in your car each day. 

For the purpose of this blog, I am specifically targeting EVs because they are too often touted as the solution to climate change, especially in the Global North. What I think is most important to note is that this perspective is a privileged one. There are numerous environmental issues that are directly caused by car overreliance, and EVs will not solve most of them. 

 

Pollution, Human Health, and Small Business 

The Pew Research Center reports that tires are responsible for 78 percent of microplastics in the ocean.  Tires are composed of synthetic rubber that contains over 400 chemicals, including heavy metals such as lead, copper, and zinc—and many of them are carcinogenic. Additionally, the average car with four tires produces 1 trillion ultrafine particles for every kilometer driven (around 0.6 miles). 

Automobiles spit out emissions at the street level, which contributes to climate change by releasing carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and hydrofluorocarbons by burning gas and diesel. There is also increasing awareness that automobile exhaust is a public health concern. One 2023 study linked breathing in traffic emissions to increased blood pressure of passengers. Other studies have connected air pollution from automobiles with increased rates of cardiovascular disease, asthma, lung cancer, and death.  Additionally, a society focused on cars promotes a sedentary lifestyle, which puts people at risk for many of the same conditions caused by the air pollution from tailpipes. 

Moreover, a world built around automobiles (and the rise of the suburb) also benefits large corporations and harms local businesses. Since smaller businesses generally operate in smaller (usually more urban) areas rather than in large commercial lots, car-centric design common throughout the suburbs makes it easier for consumers to purchase from large companies. Meanwhile, many small businesses rely on people walking/passing through, which car dependency negatively impacts. 

 

Urban Sprawl 

The rise of the automobile is connected with the rise of the suburbs and modern urban sprawl—think driving down Highway 280 in Birmingham at 5:30 PM on a Tuesday. The rise of the suburbs has increased the number of miles per trip and made it convenient to move far away from the cities. Massive amounts of land were developed, displacing wildlife and allowing the wealthy (and predominantly white) to move away from the cities. Studies have linked development with a decrease in biodiversity. While, arguably, this concerns urban and suburban areas, the suburbs take up significantly more space than urban areas (even though they contain far fewer people living in them). 

It is a common misconception to think that a rural home with large, spacious fields is the most “environmentally friendly” way to live, with cities being the enemy of true sustainability, largely due to the historical implications of the Industrial Revolution on cities. While living in a rural area is not necessarily bad for the environment, cities are vastly more efficient from a space perspective, and much of that is because of the diversification of transportation (though this depends on the city). 

Much of what I am describing is the ideal end result of success through the American Dream. It focuses on economic prosperity and the goal of owning property and raising a family. It’s no secret that the idea of upward mobility being accessible to all is inaccurate. Aside from that, it can take time before we think about the cost of all of this. 

A black and white photo shows individuals marching in a protest against the construction of a highway.
Figure 2: Protesters organizing against the construction of a highway. Source: Yahoo Images. A black and white photo shows individuals marching in a protest against the construction of a highway.

 

Connection to Human Rights Domestically 

Besides the consequences of that for human health we’ve already talked about, overreliance on automobiles exacerbates the already high inequity within the United States. The US Department of Transportation estimates that the construction of the interstate system displaced over 1 million people when it was built starting in the late 1950s. The system was built to connect the United States, and it did, but it connected some groups more than others and came at a high cost to others. The bulk of the interstate system cut through black and brown communities to cater to white commuters who worked in the city but lived in the suburbs. Not only has infrastructure historically cut through communities of color and impacted the once-flourishing social centers there, but by putting a highway there, it places those same groups of people underneath the emissions pipe of people who drive through there every day.  

As for the consequences of this shift on cities? There are numerous. One of the main ones that comes to mind is the issue of parking. On UAB’s (University of Alabama at Birmingham) campus, nearly everyone is dissatisfied with the parking situation. This issue goes back to the inefficiency of the automobile. As mentioned earlier, on average, a car is parked for 95 percent of the time, taking up a square of concrete nine feet wide by 18 feet long. This is problematic for urban areas like Birmingham because the density of jobs and people is so high, yet the amount of space is quite tight. It does not take a civil engineer to recognize how inefficient this is in terms of land usage. This is also problematic when you consider that the majority of the time, all the parking lots are empty—yes, they really are empty most of the time. 

In addition to their inefficiency, they impact different communities disproportionately. Parking lots are generally built in, near, or even over communities of color, further degrading property values (and can sometimes make those communities warmer due to the heat island effect). This is also concerning for public health because parks in nonwhite areas are generally about half the size of parks in majority-white areas. 

When considering all of this, it is not difficult to see how car-centric infrastructure is a human rights issue in the US, often fueled by racist zoning laws and institutions that seek to capitalize on the manipulation of communities of color. 

An aerial view of downtown Houston shows that most of the space is used for parking than for buildings.
Figure 3:Parking covers more space than building space in downtown Houston, Texas. Source: Yahoo Images. An aerial view of downtown Houston shows that most of the space is used for parking than for buildings.

Similarly, the modern American driver is dissatisfied with the amount of traffic whenever “everyone else” is taking up all the room on the road. In the United States, there are large cities that are known to have this problem due to their almost complete reliance on automobiles. Houston and Atlanta are primary examples of this, where they have such high populations and poor public transportation to accommodate the large daily movement of people. 

In Alabama and many other states, the solution is to add more lanes, which makes traffic worse due to a concept called induced demand. While it may seem that adding another lane would allow more space for people to drive and reduce traffic, adding another lane to an inefficient system makes the existing system more inefficient. Increasing roads by 10% will temporarily improve traffic, but over time, it will increase traffic by 10%, making the problem worse. 

 

Human Rights Violations in Congo 

EVs, as you may have realized, do not solve our parking or traffic problems. Beyond that, there are human rights concerns with the global supply chain that make EVs less ideal, too. 

With EVs specifically, the lithium batteries require a significant amount of cobalt. The largest reserves of cobalt in the world come from mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Copper is also needed for different types of batteries, including cell phone batteries, and it is frequently mined in Congo as well. Unfortunately, families in Congo have been forcibly evicted due to the opening of new cobalt mines. Amnesty International, a global human rights NGO, has accused large companies who are opening these mines of forced evictions, threats, intimidation, and deception of the people who live there. 

It is crucial to mention that ethical considerations like this have long been used by the fossil fuel industry to discredit and slow down the movement toward clean energy. It is imperative for the US to curb emissions and shift towards renewable forms of energy. Additionally, automobiles are a significant component of that, making up the largest category at about 29 percent of GHG emissions in the US. Still, it is critical that we do not continue to uphold unjust forms of labor and oppression. It is precisely these systems that have placed the United States as an economic powerhouse through the exploitation of people from other countries, damaging their health and environmental quality for our benefit. 

 

Moving Forward 

From an emissions perspective, EVs are a step in the right direction, but they do not begin to touch most of the other issues discussed in this blog, including environmental racism and public health concerns from an automobile-centered society. 

EVs won’t solve the parking problem, the traffic problem, the microplastic problem, or the human rights issues associated with the global suppliers that are notoriously secretive about their practices. While they may decrease direct pollution that is linked with all the health conditions I mentioned earlier, they do not erase the damage to the people and countries that are supplying materials for their construction.  

What will start to get at the problem is diversifying transportation. While automobiles are needed in many cases, it is extremely exclusive and inefficient to make them the only option, especially in our mid-size and large cities. In some countries, tax dollars fund all transportation infrastructure rather than almost solely funding infrastructure for cars and requiring bike infrastructure to be paid for by private individuals. In the US, most states spent an average of $1.50 to $3 per capita on bike infrastructure. 

Improving public transportation in urban areas and between cities, such as through intercity trains, would benefit public health and the environment. It could also be a small start of changing centuries worth of racism and inequity by decreasing pollution and making it so that the people producing the most pollution cannot drive 40 miles outside the city to get away from it. 

Investing in public transportation would also improve the lives of people who cannot drive or do not want to. In a car-dominated society, many disabled people and elderly people are forced to rely on others to take them places or pay for expensive Ubers. Giving them the option to travel without the assistance of others, just like everyone who drives themselves to work, is important to preserve their autonomy so they can maintain control over their own life without relying on others. 

Car-centric design favors the wealthy and forces the rest of the population to keep up with car payments and insurance, which are quite expensive for the everyday family. According to the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, the average American family’s second highest expenditure (behind housing) is transportation, with 93 percent used for car payments and maintenance. It also favors the automobile companies, which is the biggest reason we do not have diversified transportation (like nearly every other developed country). 

The simple truth is that the United States economy benefits from the sale of cars, and changing how we view this is difficult. Changing the infrastructure (and, in some ways, creating it) would not be easy, but it would create a more inclusive world. To change this, we must make the best decisions and push for improved public transportation, especially in urban areas like Birmingham. 

 

What can we do? 

Realistically, no person can change this system individually, and I think that is a large reason why people love talking about EVs and other ways we can individually make an impact. 

Overall, wanting to make a difference is a good thing. It is important to pay attention to the companies you purchase from and ensure they are upholding high ethical and sourcing standards. I have mentioned this in previous blog posts, but the best thing to do is to refrain from purchasing unless you truly need it—and even then, try to buy secondhand. 

If you do not need a new phone or laptop, do not buy a new one every year. Remember that companies, including the fossil fuel industry, benefit from the mentality that we should all have the newest thing. This is not good for your wallet, and it is especially harmful for the planet and the humans who collect the resources used in things we take for granted every day. 

Another thing to consider is reducing your reliance on batteries. I am not saying to throw out all the batteries you may have at home, but to think of it from a purchasing perspective. It is becoming increasingly common for basic household appliances to be battery-powered because they are convenient. For some people, having multiple battery-powered flashlights for camping is a crucial safety measure, but if you need a new appliance for use in your home, be realistic. Batteries are convenient, but do you really need a battery-powered vacuum cleaner or handheld mixer that could be plugged into the electricity grid for use in a home? Given the questionable industries involved in battery production (and their environmental damage when they are not properly disposed of), eliminating the use of battery-powered objects in cases when they are not necessary is a great start. 

 

A Final Note 

I cannot finish this blog without mentioning that Birmingham does have a bus system, but it is mostly designed for people who do not have cars. It is designed as a last resort rather than a first choice, which means that users are often viewed negatively for not having a “better” option. 

Arguments against diversifying transportation usually include comments that walking or biking is not accessible because things are so far away. 

If that is what comes to mind, I’d like you to consider that most major and even mid-size cities (Birmingham included) had expansive public transportation until private car ownership increased from the 1920s to the 1950s. I cannot include them here, but you can find maps of Birmingham’s old streetcar system online. 

Many of the tracks are still here, and we drive over them every day without even realizing it. 

The Indigenous Justice System: Over-incarceration of Indigenous People and the Need for Cultural Humility

by Eva Pechtl

To better understand the value of culturally centered practices in Indigenous justice, I encourage you to read my previous blog, “History of Limitations and Restorative Justice.” In this blog, I will be highlighting the resulting statistics on the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prisons. Then, utilizing reports from several justice-oriented organizations, I will summarize how professionals from Indigenous communities conclude problems and solutions that need to be addressed to neutralize these disparities in the Indigenous criminal justice system. 

