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.
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.
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
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hurricanes have been a natural disaster that Americans have been aware of for quite a while. They are, however, getting to be more frequent, and unfortunately more intense. They have devastated communities like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the Caribbeans after Hurricane Sandy, and even Puerto Rico five years ago as a result of Hurricane Maria. Well, how do Hurricanes happen in the first place, why are they so damaging, and what is contributing to their intensity and frequency today? Hurricanes generally form over oceanic waters, when the warmth from the ocean water, paired with vertical winds, and the cool, moist air coming from surrounding areas come together in a dangerous mix. The warm water and the moisture in the air combine with the cool air, sucking in the air, and releasing it into the moisture, which then forms rain clouds and thunderstorms, with high winds that perpetuate the cycle. This impressive natural disaster is a powerful one, with wind speeds reaching over 70 mph, and can conduct enough electricity to power the world a few hundred times over.
The El Niño and La Niña
While hurricanes are powerful by themselves, certain occurrences in the environment can impact their severity and frequency. Among these factors are the phenomenon known as El Niño and La Niña, where the normal patterns of the climate are disrupted, impacting trade routes, regional weather systems, and the ecosystem as a whole. These phenomena also impact the hurricane seasons, including where they may impact, and how intense they may be. Under the El Niño conditions, hurricanes are experienced largely in the central and eastern Pacific regions, while during the La Niña, effects are felt in the Atlantic region near Florida and Puerto Rico. Typically, La Niña conditions may mean the possibility of more hurricanes, because the winds during the La Niña are more stable, (as opposed to the sudden changes in wind direction or severity), leaving the storm in better conditions to expand and develop.
Economically speaking, these developments can also impact international trade. Some hurricane seasons are so deadly, many trade routes near the path of the hurricanes are filled with docking spaces for vessels to take shelter during storms. Many companies are taking massive risks moving products during these storms, as their goods can get destroyed by the storm, or get lost in the sea due to changing winds and intensity of the storm. This could prove costly for both businesses and consumers, especially adding to the stress of the already existing supply chain crisis.
Hurricanes and the Danger to Human Lives
As intimidating and incredible as hurricanes sound, they also come with many health hazards and massively disrupt the way of life for the communities impacted by them. For one, hurricanes bring with them massive storms and high winds, oftentimes killing many people from their impact. If people manage to shelter from the storms, the resulting floods from the heavy rains can claim homes, properties, pets, and lives, as people struggle to literally, stay afloat. Even as this goes on, the community’s infrastructure is attacked, including roads, bridges, the power grid, and the water supply, as well as institutions such as banks, hospitals, and universities, to name a few.
Many of these institutions and infrastructure are essential for survival, meaning that people may remain stranded or stuck in a part of the region deemed dangerous simply because they no longer have access to travel across the roads and bridges the storm claimed. This also means that people of the impacted communities have to deal with the wet, cold temperatures while not having access to power or heat. Having no access to banks and hospitals means that you may not be able to withdraw much-needed funds or go to the hospital because it’s flooded or their equipment can no longer be used. Add onto this the issue of water supply, then suddenly the impact of the storm produces a failing society. These are issues that may take weeks or months even, to fix and get back to “normal” conditions.
Hurricanes are especially damaging because they bring in strong storm surges, which are walls of ocean water pushed onto shore because of the high winds, both of which are powerful enough to knock buildings over and destroy the standing infrastructures. Hurricanes can also cause storm waters, which are runoffs with contaminants that are picked up by the storm along the way, and which can include sediments, debris, fertilizers, fuels, and even sewage from nearby sewage infrastructures that have been damaged.
This can be dangerous to use and consume, and many official statements are posted following hurricanes urging people not to consume these waters, and the best practices to employ to decontaminate the waters before use. Hurricanes simply existing are majorly impacting people’s right to movement, freedom, safety, life, clean water, and so many more basic necessities. However, there is also an added layer of racism in this mix, mainly in areas of how hurricanes from different regions are responded to, the consequences of climate change, and how this continues to expand the developmental gap between nations of the Global North and the Global South.
Hurricanes, Climate Change, and Double Standards?
Unfortunately, the growing severity of the storms means that the communities impacted by them are having to not only brace against the storms but build their infrastructures to withstand the next round of storms. With the frequency of storms increasing, this also means that instead of a once-in-a-lifetime storm, these communities are experiencing storms of similar intensities every few years. Hurricanes form under conditions of warm water mixing with moisture and vertical winds, so the rising ocean temperatures (resulting from global warming) are naturally going to lead to conditions where hurricanes are more probable.
Among other things, climate change can impact not only intensify the storms, and the resulting consequences from them, that these communities deal with on a seasonal basis but also lead to the rising sea and ocean levels that will submerge many communities under water within the near future if climate change is left unaddressed. This will also contribute to the many other issues that will come out of climate change’s intensity, including the increasing number of climate refugees, the expanding food shortages, and the many conflicts that experts say will break out as a result of boundary disputes.
To make matters worse, although the storms do not discriminate where they make landfall, the responses to the storms have been different depending on the storm’s target. This was very clear in how the media and many Americans reacted to the two hurricanes that hit Florida and Puerto Rico within less than a couple of weeks of each other. Despite both regions being part of the United States, (Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory), Florida received more assistance and coverage when Hurricane Ian made landfall than Puerto Rico did following Hurricane Fiona. Fiona’s destruction was in addition to Puerto Rico’s recent recovery from Hurricane Maria’s impacts only five years ago. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is the government’s response to natural disasters, awarded Puerto Rico $456 million following the destruction of Hurricane Fiona. This may seem like a lot, but FEMA awarded $1.2 billion to Florida in response to Hurricane Ian’s impacts.
Although the efforts of FEMA in response to Hurricane Fiona are considered by many to be an improvement from their responses during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria five years ago, the island of Puerto Rico continues to struggle with poor infrastructure and dwindling supplies. While it is fantastic that such support was given to Floridians struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, many of whom are people in the elderly age demographic, Puerto Ricans are terrified that their struggles will be brushed aside to make room for Florida’s recovery from Hurricane Ian. President Biden has promised that this will not be the case, and on his visit to Puerto Rico in early October, has even promised additional funds for their recovery endeavors. This funding, however, (a proposal of $60 million), is still nowhere near the required funds to rebuild an entire society for the second time within a decade.
Additionally, although climate change is a global phenomenon, many of the communities impacted by it are those who are already experiencing marginalization, and this adds another layer to the climate crisis. There have been cries about how climate change is anthropogenic, (meaning it is an impact of human activities), and how the industrialized West has been contributing to climate change for centuries while the developing nations are experiencing the consequences of the activities of the industrialized West. This inequitable reality not only transfers the consequences of the West’s actions but also, the increase in climate awareness and environmental consciousness are used as arguments to prevent developing nations from using the same type of infrastructures required to compete with the economies of the industrialized West effectively and efficiently.
While this sentiment is definitely understandable, the push should be toward shifting policies to develop green infrastructures and help these nations transform their energy to incorporate renewable resources instead of chastising them for trying to develop their societies using the same techniques used by the West that brought the world to this stage in the first place. Blaming the developing nations while the industrialized ones continue to pollute is both hypocritical, and further destabilizes the economies of the developing nations, perpetuating the cycle of exploitation and the following lack of accountability that was founded and perfected during colonial times. When addressing climate change issues, these are some nuances to keep in mind; if climate policies are passed without considering the inequalities between how climate change impacts the developing nations differently than the industrialized nations, the wealth and inequality gap will continue to increase between the Global South and Global North.
Finally, with the increasing severity of hurricanes and the rising sea levels due to climate change, many cities around the world would be underwater as soon as 2030. These cities include Venice, Italy; Kolkata, India; Basra, Iraq; Bangkok, Thailand; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; and even several cities in the US, including Miami, Florida, and New Orleans, Louisiana. This will take with it the homes of the people who live there, and the immense history that can be found in these places today. It will instead plunge many people into food insecurity, forcing many to become climate refugees and increasing hostilities between the members of these communities and their inland counterparts to fight for survival.
So, What Can Be Done?
With the increasing severity of hurricanes, added to the ongoing climate crisis, many people around the world are experiencing both the worst and unfortunately the mildest (when compared to future possibilities of the climate crisis) impacts from these natural disasters. One of the many things that can be done on a global level is to continue to pressure every nation to convert their energy systems to support renewable resources and shift away from the fossil fuels that continue to exacerbate the climate crisis. This includes shifting away from oil, coal, and carbon, to incorporating solar, wind, and hydro-powered energy systems. Countries can implement green infrastructure and slowly attempt to return the environment to pre-pollution levels, (which may take hundreds of years to accomplish if started now).