 

Serious complaints arose around a decade ago about the food quality of the catering hired by the provincial Saskatchewan government.
An image of a man in adult provincial custody in Saskatchewan, Canada, looking out of his cell with his arms between the cell bars. The data on the overrepresentation index for Indigenous people in 2020/2021 was highest in Saskatchewan at 17.7 times higher than the non-Indigenous incarcerated population (Statistics Canada, 2023). Image Source: Don Healy/Regina Leader-Post via Yahoo Images

 

Visualizing the Statistics 

Indigenous people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system across several countries, including the United States, Canada, and Australia. Extensive research has been conducted by human rights organizations around the world, but collecting accurate data on Native populations in the United States has proven difficult. The visibility of crime has come a long way since the Not Invisible Act of 2019 was signed into law in 2020 to increase information sharing and track cases of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP) crisis. However, data on Indigenous populations is still flawed in some ways. According to the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) and a report by the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC), categorizing people by a single race can wrongfully categorize people who identify with more than one race. The data that does exist is inconsistently labeled, meaning it could refer to Native people as Indian, American Indian-Alaska Native, Latino, or other. The number of incarcerated Indigenous people depends on how they are counted, and this generally underreports and, therefore, overlooks Native people in the system.  

According to the PPI, the data shows that Indigenous people are incarcerated in federal and state prisons at over four times the rate of white people. In the state prison systems of Alaska, South Dakota, Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Utah, Indigenous people are highly overrepresented relative to the states’ Indigenous populations. The SJC report shows that in Montana, the Indigenous population is 7% but closer to 30% of the prison population. In South Dakota, Indigenous people convicted for aggravated assault received sentences 62% longer on average than any other racial group. 

 

Jurisdiction’s Impact 

Over-incarceration of Native Americans published by the SJC highlights complicated jurisdiction as a player toward overrepresentation. According to Indigenous experiences documented in the report, it is common for single crimes to be charged in more than one jurisdiction because of multiple police agencies patrolling reservation lands. Defendants may then face multiple charges with different requirements, which often results in punishment for failing to understand and/or follow those requirements. This is especially true for youth caught up in technical violations of probation or status offenses. 

A document titled Juvenile Justice, created by the National Congress of American Indians, speaks to the challenges of Indigenous youth in the justice system. Native youth are more likely to be subjected to the federal system and to be tried as adults, especially for drug-related crimes, leaving them with longer and harsher sentences.  

In Baytown, Texas, Olivia B. was arrested for a fight, expelled from her high school, and charged as an adult in court.
An image of a young girl being addressed by a judge in court beside her mother. The court proceedings for her misdemeanors, being charged as an adult, made it difficult for her to find employment and delayed her career goals of becoming a Psychologist (Open Society Foundations). Image Source: Michael Stravado/Redux via Yahoo Images

The federal system is not built for children, and sentencing often limits opportunities for diversion, parole, or services helpful in juvenile cases. Even if certain courts offer other options, youth are too often left with no support. Due to overlapping jurisdiction, professionals tend to assume that Indigenous youth will always be someone else’s responsibility. However, Tribal governments are often not informed when their youth interact with the state juvenile justice systems, and this prevents tribes from supporting reintegration and rehabilitation before, during, and after contact with the system. 

On the other hand, when Native children experience a culturally rooted court system like those of tribal courts and jails, they can have a better chance of receiving constructive intervention and support. For example, the Cherokee Talking Circle integrates Keetoowah-Cherokee cultural values that target substance use among youth. According to the Juvenile Justice document, researchers found that non-cultural education programs were significantly less effective in reducing juvenile delinquency compared to CTC. The Choctaw culture includes the practice of Immannumpuli, where an uncle or tribal court employee will educate youth offenders about the Choctaw justice system and talk to them about their life choices. Increasing collaboration between federal and tribal justice agencies to encourage US Attorneys to deter offenders to tribal court would be extremely beneficial for Native youth. 

 

Causes and Solutions 

The criminal justice system ultimately reflects an overreliance on locking people up, specifically Indigenous people, rather than offering services to rehabilitate offenders. Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics displayed that in Indigenous areas specifically, the creation of more jails resulted in a direct increase in incarceration rates instead of being a remedy for overcrowding. As expected, the jail expansion also led to longer stays for both pretrial detention and actual sentencing.  

Especially in Indigenous communities, incarceration has harmful effects on health, as jails are not prepared to navigate chronic illnesses and are commonly dangerous environments. Incarceration is harmful to maintaining or finding employment, and this causes more poverty and debt among Indigenous individuals. Currently, because of high incarceration rates and a lack of restorative methods, many Indigenous people will be returning to their communities with significant challenges. Assisted reintegration is vital to the healing process needed after incarceration. 

The SJC report recognizes the long history of forced confinement of Indigenous people as a contributor to systemic inequities faced today. In the past and still today, disparities in justice are falsely attributed to the characteristics of Indigenous people rather than the more real factors of complex jurisdiction, deficiency of representation in court, racism, or violence. This is why legal professionals must consider the historical context of Indigenous trauma when analyzing current inequities.  

According to the SJC report, Tribal leaders have called for culturally relative alternative sentencing options that look to the roots of the crime problem. 15-16% of people in tribal jails were held for public intoxication or drug-related offenses, leading the Indian Law and Order Commission to state that drug abuse was a contributor to almost all crimes in Indian communities. Considering the serious financial and health effects of drugs, any efforts to prevent crime and recidivism would absolutely need to address substance use problems. 

Cultural Humility 

A reporter hears the story of an Indigenous man for the Intercontinental Cry report.
An image of a reporter listening to an Indigenous man, centering their focus on under-reported stories concerning Indigenous human rights. Image Source: Intercontinental Cry via Yahoo Images

 

Finally, the SJC report recognizes cultural humility as a necessary factor in supporting Indigenous communities. Practicing cultural humility means acknowledging your own inability to be an expert in a different culture. The disparities in representation in the criminal justice system can improve if non-Indigenous criminal justice professionals seek to understand that there is a lot they are not aware of concerning Indigenous experiences.  

Tribal agencies and activists across the United States have called for changes to be made, whether it is about legal jurisdiction, inadequate funding, or over-incarceration rates. Acknowledging the barriers that Indigenous communities and individuals face is a first step in creating cultural safety. Indigenous people are the best suited to handle justice and related problems facing their communities. It is time to listen to them. 

What Can We Do? 

To learn more about practices supporting native people, I encourage you to explore the lessons and solutions listed in the Over Incarceration of Native People. The document includes diverse proposals ranging from supporting Tribal Reentry programs, trauma-informed care, providing cultural mentoring, license restoration, victim assistance, housing, mental health services, and, most importantly, culturally relevant research and services. Juvenile Justice includes many evidence-based policy recommendations to change the status quo for Indigenous youth, helping them and their families to be better informed, tracked, assessed, represented, and treated. To find relevant services or contribute to their success, Tribal Justice also lists many resources and specified programs. 

Signs reading "Justice for Colten," "Indigenous Lives Matter," and "Murder is murder, lock him up!" advocate for justice for Colton Boushie, shot by farmer Gerald Stanley.
An image of a protest for Indigenous Justice In Canada in response to the shooting death of Colton Boushie and the acquittal of Gerald Stanley. Image Source: The Canadian Press/Jason Franson via Yahoo Images

In this series, I have reiterated many of the issues at the tip of the iceberg, but to continue supporting Native people, we must be able to acknowledge our ignorance of the rest of the iceberg that is the Native experience. With cultural humility in mind, we can work to unveil injustice in the Indigenous Justice System. 

 

International Day of Science and Peace

by Wajiha Mekki 

November 10 is the International Day of Science and Peace (IDSP), also known as the World Science Day for Peace and Development. The United Nations host this international event.

History of IDSP

Established in 1986, this historical day was initially developed to commemorate the birth of Marie Curie, a notable physicist and humanitarian. Curie was known for her innovative work within radioactivity, contributing to the discovery of radium and polonium. By 1999, its purpose changed to reflect the global needs of the scientific and humanitarian community, utilizing the day to affirm the global commitment to attaining the goals of the Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge. The day and annual summit unite governmental, intervention mental, and non-governmental organizations meaningfully to promote international solidarity for shared sciences between countries and renew the global commitment to use science to benefit communities that need it most. 

The overall goal of IDSP is to help achieve the UN 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, creating a plan for prosperity for people and the planet. 

 

ISDP 2023

The 2023 theme for IDSP will be “Bridging the Gap: Science, Peace, and Human Rights.” This emphasizes the interconnectedness between science and peace, having a role in advancing human rights. Science is a valuable tool for making technological advancements, but it is also helpful in helping address social issues, reducing conflicts, and sustainably promoting human rights.

 

Photo of space shuttle near body of water.
Photo of space shuttle near body of water.
Source: Flickr

Science and Human Rights

Science is frequently associated with helping improve medical interventions, solving coding bugs, and completing mathematical equations. However, contrary to popular belief, science is essential to human rights. Firstly, science has a valuable role in promoting sustainable development. Utilizing scientific methods, data can be collected to quantify the progress toward fulfilling the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. Ranging from climate change to poverty to infant mortality, scientific data collection and analysis methods are needed to efficiently and effectively respond to global issues. Research and innovation also contribute to the mobilization of resources to historically underserved communities, allowing them to gain access to necessities. 

Within innovation, shared desires and interests help unite countries with singular goals. Scientific diplomacy is valuable in bringing countries to the table of collaboration. This deepens connections between countries as it relates to trade and commercial interests and helps foster peaceful relationships, prioritizing human rights.

With the appropriate distribution of resources, scientific advancements help improve the quality of life for communities internationally. Applying what is traditionally “scientific” to communities gives them a chance to live a better quality of life in a cleaner environment.

It is available to educate the public about the vital role of science and encourage innovation to solve global challenges.

How Countries Can Get Involved

Beyond participating in IDSP, countries can have a role in unifying science and human rights through many different avenues. One route is to protect and invest in scientific diplomacy. By allocating funding to scientific innovation and multilateral collaborations, governments can ensure that they can focus on shared goals with their international counterparts, working collaboratively to promote peace and cooperation. Another route is developing policies that protect innovation while developing guardrails for its usage, ensuring it is mobilized to those who need it most. States have a responsibility to be an advocate and protectors of their citizens, and by working to ensure that scientific diplomacy is used for the betterment of people abroad, they can elicit change in a meaningful way.

 

INTL and MAST Students Visit US Department of State Source: GU Blog
INTL and MAST Students Visit US Department of State Source: GU Blog

How Citizens Can Get Involved

Citizens have a responsibility to promote peace with science, as well. The role of a community member is to primarily use one’s voice to advocate for innovation and peace; by doing so and mobilizing one’s own story, organizations are held accountable for their actions. From governmental entities, non-profit organizations, and grassroots movements, stakeholders are supported by the citizenry. It is also important to have open conversations  to explore further the nuanced introspection of science, peace, and human rights, continuing to promote awareness and understanding.

 

The Excessive Nature of Overconsumption in American Culture

by Lexie Woolums

One of the things that dominate American society is what I like to call the “epitome of excess.”

We live in a capitalistic culture that thrives on consumers’ dissatisfaction. Our society’s culture defines American success as getting promoted to a position high enough that one can make enough money to purchase a big house in the suburbs, add a few cars, and have an annual family vacation.

Influencers on social media have added to this growing consumption. People have access to information via “Get Ready With Me” vlogs on TikTok, which feature various (expensive) products to desire based on trends that go in and out of style in just a few short months. This cultural desire to keep up with trends causes a constantly growing urge to have more. Nearly everything is capitalized on, giving us a concept initially coined by Herbert A. Simon in the 1960s known as the attention economy. Digital creators earn money based on views and engagement from their followers. People online regularly discuss strategies to “trick the algorithm” to further capitalize on this economy where time is one of the most valuable things someone can “give,” similar to how we have traditionally viewed money and, later, information. The phrase “time is money” comes to mind, but not in the same way that my grandparents would understand it.

Beyond seeking to maximize the number of seconds a viewer will stay on the video before swiping, this culture has other effects. It pushes for overconsumption. It has become common to see content creators post videos of six dresses they ordered while asking their followers to “help them choose which one to wear” to the event they have coming up. When I was in high school, everyone wanted the Hydro flask. Today, it is the Stanley Cup. As I wrote this article, I was notified that the newest cup fascination is an Owala.

A girl taking a picture of a folded piece of pizza with her phone
Figure 1- Source: Yahoo Images; Taking photos and videos to put on social media is easier than ever.

It has even become ordinary for content creators to try and capture views by “de-influencing” whatever the sought-after object is at the time. Spoiler alert: this is generally just pointing to a different brand of metal cup on Amazon that is better and cheaper than the almighty Stanley cup (and, coincidentally, listed in the person’s Amazon storefront, where they earn a commission on every purchase made).

This is just influencing—a system that attempts to capitalize on the attention that follows dissent.  The concept is not new, but it has changed how people earn money.

People run entire side hustles by making videos showcasing “Five Products You Need from Amazon,” with aesthetic videos of acrylic containers or trendy dresses.

It is normal to hear people joke about “doomscrolling” for hours online, highlighting the over-encompassing nature of modern social media and its role in our everyday lives. The pervasive nature of this beast has become an accepted fact of life, so we do not always think about questioning it. It takes a degree of separation before one might stop and think, what is the cost of this lifestyle? We do not generally stop to consider how the Amazon package made it to our house in two days. We rarely ask who made the trendy cup we found at Walmart or the skirt we found at American Eagle.

We rarely ask any questions about the actual cost of what we consume.

Customers entering and exiting an escalator to enter Zara fashion store.
Figure 2- Source: Yahoo Images; Zara is a well-known fast fashion brand.

As a culture, we are so far disconnected from the places and communities that create the products we use that many Americans would struggle to imagine what life would be like if we did not have access to these things. As a culture, we love a bargain, especially when we get to tell someone else about the three-dollar T-shirt we found at Target. What a steal!

It is a culture of mass consumption, and no one is immune to it. From a nicer car to a bigger house to a new water bottle or wardrobe (even when you do not use most of what you have), the desire to have more continues, especially within fashion.

Overconsumption has more negative effects than I can effectively capture in one blog post. It exists in all aspects of life across all sectors of commerce. Based on personal experience as a woman living in the world, fast fashion is one of the most pervasive issues that could be addressed more effectively if more people stopped to question before they purchased.

For this reason, I am honing in on fashion today, but by no means is that to imply that fashion is the sole or most important issue of our insatiable, overconsuming culture.

 

History

To contextualize the history of fashion consumption, it is important to mention how the fashion industry has shifted its production model over time.

Historically, most clothing purchased in the United States was produced within the country, created by garment workers during the Industrial Revolution. While I will not delve into much of the history here, my colleague, Kala Bhattar, wrote a phenomenal blog that delves further into the history of fashion. I highly encourage people to check that out if they are interested.

A black and white photo that shows a large textile machine with a child standing in the foreground and an older person standing blurred in the background
Figure 3- Source: Yahoo Images; A child working on a textile machine in the industrial era

For the purpose of this blog, the critical thing to note is that this system of domestic production and consumption is no longer standard (and is actually pretty rare) and that most large fashion companies have shifted production into different countries in the Global South, so they can take advantage of the cheaper labor.

 

Pollution

According to the United Nations, the fashion industry is the second largest polluting industry in the world, sitting right behind big oil. As of 2019, H&M was known for having $4.1 billion worth of unsold clothes. Some of the unsold clothing is used to fuel a power plant in Sweden. Still, H&M (and many other brands) still produce a high quantity of textile waste that never gets used, and in many places, it gets sent straight to landfills. People consume 400% more clothing today than twenty years ago. This excessive consumption tends to contribute to human rights inequities like gender inequality since most garment workers are women. It also contributes to the climate crisis due to the manufacturing of chemicals and landfilled textile waste.

The entire business model of fast fashion companies exists based on the idea that consumers will buy things, wear them a few times, and then toss them out and buy more to try and keep up with cycling trends. This model relies on (and intends for) the products to only be used a few times before being thrown out.

With our current consumption habits, the best-case scenario is that an item will be purchased and worn a few times before being discarded. That is a pretty pitiful best-case scenario.

A landfill with dirt to the right and general waste to the left. A large tractor can be seen in the background.
Figure 4- Source: Yahoo Images; Fast fashion is often landfilled after only a few wears

 

Varying Disparities

Fast fashion’s impact on human rights depends on the location, which widely varies. In the United States, the textile waste predominantly goes to landfills. A 2007 North Carolina study showed how solid waste landfills are disproportionately located in Black neighborhoods. In the world abroad, it is known that fast fashion companies like Zara and Forever 21 capitalize on the cheaper labor in the Global South, resulting in what many have called “modern slavery.”

Extensive human rights violations are associated with fast fashion, from child labor to exposure to toxic chemicals to dangerous working conditions. For instance, in a 2022 undercover investigation, it was discovered that Shein employees work 18-hour days with one day off per month and make as little as 4 cents per garment.

I am keeping this section brief not because these problems are not important but to discuss potential solutions because the ultimate truth is that many people already know about these issues, and we need action.

 

Affordability

I would be remiss without mentioning the most significant barrier to purchasing slow fashion, and that is affordability.

Since we live in a culture that encourages overconsumption, some may scoff at spending more than twenty dollars on a pair of jeans. We are used to the cheap stuff and accustomed to buying something to use it for a few times before pawning it off at the thrift store or throwing it in the trash can.

Sustainable brands are notoriously expensive by modern standards, and not everyone can afford those brands because they are the exception rather than the rule. In the past, clothing has been made to last for generations, so it was expected that consumers would pay higher prices upon the new purchase.

I want to be clear here that in no way am I trying to overromanticize the past systems of the fashion industry. I would highly doubt that some Americans today seek to abolish the minimum wage or have children working in our factories again. With that being said, we have lost the skills, knowledge, and willpower to make our purchases last in a way that respects the resources and labor it took to make the piece.

 

Conclusion and Solutions

In terms of solutions, there are some things that we can do to spark change within the fashion industry. These actions exist on two primary fronts: purchasing and—let me emphasize this one here—NOT purchasing.

Regarding true ethics and sustainability, relying on companies to make ethical decisions is not the best strategy since many of them are dishonest about their products’ true social and environmental sustainability. This includes many brands that some would consider to be “sustainable.” Fashion companies are notorious for greenwashing their products, making them appear a better option, even when most of their clothing is not produced ethically or sustainably.

Due to this, consumers should focus on reducing their consumption overall rather than buying when possible.

The best way to minimize the impact on people and the planet manipulated by the fashion industry is to stop buying from those brands. If you need something new and want to buy it, I encourage you to return to your closet and shop from there (because you probably do not need anything). This might sound crazy, but most of us have more than we need, and we must recognize that and act accordingly.

Another solution is to borrow something from a friend or family member. Thrifting or buying secondhand can also be good options to minimize your impact.

All of these examples mentioned fall under the front of not purchasing. If a shirt has holes, learn to mend it to be re-worn. If you want to wear something new to an event, ask a friend to borrow something or try to style something in a new way. Use what you have, and you will be forced to be more creative.

Two women talking to each other. They are standing between two clothing rails on the street at a secondhand clothing sale.
Figure 5- Source: Yahoo Images; People shopping at a clothing swap

It can also be helpful to consider the washing instructions for specific items. Many articles of clothing would last significantly longer if they were hang-dried or hand-washed.

When these options have been exhausted, and you must purchase something new, be selective. As a consumer, making conscious choices when purchasing new clothing dramatically helps. Suppose you cannot picture yourself wearing something often, or you know the item does not go with anything you have. In that case, it is probably a good idea to refrain from purchasing it.

If you cannot afford to spend a lot of money on clothes, fast fashion is going to be the obvious choice, so it is best to focus on making a mindful purchase with an item you will wear for a long time. Beyond that, the best thing is to take care of your clothes as best as possible to maximize the use you can get out of them.

If you love a staple piece from a sustainable brand, try to save up to invest in it—I guarantee you that it will probably last for years. I recommend this website to check on brands you are interested in—it rates brands based on environmental impact, labor conditions, and animal welfare.

 

Final Thoughts

We all experience the desire to have more, and that is not always a bad thing. Still, our culture has a lot of work to do regarding setting realistic expectations about the number of things we think we need.

For better or worse, I am an optimist at heart, and I am confident we can do better.

Environmental Rights = Human Rights: Air As a Human Right

An image of air pollution coming from industrial usage
Source: Yahoo Images;

Human rights are dependent on the environment, and we can address many environmental rights issues to bring about a better world for all those who live on this green and blue planet that we call home. In this sense, environmental rights ARE human rights, and taking a human rights approach to address these environmental rights can close the gaps of inequality between the Global North and the Global South countries. I am dedicating a series to deep dive into this human rights approach to environmental rights. We began this series by focusing on how issues around food and water can be addressed with a human rights approach. This blog will focus on air, another essential need for all living things, and how issues surrounding access to clean water can be addressed with a human rights approach.

The Right to Clean Air and the Consequences of Air Pollution

Like food and water, the air is another resource that humans and other creatures cannot live without. In fact, the Earth’s atmosphere, along with the water found here, is a special phenomenon that enables the Earth to support life. The atmosphere acts as a barrier between the organisms on Earth and the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, that when consumed in large quantities, can lead to cancer and death. Even the water that exists on Earth depends on the atmospheric pressures, and the layers of the atmosphere allow for warmth to heat up our planet so that life can exist comfortably. While the atmosphere is life-giving, any minute changes to the atmosphere can have drastic impacts on all living creatures on Earth, including humans.

Layers of the Atmosphere 

An image depicting the layers of the atmosphere, along with its temperatures and the objects and phenomenon that are present in those layers.
Source: Yahoo Images

There are many layers of our atmosphere, which are characterized based on their atmospheric temperatures. The four main layers are the troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, and thermosphere, in order. Further out is the exosphere, and the outermost layer is the magnetosphere. Understanding the different layers of our atmosphere, and the crucial roles they play to protect life on Earth can help us better appreciate the planet on which we live. The Troposphere is the layer closest to the surface, in which we exist. This is the layer that produces much of our weather patterns and contains 75% of all the atmosphere’s air. The temperatures in this layer grow colder the farther they are from the Earth’s surface, with temperatures varying based on the weather patterns.