At the domestic level, climate protections can be added, expanding the overall number of protected lands, and making acts such as deforestation and pollution illegal. Additionally, industries that impact the environment can be regulated for their business practices and their carbon footprints, and industries that use water systems can be further regulated for their practices of waste disposal, making sure the waterways are not polluted by their use of the resources. Furthermore, great effort needs to be taken to ensure that communities most impacted by climate change are included in conversations about policies and aid. Finally, on a more personal level, becoming more knowledgeable about the climate, and educating yourself and others to be more environmentally conscious can help shift the societal mind frame, resulting in the push for better policies addressing climate change as a whole.
One third of Pakistan is underwater following disaster-level floods that have ravaged the country since mid June of 2022. The flooding is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions, bringing climate change and environmental justice into the focus of conversations about why the floods are so devastating. The record-breaking monsoon rains have affected 33 million citizens, leaving millions displaced and threatening the economy by washing away the fall harvest and essential farmland. Pakistan’s most vulnerable are struggling to access the scarce aid that is available, including the 19 million children affected by the floods. It is an unprecedented, once in a century crisis event exacerbated by climate change, poor infrastructure, and the damages of the recent economic crisis prior to the flooding.
Direct Impact of the Floods: Hunger, Disease and Displacement.
The monsoon rains have killed over a thousand people, roughly 400 of which are children. However, hunger, thirst, disease, and shortages of essential supplies threaten the lives of even more; millions of Pakistani people have been displaced over the course of the floods since June. The United Nations Refugee Agency has estimated that 6.4 million people are in need of immediate support.
Any discussion of rebuilding has been shelved in submerged regions as the flood waters may not recede for months, leaving the thousands of kilometers of roads, tens of thousands of schools, hundreds of thousands of homes, thousands of essential healthcare facilities destroyed by floodwater, and prior residents stranded or displaced. In addition to the initial death toll from the floods, the Pakistani people are facing immediate dangers of water borne disease, lack of access to food, water and shelter, and risks of violence; especially for women, children, and minority groups.
The country’s health system has faced substantial blows, both from loss of structures and supplies caused by the flood and the overwhelming need of those affected. Dehydration, dysentery, cholera, malaria, and dengue fever are ravaging make-shift camps as the flood waters become stagnant and clean water and sanitary supplies become harder to come by. Sindh Province, the second-most populated province in Pakistan, and one of the hardest-hit by the floods, has seen over 300 deaths from water borne-diseases since July. Early disease surveillance by the WHO has revealed that tens of thousands of cases of flood water-caused diseases are already present amongst those within reach of relief efforts. Countless villages remain stranded as roads and highways are underwater, so the true number of deaths, displaced persons, diseased, and persons otherwise impacted by these crises are expected to climb as more recovery efforts continue to search the flooded regions.
Without international aid and intervention, an epidemic of disease caused by the floods will cause a second wave of deaths in Pakistan, of which the elderly, children, and pregnant women will be the largest groups facing losses. International aid, medical and humanitarian organizations have joined the Pakistani government and are regularly dropping medical supplies, malaria nets, food and provisional shelters, but the need continues to grow as more people find their way to temporary camps and the rate of disease climbs.
Human Rights & The Most Vulnerable
A nation’s most vulnerable populations are often the ones who suffer the worst effects for the longest time after a natural disaster like these floods. For Pakistan, those vulnerable groups are women, children, the Khwaja Sira (transgender) community, those living in extreme poverty, religious minorities, and other marginalized groups. Typically, socially disadvantaged groups are living in regions with lesser infrastructure, facing the initial worst impacts of natural disasters, but marginalized status often leads to upwards battles to access humanitarian aid after the disaster as well. There are estimated to be 650,000 pregnant women displaced in Pakistan right now, in urgent need of maternal health care and safe, sterile facilities to give birth in, with many taking perilous journeys in hopes of reaching a hospital or safe places to give birth.
CARE, an international human rights and social justice organization, spoke on this concern. Pakistan Country Director for CARE, Adil Sheraz said, “With entire villages washed away, families broken up and many people sleeping under the sky, the usual social structures that keep people safe have fallen away, and this can be very dangerous for women and girls.”
Following the 2010 floods in Pakistan, denial of aid and violence against minorities became a prevalent issue and large protests against law enforcement arose due to their failure to protect vulnerable groups. Preventative measures against recurrence of these issues have been few and far between since 2010, and international human rights communities are on high alert for rising reports of discrimination in relief distribution and crimes against minorities. Reports of sexual violence have already increased following the floods.
In addition to some of the most vulnerable Pakistanis are roughly 800,000 Afghani refugees who have been hosted by Pakistan in Sindh and Balochistan; two provinces faced with the worst of the flooding and submersion. Pakistan has a deep history of offering asylum and refuge for those fleeing across the border from conflict in Afghanistan, and is home to 1.4 million Afghani refugees currently in 2022. Following the August 2021 withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, the Islamic Emirate government (also known as the Taliban), Pakistan became an even more essential haven for the influx of refugees fleeing a violent authoritarian regime. In the wake of this natural disaster, the loss of $30 billion dollars worth of infrastructure, homes and supplies, and facing an economic crisis, Afghani people with hopes of finding refuge in Pakistan must now find new routes to safety.
Environmental Justice & Climate Change
Though Pakistan faces annual flooding of the Indus river from heavy rains in monsoon season, record breaking rains preceded by an extended heatwave contributed to an unrivaled degree of flooding this summer. Heatwaves brought temperatures around 50° Celsius (122° Fahrenheit) to India and Pakistan between March and May of this year. Monsoon rains followed the spring heatwaves, and in the regions of Sindh and Balochistan rainfall reached 500% above average. The 2022 floods will leave a significant economic, infrastructural, and humanitarian impact on the country of roughly 220 million people. The reason for the dramatic influx in severity is complex, but simple at its core: climate change.
Pakistan is facing an unfair share of the consequences of climate change; while it was responsible for only .3% of global CO2 emissions in 2020, it is likely that this year’s heatwaves and floods will be on the less severe end of what is to come. The United Nations has deemed Pakistan a “climate change hotspot”, stating that people in South Asia are 15 times more likely to die from climate impacts. As the global temperature rises and geohazards become more extreme, disaster-prone regions like Pakistan will face more and more devastation. The best prognosis for the region comes with prevention efforts like strengthening anti-disaster infrastructures. As the global north is responsible for 92% of excess emissions contributing to global warming and climate change, Pakistan, the United Nations, and other international agencies are calling for countries like the United States to make increased contributions to relief funds and infrastructure development overseas.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, while visiting Pakistan in September 2022, said, “…the fact is that we are already living in a world where climate change is acting in such a devastating way. So, there must be massive support to what usually is called adaptation, which means to build resilient infrastructure and to support resilient communities and to create conditions for those that are in the hotspots of climate change. Pakistan is one of the hotspots of climate change. For those countries to be able to prepare for the next disaster and to be able to resist the next disaster, this needs a huge investment and this investment needs to be provided.”
Relief & Aid
Pakistan has faced an overwhelming series of calamities since the start of this year, and the impacts from these disasters are greatly exacerbated by food shortages and an economic crisis prior to the start of the disasters in March. There are millions of people in need of aid, and every bit of support helps. If you are unable to financially contribute, please consider sharing this or other articles about this crisis to increase international attention on those who need our help.
For donations of money, time, or other resources, we have compiled some reputable aid agencies below:
Pakistan’s Red Crescent Society is providing clean drinking water, medical treatments, temporary housing, and other essential aid across flood-hit regions. Donate or get involved with their flood response efforts here.
The International Medical Corps are on the ground in Pakistan, providing medical care and responses to both the floods and gender-based violence across the country. Find out more & how you can donate here.
Muslim Aid has reached over 29,000 people in three affected districts of Pakistan, providing hygiene kits, shelter, and essentials to those in need. Contribute to their fund here.
In the midst of a pandemic and international unrest, it is vital to stay encouraged and optimistic as we continue our efforts to uphold and protect human rights internationally. That is why we at the Institute for Human Rights at UAB will be using this article to break up the negative news cycle and put a spotlight on a few of the amazing victories and progress the international community has made during the pandemic that you might not have heard about. Though positive human rights news may not always make headlines, it is important to recognize each success, just as it is vital we address each issue.
The UN Declares Access to a Clean Environment is a Universal Human Right – July 2022
Of the 193 states in the United Nations general assembly, 161 voted in favor of a climate resolution that declares that access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a universal human right; one that was not included in the original Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. While the resolution is not legally binding, it is expected that it will hugely impact international human rights law in the future and strengthen international efforts to protect our environment. Climate justice is now synonymous with upholding human rights for the citizens of member-states, and the United Nations goal is that this decision will encourage nations to prioritize environmental programs moving forwards.