The Stratosphere is the next layer, which exists above the troposphere, is 22 miles long and contains the most important element of our atmosphere, the Ozone Layer. The Ozone Layer is the layer within the stratosphere that absorbs the sun’s heat and radiation, filtering the harmful rays to make them safe for consumption by all living beings. In this layer, the air is colder closer to the troposphere, and the air is warmer as it increases in height, a consequence of the sun’s UV rays and their warming effect. In the 1980s, scientists realized that some of the chemicals we were using in refrigerators and in hair sprays (chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs), were causing the Ozone Layer to develop a large opening over Antarctica, exposing all the Earth’s organisms to the harmful UV rays of the sun. There was a global effort to end the use of these chemicals, and the Earth’s Ozone Layer is in the process of healing today. This healing process will take years, as a new UN study predicts that it will take another 43 years for the Ozone Hole to fully heal.

Next is the Mesosphere, which is where all the gases exist in a mixture rather than in specific layers. About 22 miles long, this layer is where the meteors and other objects from space burn up, a phenomenon we are familiar with as “shooting stars.” Above the mesosphere is the thermosphere, which captures much of the X-ray radiation from the sun, and the temperatures in this layer rise with height. This layer exists alongside the ionosphere, where the electrons from the layer’s atoms and molecules are transformed into positive charges due to the sun’s solar radiation. This layer is about 319 miles long, with temperatures reaching as high as 4,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The thermosphere is the layer in which the International Space Station is positioned, and the ionosphere allows radio waves to be reflected and absorbed, allowing us to make use of those radio waves to broadcast around the world.

Beyond the thermosphere is the exosphere, a layer that is 6,200 miles long, and considered to be the Earth’s outermost layer. Home to many gases such as hydrogen and helium, the exosphere does not have any oxygen to breathe. This is the layer that contains the satellites which enable us to use tools like GPS, weather monitoring systems, and other communication networks. As with all the other planets in our solar system, Earth has an outer shell, called the magnetosphere that is responsible for creating a magnetic field around the planet that interacts with the Earth’s iron core and is responsible for protecting our planet from solar flares, cosmic rays, and the impacts of solar winds. Scientists at NASA who study the magnetosphere’s complexity propose that Earth has the strongest magnetosphere than any of the other planets in our solar system and that this magnetic field is largely responsible for making the Earth habitable.

Greenhouse gases, air pollution, and global warming

An infographic explaining the treehouse effect
Source: Yahoo Images

There are many gases that are present in our atmosphere. These gases include Carbon Dioxide, Methane, Nitrogen, and others. While these are gases that are naturally present in the atmosphere, an excessive amount of these gases can cause a greenhouse effect in the atmosphere. The sun warms up the Earth’s surface during the day, and as the sun goes down and cools the Earth’s surface, this heat is released back into the atmosphere. Yet, the greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere trap some of that heat in the atmosphere. This function is actually required for the possibility of life to be sustainable on Earth. Without this effect, the Earth would drop to unbearable temperatures as soon as the sun goes down. Unfortunately, when more and more of these gases are present in the atmosphere, it traps more and more heat on the Earth’s surface. This is exacerbated by the activities of humans, especially following the Industrial Revolution, as the amount of these greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere is increasing by the year.

Sources of Air Pollution and Their Health Impacts

An infographic depicting the various sources of air pollution, both anthropogenic and natural sources
Source: Yahoo Images

Anthropogenic (caused by humans) Source

There are many human activities that cause air pollution, trapping greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. While I will not be able to list them all here, I have comprised a list that includes a few anthropogenic activities that cause air pollution, as well as a few natural occurrences that add to this issue. Some human activities that cause air pollution include various things like transportation, residential use, waste management, and more. Many industries add to the air pollution through the complex processes they use when converting raw materials into usable items to be sold. These processes not only release chemicals from the materials used but also release various gases from the burning of fossil fuels that is converted into energy and heat to be used during these processes. Various forms of transportation can also cause air pollution, from driving gas cars to flying jets. We regularly use large trucks to transport our goods across states, use large cargo ships to transport goods across oceans, and use airplanes to transport goods and people across the globe. All these vehicles release greenhouse gases, including its biggest polluter, Carbon dioxide (CO2), and Nitrogen oxide (NOx), both of which can be harmful to humans in large quantities. In fact, Nitrogen Oxides can cause respiratory issues, and damage the lungs.

Another source of air pollution comes from our personal use and commercial uses. For one, our personal use of motor vehicles adds to this issue, as well as our burning of coal, wood, or other sources of energy conversion that provide us with heat. We also release chemicals into the air with the cleaning products we use, the hair sprays and perfumes we use, and even in the cigarettes that are smoked by many people. In fact, smoking tobacco releases ten times more emissions than what comes out of a diesel engine. Smoking tobacco releases what is known as Particulate Matter (PM), which is made up of minuscule amounts of dust, smoke, soot, or other particles in the air, and is one of the most harmful pollutants to humans. Their microscopic size allows them easy access to our lungs, and sometimes even into our bloodstreams, flaring up respiratory issues, and eye irritation, and could even lead to lung cancer.

An image that shows the toxic air pollution coming from near a landfill, burning electronic waste.
Source: Yahoo Images

Not surprisingly, another source of air pollution comes from our waste management practices, whether it be storing waste in landfills, or waste incineration to convert the trash into energy. Many of us simply use trash pick-up services without thinking too deeply about what happens to the trash we throw away. Much of our trash ends up in landfills, which are most likely to be located in impoverished areas, and near communities of color. These landfills are dumping sites for waste products, and although there are regulations and standards of waste disposal, much of the waste that ends up in landfills contain both hazardous and non-hazardous waste. These landfills not only produce stringent odors but also release greenhouse gases from these piles. Some of the waste that does not end up in landfills will be sent to be incinerated and converted into energy.

While this is better than storing waste in landfills, (as it is being recycled to be used as energy), the process of incinerating the trash releases further toxins and pollutants into the air, adding to the problem, even as it provides a solution. The United States parcels much of its trash to China to be incinerated there, and this is an example of environmental racism. This transaction of waste generated by the exceeding consumer culture in America was being transferred to China to deal with the consequences of eliminating the waste for us. We do not think about these instances, because our problems are shipped away across the oceans for others, who are less fortunate, to deal with it. Only recently has China stopped buying our waste, and as a result, this has caused a global issue of waste disposal.

Natural Sources

There are also many natural sources of air pollution, such as dust, forest fires, volcanoes, and more. I include agriculture in the natural sources even though it is a mixture of both anthropogenic and natural sources of air pollution. Cows, pigs, and other livestock release greenhouse gases, such as CO2, Methane, and Ammonia, through their bodily wastes. Heavy machinery, such as tractors and other farm equipment emit greenhouse gases from their exhausts. The use of pesticides and herbicides further releases toxic chemicals into the air.

An image of the air pollution coming from a volcanic eruption
Source: Yahoo images

Similarly, other natural sources of air pollution include natural disasters, such as volcanoes, forest fires, and tornadoes. When volcanoes erupt, they endanger the surrounding communities of living organisms with the hot-flowing magma. They also release toxins into the air, including volcanic smog and oxides that can cause acid rain. Forest fires also release pollutants into the air. When

You would not think that flooding impacts air quality, but this natural disaster also pollutes the air. Flooding unearths many creatures buried deep in the soil. Along with this, however, flooding causes molding of furniture, buildings, and homes. Many types of molds are harmful to humans, as they can cause respiratory issues such as asthma. These respiratory illnesses due to this natural disaster, as well as all the other anthropogenic sources of air pollution, have been amplified due to the recent pandemic. Coronavirus, a respiratory illness, has exacerbated the impacts of these conditions.

On the other end, severe droughts also can lead to an increase in air pollution. Droughts can lead to soil erosion, which can kick up dust into the surrounding air, increasing the PM amounts in the air. Droughts also dry up surrounding lakes and waterways on which dams are built to sustain the energy needs of local communities nearby. Without the functioning dams, people will likely burn more wood, coal, and charcoal for energy use, further adding to the air pollution. This air pollution can even impact the formation of clouds, and as a result, limit the precipitation coming from the clouds, leading to more droughts. This is a vicious cycle of drier and hotter weather leading to more of the same.

Apart from their cyclical nature, droughts can also lead to forest fires. When temperatures are hot and the land is very dry, this is the perfect environment for wildfires to thrive in. Trees catch on fire due to the surrounding conditions, and when these wooded areas are burning, it has an amplified effect of burning wood at home. This natural disaster releases toxic gases, and large amounts of PM, and the smoke can be very harmful for inhalation. Many areas like California, which suffer from wildfires almost every year, are evacuated during these disasters, as the smoky air is not safe to breathe in. This disaster is capable of uprooting entire communities, and the more it spreads, the more trees it takes with it. These trees, which absorbed much of the CO2 in the area are destroyed, further releasing larger amounts of the gas into the atmosphere.

An image of a forest fire, with black smoke polluting the air
Source: Yahoo Images

Finally, there is a phenomenon known as ocean acidification, that further exacerbates the issue of global warming and air pollution. The ocean absorbs much of the CO2 in the air, and through a complex chemical reaction due to the mixing of this gas with the seawater, the ocean itself becomes more acidic and the levels of carbonate ions found in the ocean decrease. These carbonate ions are an important element for the survival of coral reefs and other structures in the marine ecosystem. This phenomenon also heats up the ocean, further leading to the melting of ice sheets that support arctic wildlife and provide fresh water to the surrounding communities. Instead, these sheets are melting into the ocean, mixing with the saltwater, as a result, becoming unavailable as a source of drinking water. Along with this issue, the changes in the atmosphere, temperature, and environment lead to phenomena such as coral bleaching, which is when coral reefs are naturally bleached white, and become more vulnerable to diseases and death. Many species in the marine ecosystem rely on corals for food and shelter, and even we as humans rely on corals for our medicine and as protection from erosion.   As there are increasingly large amounts of CO2 present in the atmosphere.

Human Rights Approach to Air

An infographic that depicts the various forms of renewable energy, including hydropower, solar, wave, wind, biomass, and other forms of renewable energy sources
Source: Yahoo Images

Humans may not have control over natural disasters, but we do have control over our own actions and the impact they have on our surrounding communities and environment. There are some ways in which we can take a human rights approach to redesign our infrastructure and our society to reflect environmentally conscious lifestyles. Big industries, power plants, and sewage plants need a lot of energy to function, and this energy can be harnessed through renewable sources of energy instead of the current status quo of using fossil fuels. In recent years, solar energy, wind energy, hydropower, and wave energy are just some sources of renewable energy. A renewable source requires that it be both sustainable and self-sufficient, and while some of these sources of energy still have a bit of an environmental impact, it is not nearly as much as fossil fuels and other greenhouse gases do. Using solar energy, for example, requires solar panels that use lithium batteries which have to be mined for, but using solar energy eliminates greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use, reducing air pollutants in the atmosphere, and as a result, improving the air quality. These renewable sources of energy are already available to us; governments need to step in and implement these infrastructures across the board.

When it comes to air pollution from personal use and commercial use, there are a number of ways to eliminate, or at least limit the number of pollutants being released into the air. As with large industries, solar panels can also be installed for use in homes and commercial buildings. Solar energy is abundant, as there is no limitation to the sun’s energy, and as such, provides a free source of electricity and heating that people in impoverished areas could benefit from, financially, as well as the health benefits they can provide. Instead of using harmful chemicals to clean with, we can make use of natural materials, (such as white vinegar) to clean with. Beauty products and hair products can be made with natural materials like rose water instead of harmful chemicals that are not healthy for us to inhale, and unhealthy to be applied on our skin.