Kazakhstan and Papua New Guinea Abolish the Death Penalty- January 2022
Kazakhstan became the 109th country to remove the death penalty for all crimes, a major progress coming less than 20 years after life imprisonment was introduced within the country as an alternative punishment in 2004. In addition to the national abolition, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has signed the parliamentary ratification of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 6 of the ICCPR declares that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of life”, but the Second Optional Protocol takes additional steps to hold countries accountable by banning the death penalty within their nation. Though the ICCPR has been ratified or acceded by 173 states, only 90 have elected to be internationally bound to the Second Optional Protocol (the total abolition of the death penalty), and Kazakhstan is the most recent nation to join the international movement to abolish the death penalty globally.
Papua New Guinea also abolished their capital punishment, attributing the abolishment to the Christian beliefs of their nation and inability to perform executions in a humane way. The 40 people on death row at the time of the abolishment have had their sentences commuted to life in prison without parole. Papua New Guinea is yet to sign or ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, but by eliminating the death penalty nationwide the country has still taken a significant step towards preserving their citizens right to life.
India Repeals Harmful Farm Plan – November 2021
Many of you will remember seeing international headlines of the violent protests following India’s decision to pass three harmful farming laws in 2020. The legislation, passed in the height of the pandemic, left small farmers extremely vulnerable and threatened the entire food chain of India. Among many other protections subject to elimination under the farm laws was the nations Minimum Support Price (MSP), which allowed farmers to sell their crops to government affiliated organizations for what policymakers determined to be the necessary minimum for them to support themselves from the harvest. Without the MSP, a choice few corporations would be able to place purchasing value of these crops at an unreasonably low price that would ruin the already meager profits small farmers glean from the staple crops, and families too far away from wholesalers would be unable to sell their crops at all.
Any threats to small farms in India are a major issue because, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, “Agriculture, with its allied sectors, is the largest source of livelihoods in India”. In addition, the FAO reported 70% of rural households depend on agriculture and 82% of farms in India are considered small; making these laws impact a significant amount of the nation’s population. A year of protests from farmers unions followed that resulted in 600 deaths and international outcries to protect farmers pushed the Indian government to meet with unions and discuss their demands. An enormous human rights victory followed as Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in November of 2021 that they would rollback the laws, and on November 30 the Indian Parliament passed a bill to cancel the reforms. As the end of 2021 approached, farmers left the capital and returned home for the first time in months, having succeeded at protecting their families and their livelihoods.
Sudan Criminalizes Female Genital Mutilation – May 2020
Making history, Sudan became one of 28 African nations to criminalize female genital mutilation / Circumcision (FGM/C), an extremely dangerous practice that an estimated 200 million woman alive today have undergone. It is a multicultural practice that can be attributed to religion, sexual purity, social acceptance and misinformation about female hygiene that causes an onslaught of complications depending on the type of FGM/C performed and the conditions the operation is performed in. Among the consequences are infections, hemorrhage, chronic and severe pain, complications with childbirth, and immense psychological distress. It also causes many deaths from bleeding out during the operation or severe complications later in life. We have published a detailed article about female genital mutilations, gender inequality and the culture around FGM before, which you can find here.
FGM/C is a prevalent women’s rights issue in Africa, and in Sudan 87% of women between the ages of 14 and 49 have experienced some form of “the cut”. While some Sudanese states have previously passed FGM/C bans, they were ignored by the general population without enforcement from a unified, national legislature. This new ban will target those performing the operations with a punishment of up to three years in jail in the hopes of protecting young women from the health and social risks that come from a cultural norm of genital mutilation and circumcision.
Where do we go from here?
While we have many incredible victories to celebrate today, local and international human rights groups will continue to expose injustices and fight for a safer and more equal future for all people. Our goal at the Institute for Human Rights at UAB is to educate; to inform readers about injustices and how they can get involved, and to celebrate with our incredible community when we have good news to share! While the past year has been marked with incredible hardships, it is always exciting when we have heart-warming international progress to share!
You can find more information about us, including free speaker events and our Social Justice Cafes on our Instagram page @uab_ihr! Share which of these positive stories you found most interesting in our comments, and feel free to DM us with human rights news you would like us to cover!
These past few decades have been filled with destruction and devastation, and the increasing severity of the climate crisis signals that what we are experiencing is just the beginning. The climate crisis will transform the way we live, whether we adopt to it or not, and it is crucial now more than ever to take all the necessary actions to slow down, and maybe even stop this growing existential threat to humanity. With that being said, there have been some attempts around the world at doing just this. In the midst of all this chaos, it is important to cherish and acknowledge some of the more innovative responses to alleviating the climate crisis. These are some of the sustainable ways other nations are attempting to address climate change, and the United States would do good to implement some of these ideas into its own society.
Planting Trees to Save the World
Countries all over the world are taking a simple approach to the climate crisis; they’re planting trees! Nations like India, China, Ethiopia, Pakistan, and the Philippines have planted hundreds of trees as part of their promise to the Paris Agreement. In July 2019, India planted over 220 million trees in a single day, while Ethiopia planted over 350,000 trees in one day! Students in the Philippines are expected to plant ten trees each before they are allowed to graduate, and in this way, a guaranteed number of trees are planted annually. All these nations are taking unique efforts to do their part in combating climate change. While planting trees alone won’t address some of the more serious environmental issues we face today, it does make a huge difference. For one, planting trees can help remove some of the carbon emissions and other greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere and release more oxygen into the air. This provides cleaner air for all living forms in the area. Planting trees can also encourage biodiversity, and depending on what type of trees are planted, can provide food sources that nourish the region’s species. In this way, biodiversity provides natural services, which are services built into nature that nourish and sustain the ecosystem for all life forms on Earth. These services include the food produced by the trees, the roots that guard the soil from erosion and flooding, and it even includes a natural filtration system that purifies water. In addition to this, biodiversity, (and the calculated, methodical planting of trees) can moderate temperatures, enrich the soil, and stabilize an ecosystem. As such, biodiversity is just as necessary for the continued existence of humans as it is for other forms of life. Of course, without stopping the use of nonrenewable resources and exploiting forest lands, any number of trees planted can only neutralize the carbon emissions. In order to fully benefit from the trees being planted, we have to shift to using renewable, sustainable forms of energy to rebuild our infrastructures and power our homes. The actions these countries have taken to combat climate change is one that ensures sustainability and inspires change, and it is with this mindset of sustainability that we, as a world, should proceed.
Europe’s Pollinator Highway
Along this framework of sustainability, Europe seems to have taken a different approach in addressing some of the environmental issues we are facing today. One such environmental issue they have attempted to address is the decreasing number of pollinators in the world. Pollinators are insects, like bees, wasps, and butterflies, who play a vital function in our existence, by transferring pollen from the female part of a plant to the male part of the plant to being its reproductive process that later blooms into fruits, seeds, and flowers. Without the crucial role that pollinators play, there would be no nourishment for millions of species worldwide, including humans. These pollinators play a key role in the survival of any ecosystem, and without their services, the world would be plunged into a food famine. To address this issue, the city of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, has constructed an eight-mile walkway that connects six districts of the urban area. This was an attempt to encourage an increase in insect pollination, as well as provide city dwellers clean, green spaces to enjoy. Known as the Pollinator Highway, it is one example of how nature can co-exist in urban centers alongside humans. While the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has attempted to address the pollination issue, the use of pesticides and herbicides, which the United States continues to allow, leaves pollinators exposed to these harsh chemicals, resulting in their deaths. There has been more awareness about this issue, however, and many scientists have even suggested drones and robotics to mimic pollinator behaviors and artificially pollinate plants. These advanced technologies, however, can be very costly to produce and maintain, and their creation and upkeep only adds to the issues of depleting raw materials. As a result, it would be cheaper and more sustainable to protect our natural pollinators and appreciate their natural, free services, by promoting a safe environment for the pollinators to flourish.
Studies have also shown that greenery and time spent in nature can have positive impacts on an individual’s mental health, so Tallin’s Pollinator Highway would be mutually beneficial for both humans and pollinators alike. This walkway they created not only ensures the safety of bees, but also, through incentivizing citizens to walk and bike, has led to a decrease in emissions released by cars and other motor vehicles. This is also partly due to Tallin’s legislation which has made public transportation free since 2015, incentivizing citizens to switch from personal vehicles to public transport systems and making room in the urban center for cyclists and walkers to enjoy a breath of fresh air. The free public transportation system runs all day long, every day of the week, and Estonia was the first nation in the European Union to implement this system. Many European nations have included similar features since then, but the United States continues to fall behind its European counterparts. As one of the richest nations in the world, the United States has the ability to build more sustainable infrastructure and transform public transportation to better connect all parts of the nation. Then, American citizens too could incentivize the public to use free transportation provided by the state. Having a free public transportation system that runs 24/7 would also increase accessibility for many Americans living in rural areas and on the outskirts of urban centers. These are just some of the ways in which elements of climate change can be addressed.
Virtual/Hybrid Conferences and Climate Change
Along the same lines of promoting a safe and more sustainable environment, another interesting way to combat climate change is by simply continuing to use virtual spaces for conferences, meetings, and other such events. The pandemic has drastically forced people around the world to adapt to its contagious spread, and as a result, the entire world had to find new ways to keep functioning without meeting face to face. This is really when zoom became one of the most important tools for students, teachers, professionals, and artists alike. In the midst of all this trauma and loss, it is good to know that we accidentally discovered that hybrid and virtual conferences can actually help combat climate change in a significant way. The greenhouse emissions released so far from the conference industry worldwide are equivalent to the amounts released by the entire US; this is a significant amount of emissions, as the United States, in 2020 alone, released 13.5% of the global emissions. Virtual or hybrid conferences can help decrease those amounts significantly, and we can do this from the comforts of home. While people still use energy and electricity at home to attend these events virtually, it is nowhere near the amount used during in-person conferences. Additionally, this is a profitable development for businesses because it costs them less to host virtual conferences than in-person conferences where they have to pay for the attendees’ transportation, their housing, and for the actual conference hall where the event would be held. Also, virtual conferences increase the accessibility of the events to those who may not be able to travel the long distances due to other obligations in their lives. Virtual and hybrid conferences and meetings can also be timesaving for all those involved, from the attendees to the hosts themselves. Virtual and hybrid meetings should in no way replace face-to-face meetings because in-person meetings are more personable, and generally fosters more community among like-minded people. With that being said, this accidental victory we seem to have stumbled upon should not be dismissed or ignored. Rather, we should explore ways in which this newfound knowledge can benefit us as we begin to reshape our future.
Nature’s Right to Exist
Another innovative approach to reshaping our future might include the securing of rights to the environment itself. This is exactly what Panama, in league with other nations like Italy and Mexico, has decided to do. Panama has passed a new legislation that declares nature’s right to exist. This law forces Panama’s legislations to consider its impacts on the natural world, and whether the existing laws on the books violate nature’s right to exist. This applies to its national policies, but also extends to its foreign policies as well, meaning that Panama cannot take any foreign policy actions that might endanger the environment’s right to survive. Some of the other nations which have passed similar legislations aim to protect the entire environment, while others have given specific protections to rivers, enabling human representatives to sue on the behalf of rivers that have been harmed or polluted. This is an important piece of legislation for environmental justice, as grievances against the environment can be heard in a court of law, and violations against the environment can be addressed and held accountable. This would be especially significant in the US, because corporations already have a voice through the Citizens United ruling, which equated money with speech, allowing corporations to exercise their “freedom of speech” through campaign contributions to potential and elected officials. Passing such a law that protects the environment’s right to exist in the US would provide a voice for the environment, to fight against some of the harmful injustices caused by environmental racism and exploitative behavior from corporations, and would serve as a check on the power and influence of multinational corporations on US policy, both in domestic and international affairs. If the United States were to do what Panama did, issues such as the Flint water crisis, or the countless instances of exploitation of indigenous lands by big industries, could be stopped, and the perpetrators of such damages caused to the environment can be legally held accountable. Nature, with its many ecosystem services, and resources it provides to all life forms on Earth, deserves to be protected, and using such a rights-based language to call for environmental justice is another way to reduce our dependency on non-renewables. Ensuring the smooth functionality of these ecosystem services (which are free to everyone), is an essential aspect of fighting the climate crisis and without protection, these services would otherwise be jeopardized, costing us money, time, and lives as we try to mimic these services to simply survive.
The Fight for Humanity’s Future
So, what more can be done? For one, we should continue to support green initiatives and pressure our representatives to propose legislations such as the Green New Deal, or pass our own version of Panama’s “Nature’s Right to Exist” legislation. When proposing policies, we should consider the many ways in which climate change impacts different communities, and craft our policies through a rights-based approach. While ethical consumption under a capitalistic world can be challenging, we as consumers should be more aware of the brands we consume and the products we consume, to incentivize businesses to be more aware of their impact on climate change and actively try to address it through their operations. We also should start publicly questioning some of the corporations that exploit the nature and its resources, and hold them accountable for their actions. This tactic is known as “naming and shaming”, where we publicly challenge some of the exploitative practices these companies may use, and as a result, enforcing them to be more conscious of their operations. We also need to educate others about the reality in which we live in, and how each individual can make an impact on the climate crisis through changes in habits and lifestyles. We need to bring attention to the growing climate crisis through healthy civil agitation and educate others on their carbon footprint. Ask friends and family members to be mindful of their purchases, and boycott businesses that exploit the Earth and its vulnerable populations. This is exactly what the Fridays for Future movement is attempting to do. Created by a young generation of climate activists, this global phenomenon centers around awareness and action against the climate crisis. Students sacrifice their Fridays to fight for the protection of the Earth and their own future existence. We too, as students passionate about environmental justice, can support their initiative by hosting our own climate protests here on campus, or by simply boosting the movement in our own communities. Or, as India, Ethiopia, and many other nations around the world has proven, we can simply plant more trees. Whatever it is we do, the environment depends on the actions of everyone, and how we respond to this crisis will determine whether the human species, (and many other organisms with it), will be able to exist in the future.
Over the past few weeks, we have been examining, in this environmental series, the various ways in which our over-consumption, coupled with the negligent practices of industry, have led to the deterioration and devastation that climate change has yet to fully unleash upon us. We have observed the intersectionality between fast fashion, human rights violations within the industry, and how the fashion industry perpetuates colonialism and imperialism while simultaneously amplifying the climate crisis. We have also studied in detail the process of oil development, and the very real consequences that carelessness from industry can have on communities and ecosystems alike. We have further focused on the lasting implications of these industries, and how environmental racism and exploitation, both of resources and people, have led to global inequities in quality of life. Now, we shift our focus to the mining industry, which encompasses so many raw materials that are transformed into the products we consume on a regular basis around the world. These products include materials for constructing infrastructure like roads and buildings, raw materials used to build and support the electric grid, and even materials used in today’s newest laptops and smartphones. One can even argue that mining is a vital part of an advanced industrial society.
The Mining Industry
The mining industry can be categorized into many different groups, but some of the most popular categories include, coal and Uranium mining, metal mining and industrial mining. Coal mining, and the mining for Uranium are largely used for energy purposes, such as generating electricity or using the mined Uranium for nuclear power. Metal mining consists of mining for metals such as zinc, gold, copper, iron, silver, and other such precious materials. These metals can be sold for use in technological devices, but, in cases like iron and zinc, can be turned into various products, from tools to jewelry. Finally, industrial mining digs up raw materials for manufacturing and industrial consumption, including raw materials and chemicals used in construction jobs. These three areas of mining alone impact so many aspects of our society, from our energy consumption to our smart gadgets and our stylish accessories, down to the buildings we work out of, and to the homes we live and grow up in. This is just an introduction to just how crucial a part mining plays in our lives, and why it is necessary for us as a world to begin to ween off of this dependency on mining and shift our focus toward sustainability and renewable resources. In order to fully comprehend the need for this shift, we must look closer at some of the mining techniques and the dramatic impacts their operations have on the environment.
Surface Mining Techniques and their Environmental Impacts
A commonly used surface mining technique, strip mining is used to remove the surface layers of soil until the desired resource is exposed. Especially used for coal extraction, this process includes drilling and blasting portions of the earth to reveal the minable resource. These blasted off pieces of “overburden” are cleared and removed from the site, and chunks of coal, (or other resources), are extracted from the blasted site and loaded up onto trucks that transport them away for use. This method greatly impacts the environment in the surrounding areas. The earth is made up of many layers of minerals. These minerals are made up of decomposed organic matter that have been compressed over time into materials we extract today, such as fossil fuels and sand. One of these layers consist of topsoil, a rich layer of naturally composed, nutrient-rich soil that is crucial to the land’s ability to grow food or herbs. The strip mining method, along with some of the other techniques of mining, leaves the topsoil exposed to the natural elements, and the soil can begin to erode, leaving the land barren and jeopardizing its ability to support life. Strip mining can also pollute nearby sources of water by releasing certain acidic minerals that are dug out of the ground during mining operations and spill into the waterways, react to the water and oxygen, expose the marine life to toxic waters and pollute water sources used for domestic and agricultural consumption. These practices impact the biodiversity of the regions in which they take place, transforming more than just aesthetic beauty for us to enjoy. Biodiversity serves varying purposes, as each organism is part of a larger food chain, and having a rich, vibrant, biodiverse environment comes with its own benefits to the planet and its life forms. Certain keystone species play crucial roles in the survival of an ecosystem, and these mining practices endanger their existence, further deteriorating the conditions of survival for many species living in these areas, including humans.