An infographic depicting the various forms of clean infrastructure
Source: Yahoo Images

Another anthropogenic source of air pollution, transportation, can also be addressed with new technology. Hybrid cars have been on the market for decades now, which switch back and forth between fuel and electricity to run the vehicle. Newer models are available today that are fully electric vehicles, and as such, run solely on electricity rather than fossil fuels. This prevents the emission of toxic gasses into the atmosphere that is released from traditional car exhausts. The EPA reports that even accounting for the electricity required to charge the electric vehicles, and the manufacturing stages, EVs have lower emissions of greenhouse gases than gasoline and diesel vehicles. We as a society need to transition from these gasoline and diesel vehicles to using electric-powered vehicles for our transportation needs. Also, designing trains and buses that use electric power to run, and constructing the necessary infrastructure to be used broadly can also address the transportation shortages that many people in rural areas and the outskirts of urban areas face.

Finally, we can change some of our habits of waste disposal to be more conscious of our practices. We can be mindful of the waste that we are disposing of, by composting food wastes and recycling cardboard, metals, and plastics properly. We can demand more regulations on single-use plastics, and demand that companies find creative solutions for single-use utensils and tableware. For example, there have been historical practices in many parts of the world that have incorporated single-use tableware with an environmentally conscious framework by making use of leaves to create plates, bowls, and cups, and using coconut shells as scooping spoons. These products are organic, and as such, will be biodegradable, instead of plastics, which are very difficult to break down naturally. We also need to think of innovative ways to transform trash into usable energy without adding more pollutants into the atmosphere.

An infographic focused on thing that can be done at the residential level to incorporate green living
Source: Yahoo Images

If we cut down our activities in these areas, it will reflect on the severity of our natural disasters, and as such, have an indirect impact on reducing the air pollution caused by these natural sources.

In the upcoming blogs, we will focus on how infrastructure, the economy, our healthcare system, and even our technologies are impacted by the environment, and as such, impact our human rights as a whole.

The People v. The Police: The Ongoing Battle over South River Forest

Cover Image Photo credits to Chad Davis. 

 

 

** Some information in this blog was obtained from reputable news sources who reported on evidence obtained from public records requests. Narratives constructed from this have been presented as such and are still under investigation, please take this into consideration.**

This blog is a follow-up on the ongoing protests against the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, otherwise known as Cop City. 

To learn about what Cop City is, its historical background, and efforts to end this mega-development project from destroying Atlanta’s last major urban forest, read my article here. In the meantime, the Atlanta City Council approved the funding for the Atlanta Public Safety Center, i.e. “Cop City” in early June 2023. What is described below are the developments since my last post. 

Since March, the movement to stop Cop City and relationships with law enforcers have only become more contentious. Construction in the South River Forest has begun, while the efforts to stop it have only become more fervid.

Autopsy revelations and public record reports

Environmental activist ManuelTortuguita” Teran (they/them), was lethally shot 13 times on January 18th, 2023. The altercation between state troopers and protesters began simply over the forced removal of activists from the site soon to be developed into the nation’s largest police training facility. Instead of peaceful dialogues or dispersions, the incident ended in the tragic killing of Manuel Teran. 

Much speculation surrounds this event given the lack of body-cam footage as state troopers do not usually wear body cams. Given the presence of multiple other agencies, however, such as the DeKalb County police departments, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and possibly the FBI, the lack of footage is concerning in and of itself. 

In whatever case, Teran’s family has released the conclusions of an independent autopsy they had done. Based on the location of bullet wounds, the report hypothesized that Tortuguita was more than likely in a cross-legged seated position, with their hands raised in the air. Tortuguita suffered from multiple gunshot wounds, but most tellingly, they had several exit wounds through their palms. 

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) released a statement on Friday, March 10th stating that the initial autopsy was conducted by the DeKalb Medical Examiners Office and that the GBI would not be communicating more at present due to concerns over the ongoing investigation. The state has still not released its own autopsy report over two months after Tortuguita’s death. 

In spite of this, incident reports have become available (alongside the independent autopsy) and state that, in contradiction to widespread claims that police acted in “self-defense,” just the opposite is true. 

These new records were obtained by The Guardian through a public records request with the Georgia Department of Public Safety 一 previously unreleased in the wake of international outrage calling for answers and accountability. The written narratives are not to be totally trusted, memory is a fragile thing often more subject to our imagination than we would like to believe. With this in mind though, a tentative sequence of events can be gleaned from the multiple officers’ reports on the day of Teran’s killing. 

The following is the sequence of events gleaned from reports accessed by The Guardian. 

Before the police raid, officers and SWAT teams were briefed on the ‘domestic terrorists’ trespassing in the forest beforehand, with claims that demonstrators might possess rifles, pistols, explosive devices, or Molotov cocktails. It was stated that the Defend the Atlanta Forest group had national contacts and widespread solidarity. Additionally, officers were warned about the possibility of booby traps and tripwires. Lastly, officers were warned some protesters may throw fecal matter or urine, and since, quote, “it was known that some trespassers carried STDs” this may lead to infection for the city personnel. (It should be noted this is not how STD transmission works.)

Three search teams of officers were deployed into the forest. The second team, consisting of SWAT, were the ones who encountered the large encampment where Teran resided. They approached their tent from behind and noted movement inside, the tent flap was closed. This is where some accounts start to contradict slightly in their order of events, however, the main components remain the same. 

Officers ordered Manual Teran to exit their tent or they would be arrested for trespassing, to which they responded, “No, I want you to leave.” 

At this point, Teran either opened the flap slightly, surveyed, and then re-closed the entrance, or asked what they were being arrested for without opening their tent flap beforehand. In either case, Teran opened and closed their tent flap at one point to which one officer wrote that this was “resisting orders.” 

Then there was an order to fire a pepper ball gun into the tent and chaos ensued. 

After hearing cracking sounds inside, officers began firing into the tent. 

One officer called out they had been hit and medics rushed to provide immediate medical attention. The same was not given to Teran. 

After opening their tent with a ballistic shield and a diversionary device was deployed, officers found Teran with multiple gunshot wounds, “unquestionably deceased.” 

Coinciding these written accounts with body cam footage of officers in other parts of the forest, at 9:01 am four shots were heard followed by a flurry that lasted approximately 11 seconds. At 9:02 am officers heard on the radio that one was injured. 

Body cam footage caught the discussions of police a few minutes after the incident and caught one asking, “Did they shoot their own man?” 

An image of a cardboard sign that reads “Climate Justice Now!” with the letter “I” in climate as a thermometer and the letter “O” in now an image of the Earth.
Figure 1: Source: Yahoo Images; A protest sign that reads “Climate Justice Now!”

Tortuguita is the first environmental activist to be killed by the police in America. 

Protests of destruction over Cop City construction 

As construction began on the proposed Cop City site in the Weelaunee Forest, attempts to remove protesters have a renewed fervor. Two ‘clearing out’ raids to remove protesters from the forest have been conducted by police since construction began, the first of which resulted in the death of an activist. 

Nearly two months later, Cop City has come under the scrutiny of international attention, and feelings surrounding the issue have only intensified. In the first week of March, protesters planned to hold a “week of action” wherein a coalition of people from various social justice networks would come together over the growing concerns to stop Cop City. 

An image of people holding signs in the air that read “Black Voters Matter” as they come down a set of stairs.
Figure 2: Source: Yahoo Images, Photo credit to Black Voters Matter Twitter; LaTosha Brown (Front Left) and Cliff Albright (Front Right), founders of Black Voters Matter while in Mississippi on a Voting Rights Tour.

These included Atlanta-area residents, organizations such as the Community Movement Builders and Black Voters Matter, and a local rabbi. The week was to include a music festival, a Shabbat, and a “know your rights” workshop. 

However, during the music festival, certain protesters entered the construction site and set fire to construction equipment. The events escalated further to include throwing bricks at officers. In the end, 35 people were detained. 

This too has become massively contentious as 23 of the 35 detained were at the Weelaunee Forest Festival 一 located over a mile away. On March 5th, an hour after the events at the construction site, police arrived at the festival and began arresting people, especially those with out-of-state IDs. These individuals have been charged with domestic terrorism (a sentence that can carry up to 35 years) for ‘vandalism’ and ‘arson’ of the site over a mile from the concerts. 

On March 23rd, a judge denied bond to 8 out of 10 defendants. Only two were granted bond at $25,000 and with numerous other conditions. One was a law student who had been at a food truck in the area when arrested. They were almost forced to withdraw from school before finally being granted a bond and being ordered to wear an ankle monitor. Another person was denied bond because they live in New York as the sole caretaker of her aging uncle with dementia. She was denied bond because the judge deemed her a “flight risk.” 

These arrests of people attending the music festival have been called indiscriminate because of a lack of evidence from the police and little to no case from the prosecution. Micah Herskind commented

“During these bond hearings, it was clear that the prosecution has not yet put together any case. They are using these fallbacks. You know, one of the examples that they gave was that people were wearing black and that that was evident of playing on the team, of being on the side of the protest. And so, you know, the charges are all really shaky. There’s really no legitimate evidence that’s been put forward.”

Intake paperwork of arrested individuals also noted mud on people’s clothes as probable cause for being at the construction site despite the music festival being hosted in the South River/Weelaunee Forest.

Tensions have only been rising, and with it, the threat of violence, in whatever form be it legal or physical, has become apparent on both sides of this contentious issue. 

The creation of labels and narratives impacts on social justice movements 

Since protesters are being labeled as domestic terrorists, we need to understand the implications of this language, or better yet, where it originated from. 

In an email from April 2022, the Atlanta police and fire department described the movement to save the Weelaunee Forest as a group of “eco-terrorists” in correspondence with the FBI over unspecified investigations. 

This would not be the first instance of the FBI insinuating violent behaviors in those with environmental concerns. 

An image of the back of an unknown person with a jacket that reads “FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.”
Figure 3: Source: Yahoo Images; Image of an FBI Terrorism Task Force jacket.

The Stop Cop City movement gained international attention after the killing of Tortuguita Teran, however, support had already crossed state borders in the U.S. as demonstrators spread their message on social media. 

On July 18th, 2022, a Twitter account named “Chicago Against Cop City” began posting information on the campaign to resist the construction over 700 miles away. Additionally, a post on the same day promoted a speaking event at a local bookstore on Chicago’s West side. This was one of several events that activists held over the year, and across the country, to educate people on the plan to construct Cop City and raise awareness surrounding the issue. 

According to research conducted by Grist, it took less than two weeks for the FBI to flag the account and begin tracking posts on the account, including other Chicago activist groups, and events. Grist also obtained FBI records through a Freedom of Information Act request which they have made publicly available. This first document focuses on the “potential criminal activity” of groups resisting the development of the Obama Presidential Library, Tiger Woods golf course, and Chicago Police Training Center that would destroy over 2,000 trees (page one). 

It goes on to claim that Chicago Against Cop City is a “spin-off” of the Defend the Atlanta Forest group (page 3), however, according to a spokesperson for Rising Tide Chicago they do not know who created the Chicago Against Cop City Twitter account and claim that it “doesn’t appear to be a formal group.” 

Mike German, a former FBI agent who now works as a fellow for the Brennan Center for Justice in the Liberty and National Security Program, reviewed the documents and stated that the FBI had made several misleading statements meant to create a narrative. While it is true that some violent and destructive events in Atlanta have occurred, no evidence was given in this dossier to support any direct connection with either organization in Atlanta or Chicago. Moreover, the Chicago Police Training Center did not require the clearing of forested land, and most controversy in the last couple of years on the issue focus on the cost of construction being $170 million. 