Another surface method of mining is the open-pit mining technique. This process is similar to the strip-mining method, in the sense that it also requires the blasting of mining zones. It does differ however, in that these explosions are used to create large craters, and then machines are used to extract precious materials from these concave, open pits. Materials extracted from this process are also transported away via trucks, similar to the strip-mining method. This method is commonly used for both coal mining, as well as mining metals such as copper, gold, or iron. This method, just like the strip-mining method, causes severe degradation and destruction of the natural environment. Some of these impacts include polluted waterways, air pollution, soil erosion, and a destruction of habitats that support and promote biodiversity. The process of open-pit mining, during the blasting and drilling of the earth, release metals and radioactivity into the dust clouds. Anyone breathing this air is at risk of developing serious respiratory illnesses. In addition to the dust clouds, the emissions released by the heavy machinery also add to the polluted air of which mining workers as well as local residents have to breathe regularly. As if that was not dangerous enough, open-pit mining also causes water pollution, in similar ways to strip-mining. The release of sulfur into the local waterways, and its reaction to the oxygen turns the water acidic, endangering the aquatic life, and poisoning the local communities’ waterways. Similar to other surface mining techniques, the open-pit technique also requires massive amounts of ground water and freshwater for its operations, further threatening the local communities’ access to water.
One of the most landscape-altering surface mining methods, mountaintop removal is a technique used to mine coal by blasting off the tops of mountains (which are filled with biodiverse forests), tapping directly into the resources they want to mine. Like the other surface mining methods discussed above, this method also has similar environmental impacts to the air, the water, and the area’s biodiversity. The waters are polluted with the toxins released from the mining process, killing off marine life, while entire forests are blasted out of existence. This method of mining is especially harmful for climate change because it permanently alters the topography of an area, releases tons of carbon emissions and other pollutants into the air, while destroying the many trees and plants that could have helped store some of the carbon emissions being released from these operations. This method also leads to soil erosion which can cause an increase in natural disasters such as flooding, forest fires, and landslides, and leave the land barren, making it difficult for local residents to grow crops on it.
These surface mining techniques are some of many methods that are used to extract minerals and valuable resources out of the earth. We discussed in detail the process of oil and natural gas extraction, using drilling and fracking techniques, and many of us are also familiar with the underground coal mines and tunnels that go on for miles beneath the surface. Those extraction methods come with their own risks and hazards to both the environment and its people. While we will not be covering those mining methods in this blog, we will be focusing more on the mining industry more generally, and its impact on human lives.
Human Rights Violations in the Mining Industry
One of the most horrendous violations of human lives comes from the mining industry’s use of child labor in their mines, especially in poorer nations of the global south. While this certainly has to do with issues of environmental racism and avaricious profit motives, child labor has also become an increasingly preferred labor force used in multinational industries like fashion, oil, and mining, to name a few. The use of child labor in mining practices denies these children their entire childhood, and instead exposes them to dangerous working conditions that end up impacting their health for the rest of their lives. These children are exposed to toxic chemicals and micro metals and radioactivity released from the blasting process that they end up breathing in. These are especially harmful for developing children, whose growth can be stunted because of constant exposure to toxins like sulfur, mercury, and uranium. They are also required to work in contaminated waters, leading to skin infections and other issues that can impact their hormone levels and their overall growth. In addition to these dangers, children working at these mining sites are also in constant danger of physical harm from heavy machinery and the possibility of landslides due to weakened landscapes caused by the explosions and other disruptive practices.
Due to the profit-centered nature of these multinational industries, children and adults are exposed to some harrowing working conditions to meet the profit margins. These conditions have serious health implications, including lung disease, hearing issues, exposure to radioactive materials, mental health issues, and even back injuries. Respiratory illnesses and risks of developing chronic lung problems such as black lung disease, are very real consequences of breathing in the polluted air around these mining zones. Workers can develop issues with their hearing due to the loud and constant blasts from the mining operations, as well as the noisy machinery used in the mining areas. The blasts themselves, as discussed above, add metals into the air, and release radioactive gas into the surrounding air. Although some miners are given protective gear against these dangerous gases, miners are frequently required to breathe in this polluted air, which has large amounts of radon, a cancer-causing gas, while simply trying to just do their job. Due to the physically straining work that miners are expected to perform, mining can induce incredible amounts of stress. Miners also are required to work long hours, expend a lot of physical energy, and as a result, are more likely to injure themselves on the job. Although miners in the United States and other industrialized nations have workplace protections that shield the miners from obtaining injuries at the job site (or holding their employers accountable should such workplace injury occur), those working in areas without these regulations are more vulnerable to being injured and receiving little to no compensation or assistance through these injuries.
Why Should We Care and What Can Be Done About It?
Upon reflection, the mining industry seems to be damaging to the environment and, because of its harmful practices, a threat to the future of humanity. Even as we continue to extract more and more minerals from the earth, we are slowly running out of resources to mine. Some experts invested in the mining industry argue that the next step is to switch gears and expand our technological advancements to be able to mine asteroids and other elements in space. While this suggestion might address the issue of resource availability, it does not address the fact that these practices, (along with other industries), are adding to the climate crisis. Until anthropogenic actions are not regulated in industry, climate change is going to continue to be an existential threat to this Earth.
On an international level, therefore, regulations need to be passed on mining practices, and the working conditions of miners. Along with these regulations, multinational corporations that fund this industry should be stopped from exploiting vulnerable nations for their cheap labor and loose regulations. Just like with other natural resources, many of the economies of nations that are exploited for their resources and labor are heavily dependent on the sale of these resources. It is important, therefore, to ensure that they can shift their economies into stable ones that depend on renewable resources before abandoning these already vulnerable nations to deal with the consequences of the exploitation of the mining industry. On a more domestic level, the United States needs to transition into a greener, more sustainable economy so that there is no pressure for constant exploitation of these nonrenewable resources such as coal, oil and gas, and other such minerals. Stopping mining practices can allow the earth to heal and grow back some of the biodiversity that has been lost from centuries of exploitative mining practices. In addition to transitioning into a greener society, we should provide some sort of relief for communities that have been impacted by these careless practices and ensure that remediation attempts take place to restore the impacted lands to conditions that existed before the mining practices took place. On a more personal level, we as consumers have some power over the industries we incentivize. This is still true when it comes to stopping some forms of mining, (such as mining for gems), but largely out of our individual hands when it comes to stopping the use of certain resources that are a crucial part of our infrastructure, such as coal. Even with this in mind, one thing that each person can do is educate one another about the various impacts these mining practices have on the environment and on human lives as a whole. Bringing awareness to issues such as this can help alter the public opinions about using such resources, and in turn can lead to a much-needed paradigm shift in our approach to ending climate change.
As gas prices continue to skyrocket in response to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, many people are feeling the impacts of our global reliance on nonrenewable resources and reconsidering the pros and cons of our collective consumption of these natural resources. Many nations are worried about how their access to natural resources is closely related to the foreign relations and policies they support. Others, like Germany, see this as an opportunity to relieve their dependency on nonrenewable resources as a whole, and to transform their societies to use greener, more sustainable, renewable resources, such as solar and wind energy. As climate change continues to be a growing threat to the future of humanity, transitioning our societies and our infrastructure to support and even incentivize the use of renewable resources can serve the purpose of not only combating climate change but can also create new job opportunities worldwide. To comprehend the need to shift to a more sustainable society, we need to focus on the details of the oil development process. This includes the development, transportation, and distribution of the oil products, and how oil wastes are managed. Examining these issues more carefully can help us better understand how these processes impact the environment around us. The oil and gas industry is responsible for countless environmental and human rights violations, and their practices and international influence have horrifying consequences. It is crucial, now more than ever, to realize just how dependent we are on this resource, how that dependency can lead us to make flawed foreign policy decisions, and why that can have irreversible consequences on the future of mankind.
Crude Oil and the Environment
Crude Oil Extraction and Development
The process of developing and refining oil is a complex one, in which the crude oil is separated into many different products throughout the process. Crude oil is separated into gasoline, diesel, petroleum, jet fuel, and even propane gas, to name a few. To explain a complex process simply, oil development infrastructures are built near sites rich with natural oil and gas, and this infrastructure drills the resources out of the ground in an extraction process. The extraction process, after the initial extraction of the resources, also includes the practice of fracking. The process of fracking includes the use of fracking fluid, made up of water, sand, and chemicals, which are injected back down the drilled site forcefully, in order to extract any remaining amounts of oil and gas hidden inside of rocks. The extracted oil, known as crude oil, is then processed in various ways to refine the crude oil into petroleum products. Crude oil goes under a distillation process, where it is heated up in a furnace and distilled in a tower that separates the various products based on varying temperatures and density and is treated in special vacuum units and cracking units to deliver the final set of products. The special vacuums help separate the various products based on temperature and density, and the cracking units alter the molecular weight of hydrogen atoms to form the final products. Each barrel of crude oil can produce about half a barrel of gasoline, a quarter of a barrel of diesel fuel, a tenth of a barrel of jet fuel, and the rest can be refined to be used as other petroleum products.
In this part of the oil development process, one of the most environmentally impactful practices is the process of fracking. This process has harmed both the environment and its residents, and in this way, can have long-term consequences. It includes the possibility of fracking fluids leaking into groundwater, or surface water, and polluting these sources with cancer-causing chemicals. Also, the process of fracking alone requires tremendous amounts of water to extract the last bits of oil and gas trapped inside rocks. In this way, fracking is not only polluting the underground and above water sources, it is also using the remaining clean water for the fracking itself. Since the rise of fracking practices over the past few decades, even American residents who live in places such as Flint, Michigan, have been struggling with health concerns and having access to clean water due to fracking practices in their community. These are all consequences of simply one part of the oil development process. Once the oil is developed, how is the waste from the process managed?
Managing the Waste from the Oil Development Process
Following the extraction and refinement of the crude oil, the wastes that are derived from this process, which is a mixture of water, minerals, chemicals, oil waste, and the toxins released from the process, are required to be treated, stored, and disposed of in specified ways outlined by regulatory legislations. These requirements maintain that the oil waste referred to as sludge, is to be treated so that hazardous chemicals are removed from the sludge, stored in safe areas, (such as above-ground pits that are lined to prevent the wastes from seeping into the soil or the groundwater), and disposed of in secure, underground landfills with specific disposal instructions.
Failure to adhere to the safe disposal of these hazardous wastes can cause environmental, physical, and social harm. Even during the disposal process, including treatment of hazardous waste, storage of the sludge, and safe disposal of this waste, pose incredible risks to both the environment and the health of both the employees and the local residents exposed to this waste. Hazardous waste is generally treated through various methods, like incinerating the waste, which leads to greater air pollution in nearby areas. These chemicals in the air can then be breathed in by employees, or can even be carried to nearby civilian populations, increasing the risks of respiratory illnesses among its citizens. As with the case in Ecuador, (explained below), some oil and gas companies have been reported to store these wastes in unlined pits, and incinerate them in the open, instead of in an enclosed, controlled environment. These corrupt practices further cause respiratory issues for local residents in the area.
Water is also used throughout the oil development process, and because it contains chemicals and toxins that have mixed in with these products, the leftover sludge is supposed to be treated and disposed of with extreme caution at the end of the process. In order to do this, massive pits are dug up and lined in the ground, where the sludge is stored until it can be treated and disposed of. Not doing so can endanger the surrounding environment, as the sludge can leak into the ground, polluting the soil and rendering it infertile for plant growth. It can also seep into nearby streams and rivers, polluting drinking water used by local populations and the area’s species alike. Similarly, although many nations have strict laws on the books requiring oil companies to store waste in lined pits, many wind up storing the sludge in unlined pits, polluting the nearby waters, and leaking oil sludge into the soil. This not only impacts the ecosystem that depends on the soil and the nearby water sources but also prevents the polluted soil from being used for agriculture, impacting the local food security.
Additionally, people who use those streams for recreational purposes, end up developing skin rashes, cancer, and other health issues. When disposing of hazardous waste, if it is not done properly, or if the waste begins to seep into the earth, it can continue to accumulate and pollute our lands and waters. Furthermore, because of the longevity of these hazardous chemicals, if they contaminate our groundwaters or aquifers, they can be very hard to treat, and the water can stay contaminated indefinitely. These chemicals can even accumulate in the species that use these waters for nourishment, and as a result, bioaccumulate inside humans through the web of consumption. Throughout the process of treating, storing, and disposing of the sludge, oil companies attempt to extract and reuse as much of the exploitable oil from the process, attempting to recycle as much of the resource as possible. Even though this process of recycling the resource is less wasteful, it still ends up adding pollutants into the atmosphere and environment and impacting the lives of all the organisms sharing the land and its resources. Although we have been exposed to the countless impacts oil development, and oil waste treatment have on the environment and its life forms, the transportation of oil poses risks that are equally horrifying.
Oil Transportation and Distribution
The dangers that come from the irresponsible handling of oil and gas do not only pertain to the development of the oil products, or the disposal of their waste. The oil can pose grave dangers to the environment through the process of transporting refined goods, either by land or across the seas. Pipelines have been constructed to transport oil domestically and they run along hundreds of miles of populated land putting the residents near these pipelines at risk. Many protests have broken out against the building of new pipelines. One such example is the protests that broke out against the building of the Keystone XL pipeline, which was proposed to be built over the Ogalala Aquifer, a source of water for residential and agricultural use that serves millions of Americans living in nearby states. Many people opposed the pipeline being built because of the danger of oil spills polluting one of the main sources of drinking water for people in this area. These pipelines can also cut across the migration routes used by many species that reside in those areas, injuring, or even killing many organisms that travel these routes and further jeopardizing the biodiversity of the impacted areas. Biodiversity is an essential element to the survival of all life forms on Earth. Each organism plays an important role, (no matter how small or insignificant it may seem to us), to maintain the functionality of various ecosystems. Part of the dangers posed by this threat to biodiversity comes from the fear of losing keystone species, ones that play a fundamental role in the existence of certain ecosystems. Without these players, the entire ecosystem can be altered in disastrous ways, and this would in turn lead to more loss of biodiversity, feeding into a positive feedback loop that helps accelerate the climate crisis.
Furthermore, there are many dangers posed by shipments of oil across large bodies of water, including the possibility of oil spills occurring in the middle of the ocean or large bodies of water, destroying marine biodiversity. Oil spills are not only damaging marine life but are also tremendously difficult to clean up on large bodies of water. This has been a constant issue that the oil industry has struggled with. Some of these massive spills, such as the Exxon Valdez spill, or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, have left the impacted communities with immense consequences. The Exxon Valdez spill was responsible for spilling 11 million gallons of oil into the waters of the Gulf of Alaska, destroying countless species of fish and marine wildlife, and polluting the waters, impacting the livelihood of the local communities whose economies depended on the marine wildlife. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which occurred off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, was caused by the fracturing of a weak core inside the oil rig. This fracture released natural gas into the rig, and caused an explosion, allowing for the leakage of oil into the gulf. Approximately 134 million gallons of oil spilled into the waters, marking this event as one of the biggest oil spills in American history. Along with the environmental impacts that both these spills brought about, the process used to clean up the oil spill also uses many chemicals that can lead to a number of health issues, including cancer, developmental and reproductive issues, respiratory issues, and even food poisoning from consuming contaminated seafood and wildlife. These health issues impact not only the people that live near these spill sites but also the workers who are part of the clean-up team, inhaling the fumes and toxins from the cleanup process.
Environmental Racism and Big Oil
After learning about how oil is produced, distributed, and the ways in which oil waste is disposed of, it is equally important to examine who is largely impacted by these practices. As with many other industries that have practices that cause pollution, oil companies have long been accused of being negligent and careless when operating in disenfranchised areas, whether it be domestic, or international. In America, oil infrastructures and waste disposal sites are generally located in impoverished areas, and these areas are largely occupied by people of color, especially African Americans, and Native Americans. African Americans have historically been forced into impoverished and polluted spaces, and forced to work the most dangerous or strenuous jobs. The targeting of Native Americans by these industries is especially cruel due to their spiritual bond with the environment and its many wonders, and their cultural dependence on the environment as a whole. In a similar fashion, on the international stage, the disproportionate exposure from the oil infrastructures seems to be more prominent in poverty-stricken nations, and because the oil companies operating in poor nations have a greater political and economic influence over the governments and their people, they are able to evade the strict environmental regulation policies, endangering the planet, and its people in the process.