In the second document, on page 15 the Defend the Atlanta Forest group (DTAF) is called “a very violent group” and noted that Chicago has several projects of a similar nature (threatening environmental spaces against public wishes). This report then claimed that “DTAF members came to Chicago to provide training to like-minded individuals.”

While these documents have an emphasis on Chicago, the first document I mentioned also includes photos of similar accounts in Minnesota (page 12). 

According to Adam Federman, one unnamed activist who had traveled to Chicago in July 2022 had only given “informational slideshow presentations” that had no training and merely focused on raising awareness about the issue. 

A spray-painted image on a red wall with dark red, bolded “Free Speech” with smaller text below with an asterisk saying “conditions apply.”
Figure 4: Source: Flickr, Photo credit to Chris Christian; Image of graffiti saying “Free Speech *conditions apply.”

None of the “evidence” collected by the FBI has shown any encouragement of violent tactics. 

In the end, the dossier that was created by the FBI on August 16th, 2022 is important for several reasons. One, the FBI is clearly monitoring actions that are protected by the U.S. Constitution and as human rights, which include freedom of speech and assembly. These rights are clearly laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Preambles 18, 19, and 20. 

Moreover, the usage of the labels “Anarchist Violent Extremists (AVE) and Environmental Violent Extremists (EVE)” set the tone for how these groups and their concerns are approached by law enforcement (page 4). This has been made clear in the case of Tortuguita Teran when teams that entered the forest that morning were informed about the alleged “violent nature” of the DTAF activists. 

Changing dynamics of protests: Resisting assaults on social justice attempts

It is clear that the issue over the destruction of the South River forest is one that extends beyond Atlanta. Groups in Chicago have contested the destruction of Jackson Park on the South side and other green spaces. Also, concerns over police militarization are not just in Atlanta but extend hundreds of miles away in the United States. This very reason has prompted resonation with abolitionists and environmental activists alike. 

More and more police training facilities are being built across the country and some are estimated to cost around $120 million to $150 million in construction. Two have been proposed in both Pittsburgh and Chicago despite public outcry. 

However, in the face of this coalition building across specific issues and geography, new and more frightening narratives are being written to undermine the efforts of these groups. This is not to say that violence and destruction are answers but to emphatically denounce strategies that seek to end civil rights and social justice movements with arbitrary arrests, exaggerated charges, and monitoring of activist groups. 

The use of social media is a revolutionary tool for activists since it has the power to succinctly and quickly reach a broad audience 一 a crucial step in sustaining a thriving movement. This, alongside workshop events on rights and training on peaceful civil disobedience (this latter one not being mentioned as occurring in the Chicago or Atlanta groups), are tactics that are protected and signal a thriving political culture. This shows that a nation has strong democratic values as people seek to not only engage with their local and national governments but also do so with the equality of all people.

Instead of monitoring with suspicion and animosity, we should celebrate the diversity of people who have come together to raise their voices in support of their goals. There is hope here. What may look like tensions, anger, divisions, and even hate, also shows us the passion of so many people of different backgrounds and social causes being engaged. It shows us that there are those who will not accept a lack of representation, lack of community, or lack of safe environment. It shows us that, if only the channels of communication would open, there are people screaming, chanting, and singing for the opportunity to work for a future for us all. There are people who are fighting in the forest for more than just the space, but for a future. 

After a public meeting that stretched 14h and in which many people spoke out against the project, Atlanta City Council approved “Cop City” in a vote of 11-4 on June 6, 2023. The Council agreed to provide $31m in public funds for the center’s construction and approved a provision that requires the city to pay $1.2m a year over 30 years ($36m total) for using the facility. The rest of the $90m project is to be funded by private donations to the Atlanta Police Foundation, the non-profit responsible for planning and building the center. Atlanta organizers unveiled a plan to stop “Cop City” at the ballot box.

If you want to learn more about activism or the organizations mentioned in this article, check out the links below. Also, if this is an issue you feel connected to, please contact your local, state, or federal representative to express your concerns directly. Urge your representatives to reach out and begin talks with any activist groups because we all have a part and voice to play in securing our rights and ensuring the best, most equitable community. 

  • The Implications of Selective Activism on Human Rights by Danah Dib 
  • The City in the Forest Soon to be Cop City by Alex Yates
  • Remembering Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as we Celebrate Human Rights Day by Chadra Pittman  
  • Parallels of Democratic Turmoil: Looking at Riots in the U.S. and Brazil by Alex Yates

Environmental Rights = Human Rights: Water As a Human Right

An image of waterfalls, an important water system that helps filter the waterways.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of waterfalls, an important water system that helps filter the waterways.

Human rights are dependent on the environment, and we can address many environmental rights issues to bring about a better world for all those who live on this green and blue planet that we call home. In this sense, environmental rights ARE human rights, and taking a human rights approach to addressing these environmental rights can close the gaps of inequality between the Global North and the Global South countries. I am dedicating a series to deep dive into this human rights approach to environmental rights. We began this series by focusing on how issues around food can be addressed with a human rights approach. This blog will focus on water, another essential need for all living things, and how issues surrounding access to clean water can be addressed with a human rights approach.

Uses of Water

A pie chart showcasing how much freshwater and saltwater there is on Earth.
Source: Yahoo Images; A pie chart showcasing how much freshwater and saltwater there is on Earth.

Similar to food, water is also another resource necessary for all living creatures, including humans. Organisms need water to survive and function, even in the driest places on Earth. Humans need water for survival, not just to quench our thirst, but also to cook our food, and clean ourselves and our spaces. To maintain this modern civilization we live in, humans also require water for various industrial purposes, including watering the crops we consume, providing water for the livestock that we make use of, hygienic purposes, and even washing the clothes we wear. In fact, water is required for industrial use as well, including in the clothing and textile industries, mining industries, the process of oil drilling, and many more. Not having access to clean water can cause illnesses, rashes, and even death, both to humans and the organisms that live in areas with unclean water.

Although this planet is made up largely of water, it is a natural resource that is limited. Its limitations come from the fact that 97% of the water found on Earth is contained in the oceans, which are made up of salt water. Saltwater is unsafe for consumption because our kidneys are not capable of filtering all the salt out of the water, and as a result, drinking it can have the opposite effect you want to achieve, including dehydration and eventual death. Only 3% of the water found on Earth is freshwater and safe for consumption. This 3%, therefore, is what is used for all of our personal, industrial, and agricultural needs, and this same 3% also has to be shared with the many creatures we live alongside on this planet. Even still, much of that 3% of fresh water is also frozen in the form of ice caps and glaciers or contained in the atmosphere and soils. So, in reality, we only have about 0.5% of the Earth’s water source for all of our needs and those of our fellow Earth dwellers.

Consequences of Using Unclean Water

The current way we treat our water supplies and our environment can have drastic impacts on our lives, the lives of other organisms, as well as the future of this planet. We have seen what happened in Flint Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi, and the struggles the individuals in those places are going through just to be able to have clean drinking water. For those who are not familiar with these incidents, from 2014 to around 2016, residents in Flint, Michigan were consuming water that was polluted with lead. This occurred due to the negligence and carelessness of the local government, which failed to treat and test the river water. The Flint River, which was the major source of drinking water, was polluted due to the high industrial usage along its coasts and was also polluted by agricultural usage, sewage from the waste plants, and even pollutants from the nearby landfills. This incident caused health issues among the residents, and incredible levels of lead were found in consumers, including the city’s children. Something similar occurred in Jackson, Mississippi, and this issue is ongoing even today. The issues of busted pipes during cold-winter days, and the leakage of sewage among other things, were listed as the cause of the Jackson water crisis. In both these cities, many of the residents are people of color, and this has larger racial implications for the issues of access to clean and fresh water (which will be covered in later parts of this series).

Average Water Consumption

An infographic depicting the various household uses of water, how much it is costing us, and some best practices of conservation.
Source: Yahoo Images

All this does not even include the wasteful nature of water consumption that we in the Western nations have normalized. To put things into perspective, for each minute we spend showering, we are using 2.5 gallons of water. So, for a 10-minute shower, that is 25 gallons of water that are used. Each time we flush the toilet, we use 1.6 gallons of water, with older toilets taking as much as 3.5 gallons a flush (or even 5-7 gallons a flush for toilets made before 1985). When washing clothes in the washer, Americans use over 40 gallons of water per load. Washing dishes by hand uses another 20 gallons of water per load while washing dishes in an efficient dishwasher uses around 4 gallons. This does not include the water that is used to water the lawn, household plants, or other uses like cooking food and cleaning the house.

Negligent Water Practices – Sewage Systems, Bottled Water, and Environmental Water Disasters

Our waterways are not only impacted by chemical leaks and our water consumption but also by the way we process our human wastes and that of our livestock. Agricultural runoffs happen when sediments containing chemicals, bacteria, and manure runoff into the nearby waterways from heavy rains and flooding, causing an increase of nitrogen and phosphorous in the waters. Too much nitrogen and phosphorous in the waters can be very harmful to marine life because these elements cause an increase in algae growth, a process known as eutrophication. This may not seem so bad, but too many algae in the water can block the sunlight and oxygen from reaching the organisms on the bottom layer of the water. This in turn leads to hypoxia, a condition where the oxygen levels in the water decrease and can cause the death of many marine organisms. Similar to agricultural runoffs, human sewage also has high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous, and any leaks from sewage treatment facilities and other industrial factories that use similar chemicals can further threaten marine biology. For more information about water insecurity in America and how the sewage system exacerbates this issue, click here.

Another wasteful practice we engage in as humans are our production and consumption of bottled water. For one, the process used to make single-use plastic water bottles releases over 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide into the environment every year. Additionally, the process uses 17 million barrels of oil to meet the consumer demands for these plastic bottles. After consumption, the water bottles are rarely recycled, resulting in the addition of 38 billion water bottles to landfills. 10% of all discarded plastics end up in the ocean, a threat to aquatic life. Furthermore, consuming water from plastic bottles comes with its own health consequences, including the bioaccumulation of microplastics in our systems. Many companies also use a type of plastic (#7) that contains bisphenol A (BPA), which has many health concerns associated with them, including diabetes, heart conditions, developmental issues, and fertility issues, and can even lead to cancer. This type of plastic is actually banned in many nations around the world but is still allowed in the US.

In addition to all these issues, the water bottle industry is also a perpetrator of human rights violations, with Aquafina, Dasani, and Nestle, being the largest water bottling companies in the world. Bottling companies transform a free, naturally available resource, into a profit-making commodity. In the process, they are actually harming the water sources in the locations in which their manufacturing and bottling occur, forcing the people that live in those areas to consume bottled water, not as a choice, but as the only source of clean water available to them. For those who cannot afford water bottles, water insecurity becomes a daily reality from which they cannot escape. The insidious part of this issue is the fact that many of these bottling factories exist outside of Western nations, in countries such as India, Fiji, and other underdeveloped nations in which the residents cannot (or do not have the resources) to fight back against these corporations, an approach that can only be characterized as environmental racism. For those factories that do exist within Western nations, they are predominantly located near neighborhoods of color. The CEO of Nestlé faced backlash in 2013 for announcing that water is not a human right, but a product to be privatized and sold. This privatization of water denies these local communities the right to use the resource for their own residential, industrial, and infrastructural use, and further exacerbates their conditions of poverty and water insecurity.