The reality of environmental racism in the oil industry, and its negligent practices, may be influenced by historical tones of colonialism and imperialism. Ecuador is one such nation that has been exposed to environmental racism, and one that has been fighting for environmental justice from the recklessness of the oil industry for over twenty years. Ecuadorians have been struggling to hold Chevron accountable for its faulty oil infrastructure, and the consequences to the environment and the local residents as a result of its operations. Commonly referred to as the “Amazon Chernobyl,” the oil development process in Ecuador has had environmental and health impacts that are magnificently larger than the Exxon Valdez spill. During its operation in Ecuador, Texaco, (and Chevron, through its ownership), has been responsible for spilling over 17 billion gallons of oil into Ecuadorian lands, and over 16 billion gallons of toxic waste into the local sources of water. The Ecuadorians addressed many of the health issues that were caused by the operation of the oil infrastructure and brought attention to the corrupt practices of Chevron. The Ecuadorians argued that Texaco, (which was bought by Chevron in 2001), had dumped their toxic wastes into unlined landfills and water sources both above and below the surface. Over 900 unlined pits were discovered through the investigation process of the class-action lawsuit filed against Chevron. At times, when the pits were overflowing, the oil company would just spread excess amounts of crude oil wastes onto the roads traversed by locals. Additionally, they argued that Texaco had violated their right to live on their ancestral lands, forcing them to migrate away from the water sources that were crucial for their survival. Furthermore, Texaco’s practices polluted their soils and waterways, endangering their food sources, and destroying the biodiversity of the environment. The Ecuadorians filed a class lawsuit against Chevron, arguing that Chevron had lied about its remediation attempts, (where the environmental damages are addressed and reversed), insisting that Chevron had just covered over large unlined pits with mounds of soil instead of properly treating the wastes. This lawsuit as investigated and processed in Ecuador recognized the pain and suffering of its Ecuadorian plaintiffs and rewarded them with a $9.5 billion settlement from Chevron. Instead of paying this settlement, Chevron has continually tried to downplay its egregious acts and has been attempting to shift the attention from the Ecuadorian lawsuit, to propose unfounded claims of corruption during the trial process in Ecuadorian courts. Chevron’s response to this lawsuit has been a massive overreach of corporate influence over the judicial process, in which they have been attempting to control the outcome of the lawsuit against them. Chevron’s latest attempts at influencing this outcome have been to harass human rights lawyer Steven Donziger, who worked on the Ecuadorian case against Chevron.
The Ecuadorian case is just one example out of many that exist around the world. Poorer nations are exploited for their resources and their cheap labor, and exposed to harmful chemicals and the pollution of their air, waters, and lands, slowly killing off the inhabitants of the Global South, or leaving them behind with multiple health issues and contaminated resources. These negligent actions are impacting the immediate areas of oil development but also wrecking the livelihood of its inhabitants nearby. Although the impacts of the oil industry’s practices are so widespread, because of its scope and political influence on the global stage, Big Oil continues to exploit vulnerable populations without much regulation or accountability.
Big Oil and its Impact on International Affairs
Big Oil, referring to the massive influence the oil and gas industry has worldwide, is largely responsible for the public belief that oil and gas are necessary resources for human survival, and as a result, holds a great deal of influence over policies both domestic and abroad. There are many reasons behind Big Oil’s power, and its massive wealth (and its access to resources as a result), allow the industry access to political leaders (and policy decisions) throughout the world. Some of these oil companies have more money than the financial capabilities of entire nations. For example, according to Business Insider, Chevron, alone, has enough wealth to rank as the 46th largest nation in the world. They have more wealth than the GDP of the Czech Republic.
Along with this massive wealth, comes an immense amount of political power, especially since these oil companies have access to markets worldwide, and rely on the vulnerabilities of Global South nations as a cheap labor source. Big Oil companies are usually multi-national companies, where they have access to global markets, and due to the sale of highly valued resources such as oil and gas, these companies also have immense influence over how regulatory laws are created in economically vulnerable nations. In exchange for the host nation’s connection to the global market and an increase in job opportunities, these companies, like other multi-national companies, employ locals for a cheaper labor force, under loosely regulated conditions, to maximize profits. In this way, nations with harsher environmental regulations, predominantly Western nations, and even within them, communities with more environmental oversight (predominantly wealthier communities), are less vulnerable to the predatory ways of Big Oil.
To maintain this global influence, Big Oil has helped launch and has funded campaigns against climate change. Many of the think tanks that propose “evidence” to debunk climate science is funded by Big Oil. These climate deniers have transformed the climate issue from an existential crisis that requires global cooperation to a controversial issue, delaying the much-needed global actions to stop climate change from destroying the planet. In this way, big oil controls the geopolitical policies among nations, and because of the global dependence on these resources, Big Oil has immense control over the climate discourse and the global struggle against climate change.
What Can We Do?: Releasing Big Oil’s Global Stronghold
There are various levels at which this issue can be addressed. Globally, all nations need to shift from an economy that depends on nonrenewable energy sources, to one that is more sustainable and greener. This means transforming our infrastructure to support renewable sources of energy, preserving what little biodiversity we have left, and engaging in a global remediation project to possibly reverse some of the effects of climate change. On the international stage, the United Nations needs to establish a system that is in charge of regulating multi-national corporations and holding them accountable for instances of human rights violations, such as exploitation and environmental racism, and propose an environmental rights charter in the same way we have charters on civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), like Amazon Watch, are bringing attention to the exploitations and environmental degradations of the Amazonian Rainforest, and its impact on the local residents. Supporting such organizations can be a start. We can also pressure our representatives and political leaders to vote on greener legislation and denounce subsidizing oil companies. Additionally, we can urge our lawmakers to help shift the society and economy to support a more sustainable future. This can only be done by holding policymakers accountable for their campaign donations, urging them to refuse campaign funding from Big Oil companies, which can influence their loyalties on policy positions. We also need to be in favor of bettering our infrastructure and public transportation systems. Doing so would allow us to be less reliant on oil and gas for private consumption while improving our public transportation systems to provide better access to all those living on the outskirts. On the state and local levels, we can pressure our school boards to include teaching environmental science in the core curriculums. Doing so would introduce younger generations to living more sustainable lives, and in the process, establish the global realities and consequences of anthropogenic climate change. There also needs to be more discussion about instances of environmental racism and how best to combat it with social policies. Finally, if you want to make personal changes to your lifestyle instead, you can do your part by paying attention to what’s going on around you. You can stand up for the plight of those who are being forced to deal with environmental racism by educating your friends and family. Also, you can make incremental changes to your behavior to transition your lifestyle into a greener, sustainable one.
Activists come in many forms. An activist can be defined roughly as “one who advocates or practice activism : a person who uses or supports strong actions (such as public protests) in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue“. Activists may be seen as nuisances or annoyances to society at large, but their perseverance as changemakers drive society forward by bringing attention to the real issues that affect marginalized groups within our society. Alabama, a southern state with a rich and diverse history, has produced many an activist. There are a multitude of reasons for this, including Alabama’s long history of racial injustice and other issues which affect the working class. Alabamian activists include titans of American history such as Rosa Parks, famous civil rights activist, and Hellen Keller, author and disability rights activist. Despite Alabama’s current national reputation as a backwards and deeply conservative state, many Alabamian activists are fighting the deep inequality still present in our state. One such activist is Catherine Coleman Flowers, who came upon the defining issue of her advocacy “by accident”.
Crisis in Lowndes County
In the early 2000s, Flowers was working as an economic consultant in Lowndes County, Alabama. Lowndes County is a historically black county in rural Alabama, and was part of the route during the historic civil rights march between Selma and Montgomery in 1965. Visiting with some of her constituents over threats of eviction and arrest, Flowers was shocked to find “a stream of brown fluid flowing down the road…a pool of dark foul-smelling effervescent water that had collected around a pipe running from the church” that she was visiting. She quickly discovered that Lowndes County, deeply entrenched in generational poverty and harsh neglect from local officials, had a severe lack of public sanitation. Flowers was shocked to discover that the burden of sanitation needs fell on residents, and private septic tanks were often beyond the means of Lowndes County residents. In what she later came to call “America’s dirty secret”, Flowers was seeing that basic sanitation was not a guarantee for all citizens in the wealthiest nation in the world.
As Flowers continued her work, she came across more and more violations of human dignity. She spoke with the mother of an autistic child who was being threatened with jail time because she did not have a septic tank, though the cost of installation was more than ten times that of her monthly income. Other families she spoke with had no proper air conditioning or heating systems, and would huddle together in the winter time to keep warm. After one house call in which she came in close contact with an open septic pool filled with mosquitoes, Flowers developed a severe rash over her entire body, and she began to wonder if tropical diseases, which are considered extremely rare in the United States, may be affecting people in Lowndes County.
Over twenty years into her fight, Flowers has still not seen the changes she has been fighting for across America. Figures from 2021 state that over 90% of Lowndes County residents still do not have access to proper sanitation. Flowers has also seen the issues of environmental justice extend beyond even Alabama or the southern United States, seeing issues in all American locales where poverty and public neglect continue to coexist. Despite this, Flowers continues to advocate for the rural poor across America. The beginning of the 2020’s decade has been marked with cautious optimism, as day one of the Biden administration saw several executive orders aimed at reversing the Trump administration’s anti-environmental legacy.
Pretty blue skies, fluffy white clouds, majestic mountains breaking through the clouds, birds chirping in the morning fog, the wind blowing your hair gently as you breathe in the fresh, clean air, looking out at the rising sun with its golden rays illuminating the landscape. This is the Earth you and I are used to, and at times, we, as human beings, take it for granted. Yet, we seldom think about the realities and consequences behind our lifestyles, and we seem to think that this planet with all its vast resources will be around forever. Recent studies have projected that this is not going to be the case; in 2019, the UN urged that we only had “11 years left to prevent irreversible damage,” at a general assembly meeting on climate and sustainable development.
I have now been researching and learning about the current climate crisis we live in for at least a couple of years, and I feel that environmental racism and the right to environmental justice are topics more people should be aware of. The uniqueness of this planet and all of its species should be preserved and protected for our future generations. For all the human rights issues we are trying to tackle both domestically and globally, without a clean planet and a sustainable future to live in, things are only going to get drastically worse. Issues that we deal with today like conflicts over borders and resources will be amplified due to the climate crisis. The environment impacts every part of our lives, no matter where we live, and if we don’t act now, the future of humanity is at risk.
About a month ago, UAB hosted a panel discussion with fashionista, author, and activist Aja Barber, where she talked about how fast fashion and our consumer culture have impacted our environment and how the fashion industry exploits the most vulnerable people around the world. She recently wrote a book deliberating the intersectionality between the concepts of fast fashion, climate change, and colonialism, and after having a profoundly insightful discussion with her, I decided that I should do more to bring attention to the many ways our planet is being exploited by industries of all kinds.
So, in an attempt to bring more attention to the ongoing environmental crisis, I will be writing a series on topics related to environmental justice for the next few blogs, where I will be focusing on practices of environmental racism and the fight for environmental justice throughout the world. While this blog, focusing on fast fashion and climate change, will be the first in the series, I will also be writing about other industries (such as the oil industry and Big Tech), that have exploited both the planet’s resources and its people.
Fashion Through the Ages
Before we dig deep into the realities of fast fashion today, we must understand the historical context behind fashion as a whole. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, clothes were produced by hand, and with painstaking details that showcased the skillsets of the talented local seamstresses. These clothes were produced inside the home by the women (or the female servants) and in some cases, at small local workshops. Many of the rich fabrics like silk and satin were very expensive, and as a result, these fabrics could only be afforded by wealthy families. The access to fashion that we see today is largely indebted to the Industrial Revolution, which brought about new inventions that mechanized the process of making garments, which led to the rise in industries of fashion, like the textile industry. Although clothing manufacturing became easier and cheaper for mass consumption, the modern consumer culture was not introduced until the 1920s, when the American economy shifted to produce goods based on the demands of the market and it wasn’t until the 1960s, when the American middle-class was growing and demands for affordable goods increased, that the trends of fast fashion developed into the behemoth we know today. At this time, Americans were fighting for better working conditions, better wages, and to end child labor, and the exploitive nature of the massive industries was exposed by muckrakers and other activists. Corporations and industries, including the textile industry, were competing with a growing demand for cheap goods and wanted to continue to make their profits while refusing to compromise on their labor practices. So instead, they began the process of moving their manufacturing industries overseas, to nations in the Global South, to continue to sell their products at a low price while exploiting their workers abroad. Many of these textile factories exist in places like India, Bangladesh, China, and nations in Africa. As recently as 2020, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ethiopia is being sought as the new frontier for textile manufacturing. As the fashion industry encourages more fluctuations in the trends and styles of today, we as consumers continue to indirectly help perpetuate the industry’s exploitative behaviors with our purchasing habits. Before we examine the colossal impacts of fast fashion on the environment, we must take a closer look at some of the working conditions in these textile factories. Understanding the process of handling these fabrics and chemicals can help us comprehend the consequences to the workers’ health and the environmental consequences as a whole.
Textile Industries and Human Rights Violations Abroad
The industries of America that moved their businesses to other “developing” nations did so with clear intentions. While America had established labor laws that regulated worker safety in these factories and had passed a federal minimum wage, corporations decided to set up shop in countries that were struggling economically and had no real power to speak out against their practices. Textile companies, like other corporations, are forever looking for cheap labor, in order to sell their products for cheaper, competitive prices, and as a result, take advantage of the most vulnerable populations of the world. Knowing that they will work any job, no matter how taxing, no matter how dangerous it is, corporations that have factories in other nations will impose their expectations on the people, and if they get any opposition or are presented with unwanted regulations by the host nation, they just close up shop and move to another equally vulnerable country. This gives the corporations an immense amount of power over their workers, and as a result, puts the employees at the mercy of their employers.
The garment workers working in these textile industries are forced to work long hours (14-16 hours a day), in a toxic environment (both physically and psychologically), and get paid wages that are so low, that it is impossible to survive with these incomes. They seldom get any days off, and if the workers miss a day, they are easily replaced with another desperate worker in places with high unemployment rates. Garment workers also have to breathe in toxic chemicals they use to treat and dye the clothing, with poorly built buildings with little to no ventilation. Additionally, they are under the constant anxiety of being injured, either on the equipment or from accidental fires. Furthermore, the employees are seldom given timed lunch breaks, and many are forced to work without water or bathroom breaks. Even heartbreaking is the fact that in many of these host countries, child labor has not been outlawed. Many children end up working in these textile manufacturing factories, especially young girls. Unions are either unheard of or inaccessible to these workers, who are either threatened with their jobs or even face violence at the hands of their employers. Such working conditions not only lead to immense physical and psychological stress but can also cause a variety of health concerns, including respiratory issues and musculoskeletal disorders. These working conditions violate some of the most basic rights of the workers, as industries continue to exploit their employees for their own profit. However, their actions impact more than just their employees; they also contribute to the ongoing climate crisis.
As abysmal as the working conditions at many of these textile factories can be, they have equally atrocious environmental practices as well. The textile industry uses immense amounts of water in the process of producing clothing. This accounts for the growing process of cotton and other fabrics, as well as the water required in the actual production of the clothing. One person can basically have enough water to drink for over two years for the amount of water that goes into making one t-shirt. Many fabrics have microfibers in them, and over the years, washing these clothes can deliver microplastics into the oceans. Additionally, the toxic chemicals used to treat and dye the clothing is carelessly disposed of into rivers and streams, many of which are used by locals as drinking and cooking water, further adding to the health risks to the locals. This also has economic impacts, as locals are unable to use the polluted water for agricultural purposes, and the fishing industry is also severely impacted. People are also unable to use the polluted waters for recreational use, as swimming in polluted water can cause skin irritation and illness. Furthermore, the clothing industry is responsible for emitting 10% of the global carbon emissions each year.
Regretfully, these gross exploitations of humans and resources alike are even more wasteful than many are aware of. Devastatingly, around 85% of garments produced end up in landfills or destroyed. Many of these items are products that were never sold. Even more heartbreaking, the fabrics used to make over half of these clothes are nonrecyclable and end up adding to our growing plastic waste. Recently, when preparing for my interview with Aja Barber, I was made aware of the massive piles of clothes laid out in the Atacama Desert in Chile, where clothing both old and new, litter the landscape.
What Can Be Done About This?
On an international level, there needs to be an additional convention at the United Nations that is created to oversee the working conditions as well as the environmental impacts of multinational companies and industries that have businesses in more than one nation. This convention should be in charge of regulation and an avenue for workers to report any violations and seek help while working for these multi-national companies. It should also protect the environmental rights of the impacted locals. Unfortunately, this is out of reach for ordinary citizens, as this solution requires coordination and cooperation from multiple players on the global stage. On a more national level, we can pressure our politicians and government officials to denounce these exploitative practices and regulate overseas businesses through permits and contracts. We can also educate our peers and community members about the impact that their fashion choices are having on both the people who make their clothes as well as the environment as a whole.
There are also a few things that we as consumers have the power to do on a personal level. We can shop for functionality and use rather than shopping for each occasion. One simple rule you can use is the Thirty Wears Challenge. Ask yourself, “am I going to wear this piece of clothing at least thirty times?” If the answer is yes, buy it; if it’s no, put it back on the rack. Another thing you can do is go shopping at thrift stores and yard sales. These are clothes that you are recycling, from one person’s closet to yours, instead of buying new clothes every time you shop. If enough people do this, you can also participate in boycotting fast fashion trends, and instead incentivize the fashion industry to produce clothing that lasts, instead of making clothing that is cheap and easily damaged. Another thing you can do at home is if you have any clothes that are torn a little, but if sown back together, can be work, you should try to learn to make simple stitches. Learning to mend your own clothes can prevent you from having to purchase more clothes, saving you money, and you might even end up doing it as a hobby! Finally, you can purchase clothing from local designers instead of supporting massive fast-fashion corporations. Incorporating some of these sustainable practices into your shopping routines can influence the fashion industry to incorporate more ethical labor and environmental practices.
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