Anthropogenic (caused by humans) activities have caused many of our ecosystem services to be polluted, including our water sources. We as humans have allowed many chemicals to leak into the waterways, sewage, and other waste products to run off into the streams and have done a poor job taking care of our groundwater, aqueducts, and aquafers. There has been recent news of chemicals from the train derailment in Ohio entering the waterways and causing local residents to become sick. Last year, there was a story about the US military leaking jet fuel, contaminating the waterways in Hawaii. Much of the nuclear waste we produce gets stored in containers underground, and these containers cannot hold radioactive waste for too long. At times the contents seep out, polluting the groundwater. The Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest aquifers that serves much of Central America, has been threatened by the installment of the Keystone XL pipeline, which is an oil pipeline, that if it bursts, can pollute the entire aquifer, contaminating the water used by people across eight states. These are just some of many incidents in that we as humanity have failed to protect our naturally occurring ecosystem services, which, if we had to recreate, would cost us trillions and trillions of dollars.

Water is a Human Right

An image of the water cycle
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of the water cycle

Along with food, water is also listed as a human right in Article 25 of the UDHR. Although water is considered a renewable resource, it is a limited one. The reason water is considered a renewable resource is because of the water cycle, which is the various steps of a cycle the water goes through, (evaporation, transpiration, condensation, precipitation, and runoff) that recycle the water that we use. Evaporation happens from the major bodies of water, when the heat transforms the liquid water into a gaseous form. Transpiration happens in forests and plants, when water moves through the plant into the atmosphere, to move nutrients and cool the parts of the plants that are exposed to the sun. Condensation occurs when the water evaporated into the air ends up filling up the clouds, changing the water vapors into a liquid form again. Precipitation is what comes next when the collected vapors fall back onto the ground, such as rain, snow, or ice. This precipitation is dispersed in many ways, from the waterways to the land. Finally, runoff refers to the water flow on the surface level, below the surface level, or even into the depths of the Earth. Simply put, runoff is water that has not been soaked into the soil. Yet, while on paper, water seems to be a renewable resource, in practice, water is polluted in many ways. Due to the current human lifestyles, clean water has become a limited resource, and our continued negligence on this subject will only exacerbate this issue.

The Threat of Water Wars and Water as a Human Right

An image of a child in Kenya trying to find some clean water to drink.

Climate change is impacting everyone around the world, but disproportionately. The Global North benefits from an abundance of resources while the Global South, in many ways due to the history of imperialism, suffers the consequences of the Global North’s actions. Many people in the Global South face water insecurity on a daily basis, and this will only get worse as the Earth continues to warm up. By 2030, many countries in the warmest parts of the world will be uninhabitable. Apart from this, due to the rising temperatures, many of the bodies of water on Earth are drying up, further exacerbating the water issues already present. There are already feuds between China and India over the Brahmaputra River, one of the largest rivers in Asia.

One way to personally address this issue is to be mindful of our water usage. Yet, this alone will not be enough to address this problem on such a large scale. Countries around the world have to come together and find creative solutions to ensure that clean water is made accessible to everyone equally. This can be done through strategies that incorporate green infrastructure. In doing so, the strategies used to address these issues need to be inclusive of everyone, including being respectful of Native Americans and their many uses of water. Additionally, access to clean water does not just mean the ability to have clean water but it should also be affordable, regardless of where you live. In fact, water is one of those essential needs for every human being, and as a result, should be free, or nearly free to everyone. Finally, everyone should be educated on the various uses of water, and the need to maintain its cleanliness.

Environmental Rights = Human Rights: Food As a Human Right

An image of Earth from space.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of Earth from space.

There is a common misconception among people that environmental rights are necessary, but they have nothing to do with human rights. Some consider environmental rights as something that is another genre of human rights, not recognizing that without the environment, we as humans seize to exist. Human rights are dependent on the environment, and we can address many environmental rights issues to bring about a better world for all those who live on this green and blue planet that we call home. In this sense, environmental rights ARE human rights, and taking a human rights approach to addressing these environmental rights can close the gaps of inequality between the Global North and the Global South countries. I am dedicating a series to deep dive into this human rights approach to environmental rights, starting with how food, water, and air, the essential needs for all living things, can be transformed with a human rights approach to address some of the most egregious practices in these fields.

Food insecurity, food shortages, and healthy food consumption in general

An image of a few community youth working together at a community garden.
Source: Yahoo Images; Community gardens are a great way to grow food locally, teach young kids how to grow their own food, and respect nature, but also a great way to strengthen the community.

Food Insecurity

The issue of food insecurity is widespread in many nations worldwide, and it has only increased due to the supply-chain issues that were experienced during the pandemic. While many of the nations that face food insecurity are from the Global South, it is just as prevalent in America, one of the richest nations in the world. For more on food insecurity in America, check out this blog.

Community Gardens

One way to address this issue with a human rights approach would be to encourage the cultivation of community gardens locally to avoid supply chain issues. This would alleviate the issue of transporting the necessary products to and from places (reducing the carbon emissions in the process), provide jobs to local community members, and even cut down costs for the produce. Furthermore, members in charge of taking care of the community gardens would be trained on how to avoid the use of harmful pesticides that are known to cause health issues in humans. These chemicals are not only harmful to humans, but they are also causing bees and other pollinators to go extinct. These pollinators are largely responsible for producing crops around the world, and without them, we would have to engineer mechanical pollinators or manually perform the pollination process, both of which would cost a lot of time, energy, and money.

Alternate forms of Agriculture – Hydroponics

Benefits of Hydroponics are listed on this infographic. These benefits propose that this method does not require soil, saves water, produces higher yields and faster growth, produces less disease, and requires less pesticide use.
Source: Yahoo Images; Benefits of Hydroponics are listed on this infographic. These benefits propose that this method does not require soil, saves water, produces higher yields and faster growth, produces less disease, and requires less pesticide use.

For those communities that do not have rich soil, they can use the technology of greenhouses and other indoor cultivation technology to meet their needs. In fact, there are three types of indoor farming that are currently common in the agricultural industry – aquaponics, aeroponics, and hydroponics. Hydroponics eliminates the need for rich soils by making use of water and a mixture of liquid nutrients to supplement the plants’ needs as they grow. This technique can be used for everyday households and industrial-level agriculture, and it has quite a lot of benefits for the environment as well. For one, it uses less water than traditional agricultural practices, and it does not require soil, so it is not impacted by conditions of soil erosion. It also yields greater produce and eliminates the need for pesticides and herbicides which in turn make the crops safer for consumption and reduces the risk of health issues as a result. Also, plants can grow almost twice as fast as the ones that are grown in soil.

Alternate forms of Agriculture – Aeroponics

An image of an aeroponics system that makes use of an air pump and the laws of gravity to produce crops.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of an aeroponics system that makes use of an air pump and the laws of gravity to produce crops.

Another indoor cultivation system is Aeroponics. Aeroponics uses water and a mixture of liquid nutrients like hydroponics, but in this technique, the roots are suspended in the air and are misted on a timer to keep them from drying out. This requires a lot of technical precision and uses a lot of energy. While it is a technique that utilizes a lot of energy, according to NASA, it also reduces the use of water (similar to hydroponics) by 98%, and pesticide use by 100%, and still maximizes the yields these crops produce. Additionally, plants grown using this technique have added health benefits, as they absorb more minerals and vitamins. Some setbacks to this method are the fact that this technique needs experts who can monitor the plants and the pH levels of the air. This method is also vulnerable to electrical shortages and requires a lot of advanced technologies to perform successfully, and yield crops. As a result, it is very expensive to initially set it up.

Alternate forms of Agriculture – Aquaponics

An image depicting how fishes are incorporated into the aquaponics method. The fish waste is used to fertilize the plants, as the waste is broken down using microbes and worms.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting how fishes are incorporated into the aquaponics method. Fish waste is used to fertilize plants, as the waste is broken down using microbes and worms.

Finally, Aquaponics is another indoor cultivation technique that has become popular today. Similar to hydroponics, aquaponics also has a reservoir where the plants are stored, yet in aquaponics, the reservoir also contains fish. Instead of using a mixture of liquid nutrients, the fishes provide those nutrients naturally to the plants. This may sound a bit strange, but the ammonia that is released by the fishes (particularly their feces) gets converted into nitrates which provide nutrition for the plants. One thing to be careful of when using this method is to constantly check on the ammonia levels, because really high levels of ammonia will actually end up killing the fish. Other than that, the whole process takes about 6 months for the plants and fishes to form their own ecosystem that can operate without much maintenance or monitoring. There are also many benefits to using this system, including the fact that you are able to cultivate plants and fish, two food sources instead of one. Due to the fact that the water is recycled through natural processes, this method does not waste any water, and there is no need for chemicals to upkeep the plants either. The fishes provide all the nutrients that the plants need, so there is no need to top off any liquid nutrients like in the other two methods, saving a lot of money in the long run. This method is great for the environment, and because it has its own ecosystem, it is also sustainable on its own. Of course, with this method, in the winter, the reservoir needs to be kept warm, so that the water and all the fish and plants do not die off from the cold. It also requires the monitoring of pH levels like the aeroponics method does, and since this method uses fish, it requires that you know how to take care of the fish for the greatest success.

These are just some ways to address the need for better food-producing systems, as well as the elimination of harmful chemicals within our produce. As an added bonus, these systems use less water than traditional farming techniques, produce greater yields, and are healthier for consumption, all while taking up less space than farming on a field.

Wasteful Practices – GMOs and Food Waste

An image of a food waste mountain at a landfill.
Source: Yahoo Images; So much food is wasted due to uneaten food, or excess yields of crops, and ends up being thrown out into landfills.

Additionally, a wasteful practice that the current agricultural companies invest in is the selling of genetically modified seeds known as “terminator seeds“. These are seeds that are genetically modified to yield crops for only a single generation. This means that the seed cannot reproduce again, and the farmers have to continue to buy new seeds every year. This is an attempt by Big Agricultural companies like Monsanto to increase their profit margins. This greedy practice on the part of Monsanto and other Agricultural companies, replace the natural, sustainable regrowth of crops to ensure that the farmers have to continue to purchase new seeds from the companies instead of using the seeds that are yielded with their crop. This practice is egregious, and addressing this is yet another way to ensure that we promote the natural functions of our environment.

Food waste is another major issue that we face in today’s society. As discussed above, food insecurity is an issue that impacts over 34 million Americans today. Hence, it is unfortunate to find out how much food is wasted in this nation, whether it is unused food, crops left unharvested due to price drops or abundance of crops in the market, or even supply chain issues. Residential consumers in homes and those in restaurants and other stores that sell produce may not be able to sell all the products they have available, especially if the produce does not appear to be picture-perfect. Farmers may not harvest many of their crops if there is an abundance of the crop they have grown in the market that season, wasting the produce that was grown but never made it to the market. As we saw during the pandemic, supply chain issues can cause a lot of food waste as well. Many farmers had to waste their crop yields as they had no way to transport these products to the local grocery stores. Many industries halted during the pandemic, making the products they produced go to waste. Every year, 40% of the food available to Americans ends up being wasted. This is painfully wasteful, especially when we consider how many people across the world, including children, go hungry every day.

Conditions in Meat and Dairy Farms

An image of a farmer in a dairy farm. Cows are packed into cages, with machines hooked up to their udders, milking them.
Source: Yahoo Images; Dairy farms are a cruel way to treat animals, and many of the animals live under unsanitary conditions.

For those who are meat eaters, having a few local farms provide the meat you consume (with regulations of course) can ensure that your meat is not contaminated and that the livestock was treated in ethical ways. Currently, the meat industry produces in bulk, and their practices are cruel and inhumane toward their livestock. Chickens and pigs are forcibly held in cages barely enough for them to stand in, and they live their lives inside these cages stacked on top of each other to save space. This means that they are urinating and defecating on top of each other, which is not only unsanitary and inhumane, but it can also cause the animals to develop diseases and illnesses. Additionally, cows that are not raised on grazing land are usually held in large factory farms, where they are used as dairy cows until they can no longer produce milk, in which case, they are sent to be slaughtered for meat. Certain practices used today, like genetically modifying cows to produce more milk outside of their normal milk-production periods, can lead to an increase in health risks for these animals as well.

These practices are cruel and inhumane, and they are also very bad for the environment. Not only do these farm animals add to the increasing amounts of greenhouse gases present in our atmosphere, but their wastes are also polluting the nearby waterways, making the water unsafe for the locals who live near these factory farms. All this cruelty and unsanitary conditions also carry over when these animals are slaughtered and distributed for mass consumption by companies like Tyson. During the pandemic, there were many reports about the unsafe and unsanitary conditions for the workers inside these meat distribution companies, and stories went viral of contaminated meat with fingernails and other disturbing elements found inside the meat packages. Many of the workers within these meat packaging factories actually lost their lives due to the companies’ negligence regarding their workers’ safety during the pandemic.

Food is a Human Right

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Source: Yahoo Images

Food is a necessity for all human beings, regardless of who you are, or where you live. The type of cuisine you prefer may vary from region to region, from culture to culture, and from one environment to the next, but the fact still remains that every human being needs to eat to survive. By definition, food is a human right, and this is indicated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) under Article 25. Though this article does not specify this detail, it should be the right to healthy and nutritious food, rather than the generalized term food. This minor change in language would ensure that higher regulations are maintained on food and agricultural industries and eliminate harmful chemicals and ingredients within our food sources. There is an unequal distribution of food just like there is an unequal distribution of wealth and wages across the world. These food shortages can be addressed using these various techniques of indoor farming and community gardens, while safer produce can be cultivated by avoiding the use of pesticides and herbicides. Livestock can be treated more humanely instead of being stuffed in factory farms, and there needs to be a shift from a mindset of profit to a mindset of proficiency within these food industries.

This is one blog out of a series of blogs that will focus on how environmental rights are human rights. The next installation of this series will focus on how water is a human right, and how issues surrounding access to clean water can be addressed with a human rights approach.

Environmental Successes Throughout the Years

a picture of mountains in germany
(source: yahoo images)

Typically, when you hear “human rights” in a sentence, it is either preceded or followed by words with negative connotations — crises, violations, atrocities, etc. However, this blog will aim to highlight positives and focus on the environment. 

After reading many articles about environmental issues, some people might be unaware that we have made environmental progress throughout the year. As the Earth is home to all humans, any sort of environmental success, no matter how small, benefits the human species as a whole.

The Ozone

a picture of earth from space
(source: yahoo images)

Perhaps one of the most remarkable environmental victories was the recovery of the Ozone layer. The Ozone layer is located in Earth’s atmosphere and is responsible for blocking excess ultraviolet light from reaching life on Earth. Without the Ozone, the ultraviolet radiation would harm all life on earth, including plants.

In 1985, scientists discovered what seemed to be a hole forming in the Ozone. If the formation of this hole had not been stopped, the Ozone  could have depleted significantly enough to allow ultraviolet radiation to penetrate Earth’s atmosphere and reach life on Earth.

The Ozone layer was depleting due to human emissions of chlorofluorocarbons, which are found in refrigerators, air sprays, and other common items which humans use.

While chlorofluorocarbons pose a menacing threat to the environment, thankfully in 1987, almost 200 nations signed the Montreal Protocol, which prohibited the use  and production of items containing chlorofluorocarbons. 

This act of international cooperation proved to be beneficial, as the Ozone recovered significantly in the coming years. In fact, the United Nations (UN) predicts that by 2035, the Ozone will be fully replenished in the Arctic and Northern Hemisphere.

This is why swift actions of nations are vital to correct threats to the environment.  This collaborative effort by the nations to join forces to solve this issue with the Ozone makes it one of the most remarkable environmental successes of all times?

The Rise of Environmentally-Friendly Fuel

a picture of a chevron gas station
(source: yahoo images)

Another environmental success was one that originated in the United States in the 1970s. The United States (US) decided to federally ban the use of a certain type of lead in gasoline which had potent toxins encoded within it.

After the US ban, Canada and some European nations followed suit. Again, due to this combined effort, lead levels dropped from the air, which resulted in a decrease in respiratory diseases invoked by lead..Additionally, evidence of lead levels decreased in human blood, allowing gasoline users (which was anyone who drove a car or made contact with gasoline) to live healthier lives.

Needless to say, the  international effort to stop using lead gasoline was a great environmental success for lead gasoline, according to what the  World Health Organizations once deemed was “the mistake of the 20th century.” 

Renewable Energy

a picture of windmills
(source: yahoo images)

While gas that does not contain toxic lead surely is a success; not using gas at all is even a greater  success. Gas and fossil fuels will inherently create pollution, which will eventually harm the environment, regardless of how eco-friendly the gas/fossil fuel happens to be.

However, recently, there has been more of a push than ever for renewable energy rather than rely on fossil fuels for energy. Many nations have started utilizing solar and wind power, both which do not harm the environment.

This push for renewable energy has allowed it to become more accessible and the prices low. In fact, since 2010, the cost of installing solar power has decreased by 85% and the cost of wind power has fallen by 50% so renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels. This is a major accomplishment for all of humankind. We have reached a point where fossil fuels, which are harmful to the environment,are rarely used in comparison to renewable energy. Years ago, many would have viewed this change as an impossible feat. However, an impossible feat it is not, it is another environmental victory.

The Bottom Line

trees in sweden
(source: yahoo images)

While this blog only lists a couple environmental successes, they are by no means the only ones. Throughout the years, there have been hundreds of success stories that have helped keep our environment healthy and prosperous.

However, even with these successes in mind, environmental problems are still incredibly prevalent. Global warming, despite all of the successes mentioned, still prevails.

These environmental problems are dire, and they need to be solved as soon as possible. Thankfully, as we have seen happen throughout the years, environmental problems can be solved. 

It is for those reasons that it is important to make note of environmental successes. It is not simply just for peace of mind—it is so that we are all well aware that we have been able to solve problems in the past, so this should inspire us to continue tosolve problems in the future.

As our Earth grows older, it is plausible that it might face more dangers and we are capable of overcoming environmental threats. While the Earth indeed grows older, so do we. As our technology advances, we should be confident that we are equipped to handle the environmental  challenges that come our way.  

COP27: Solutions in the Face of Rising Climate Change Concerns

COP27 Flag
Yahoo Images

As the sun strikes the arid, blazing desert in Southern Egypt, the leaders of the world gathered to attend the most prominent, consequential global climate summit. During this event, leaders discussed commitments to finance climate action in developing nations by urgently reducing greenhouse gas emissions, building resilience, and adapting to the inevitable effects of climate change. An international conference synonymous with climate change, the 27th Conference of Parties (COP27) was hosted by the United Nations in Sharm el-Sheikh (Egypt) from November 6th to 18th. COP27 seeks to renew international solidarity in the face of an unprecedented energy crisis, a record of extreme weather occurrences, and an increase in concentrations of greenhouse gases. Ninety heads of state, including US President Biden, attended, alongside staunch environmentalist Greta Thunberg and other sustainable advocates. Everyone is affected by climate change, but some regions will experience the most adverse impacts of climate change. It is essential that these influential heads of state keep these areas in mind when formulating their environmental policies.

President Biden Speaking at COP27 Climate Change Conferece
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Failures of COP26

Hoping to avoid the pitfalls of last year’s COP, there was a lot at stake this year. COP26, held in Glasgow, made a few, modest steps forward, such as reducing emissions, declaring zero-emission vehicles to promote greener transportation, and acknowledging deforestation. However, there were some shortcomings. To keep the possibility of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a firm commitment to zero emissions by 2050 was expected. This required a 45% reduction in emissions in 2030 compared to 2010. However, the signed agreements put us on track for an average temperature increase of about 2.4 degrees Celsius. Another major setback was that one of the objectives to phase out coal and stop financing new coal-fired power plants was revised to “phase down” because Australia, China, India, and the United States, some of the largest coal producers, were not present for the proposals. Despite some strides, adherence to these treaties has not resulted in the action required to alter the course of global climate change. Enacting impactful, effective change can only be achieved collaboratively.

Expectations for COP27

“COP27 comes in the wake of a terrifying summer in which the Arctic burned, scorching heatwaves ravaged Europe, and floods submerged huge swathes of Pakistan and Australia,” noted Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General. With this in mind, three policy areas have been proposed: mitigation, adaption, and loss and damage. Mitigation is concerned with lowering greenhouse gas emissions in order to stabilize the climate. A primary example of mitigation is the use of renewable energy sources instead of fossil fuels. The following step would be to adapt initiatives supporting climate resilience and reducing vulnerability, such as interventions to address food insecurity and biodiversity. Finally, loss and damages refer to the economic and non-economic damages caused by slow-onset events and extreme weather events caused by global warming, as well as the tools and institutions that identify and mitigate such risks. Climate policy recognizes and incorporates mitigation and adaptation. However, highlighting loss and dames in international treaties and negotiations has been proven to be difficult. Additionally, COP27 is tasked with dealing with the tragedy of the commons, where neighbors benefit from shared goods, such as an area of pasture or an irrigation pond, but their overexploitation ends up degrading the shared resource. These issues are all things are all on the table this year.

Controversy

COP27 has also been at the center of controversy. This year’s environmental, global summit took place in Egypt, which is known for their human rights grievances. Last year Amnesty International ranked Egypt as the third worst country by number of executions. Additionally, Human Rights Watch states that thousands of people, including children, have been prosecuted in mass trials, “in unfair proceedings lacking the simplest resemblance to due process.” As well as subjecting people to torture and ill-treatment in detention, Egypt arbitrarily arrests and detains people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In 2014, Egypt’s authorities intensified their restrictions on human rights and environmental groups. Since then, there has been a corresponding decrease in independent organizations and assemblies for environmental activism. Egypt’s response on the matter was disheartening and unsatisfactory.

Climate Change Graphic
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Human Rights Implications

A healthy, safe, and sustainable environment is necessary to fully exercise a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water, and sanitation. Millions of people are at risk of being displaced in the next few years due to rising sea levels and massive food shortages. Climate change is exacerbating existing inequalities, and the inability to limit greenhouse gas emissions is especially felt in communities already facing severe human rights violations. The impact that climate change will have on other, existing human rights will be catastrophic. The right to clean water and sanitation, the right to health, the right to food, the right to an adequate standard of living, and the right to life, all hang in balance in the wake of the current climate. Elected officials and industry leaders must hear public calls for strong, rights-respecting climate protection measures. States must protect the rights of people everywhere. We must ensure that the voices of young climate change activists around the world are heard.