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

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

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

Planting Trees to Save the World

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

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

Europe’s Pollinator Highway

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

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

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

Virtual/Hybrid Conferences and Climate Change

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

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

Nature’s Right to Exist

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

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

The Fight for Humanity’s Future

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

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

 

A Wonderful World Withering Away: A Global Fashion Emergency

I wanted to include this image to portray what we have to loose if we don't fight to stop climate change.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting a beautiful sunrise over the mountains and trees

A note about Environmental Justice

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

I wanted to include this image to showcase that these horrid conditions existed in the US, along with child labor, until regulations were passed, outlawing child labor and improving working conditions.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of a young girl working in a textile factory. Pictures like this taken by Lewis Hine helped make the case for child labor laws.

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

I wanted to include this image to showcase the low wages that textile workers receive for their work, while the products they produce sell for prices almost 100 times more than their wages. These profits end up in the pockets of the company leaders.
Source: Yahoo Images; Two young women wearing similar outfits holding signs, one with a sign that says, “I made this for $0.60”, and the other holding a sign that reads, “I bought this for $50.”

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.

I wanted to showcase some of the working conditions of garment workers.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting garment workers at sewing machines.

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.

Environmental Consequences

I wanted to use this image to showcase the various types of pollution that results as a consequence of the textile industry.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image demonstrating some of the environmental impacts of industry.

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?

I wanted to include this image to show that young people are taking climate change seriously, and are attempting to bring more attention to the crisis as a whole.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of some protesters against environmental pollution

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.

Human Rights in the Appalachian Region of the United States of America: an introduction

People living in the Appalachian region of the United States have been victims of a number of failures to protect their basic human rights since at least the nineteenth century. As a result, in nearly every measurable socioeconomic category, the Appalachian region lags behind the rest of the United States in development, or even shows signs of decline. This, in combination with their remoteness and social isolation, has led to a remarkably divided society evidenced over the last hundred or so years. Outdated and incorrect perceptions of the Appalachian people have led to antagonism and a struggle to implement democratic institutions that protect some of America’s most vulnerable populations.

The Appalachian mountains in the Eastern United States extend across thirteen states and are home to over twenty-five million people. Appalachia struggles with problems typical of rural poverty: social stratification, unemployment, lack of social services, poor education, and poorly developed infrastructure. The Appalachian region, and its perceived separateness from the rest of the Eastern and Southern United States, is especially relevant in contemporary times of remarkable social division. Healthcare disparities, income inequality, and extensive exploitation of Appalachian communities by outside corporations have all contributed to distrust and frustration among their inhabitants. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a large number of Appalachians sold their rights to land and minerals, leading to a massive disparity in ownership and control of the land. Ninety-nine percent of the residents of Appalachia control less than half of the land — despite the area’s vast natural resources, inhabitants remain poor (Hurst).

The Appalachian region has had a higher poverty rate and a higher percentage of working poor than the rest of the nation since at least the 1960s, in addition to low wages, low employment rates, and low-quality education. To address this, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) was established in 1965, as a joint effort of ten governors of Appalachian states seeking federal government assistance. Still, by 1999, nearly twenty-five percent of the four-hundred twenty counties in the region qualified as “distressed”, the ARC’s lowest status ranking. Fifty-seven percent of adults in central Appalachia did not graduate high school, compared to less than twenty-percent for the rest of the United States. According to ARC, thirty-three percent of Appalachians suffer from poverty and their income was twenty-three percent lower on average than the level of American per capita income. There has been some improvement, however, with levels of economic distress reaching lows not seen since before the recession in 2007 (ARC.gov).

graph of distressed counties in appalachia
Number of distressed counties in Appalachia by year

In addition to economic inequalities, political inequalities are present in Appalachia. Racial divisions have often been stoked to divide workers and pit races against each other. During Reconstruction, the period after the American Civil War in which Southern states were radically reformed, coal corporations discouraged education and civic action, forcing workers to become indebted to company stores, live in company housing, and generally become vulnerable to their employers. Community members regularly experienced punishment as a reprisal for speaking out against their employers. In his study of culture and poverty in Appalachia, Dwight Billings suggests that this has resulted in a fatalistic attitude in the Appalachian people, based on a history of political corruption and disenfranchisement, leading to a sense of powerlessness.

The plight of the Appalachian people is deeply ingrained in me and will remain always of academic and personal interest. My own paternal kin originally settled in the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina after arriving in America. As far as we can tell, my ancestors passed through the Cumberland Gap in the mid-eighteen-hundreds or earlier, finally homesteading in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains on Sand Mountain, in northeast Alabama. On the other side of my family, my maternal ancestors shared many of the same challenges living as sharecroppers and later as miners in north-central Alabama. Eventually, both sides of my family came to work in blue-collar industrial jobs in mining and steel-work, industries that would become encumbered by the same failures, oppression, and corruption that were endemic in their Appalachian cousins.  My great-grandfathers and my paternal grandfather were heavily involved in the labor movement in the American South and leaders of rights-protecting unions, such as the United Mine Workers of America and United Steelworkers, even as those same unions fell into disorder and ineffectiveness.

My research has indicated that one of the best ways we could better protect workers and their human rights would be to focus on the renewal of unions in the Southern and Appalachian Regions of the United States. Unions have been shown to raise wages, reduce wage inequality, and protect rights for workers. Higher rates of unionization and collective action generally tends to be an indicator for greater respect of human rights in industry. After declining membership from its peak in 1954, a once-thriving union movement had shrunk to nearly a third of its size by the turn of the 21st century.

graph of union membership
Union membership in the US, 1930-2010.

Corresponding with this drop in membership, middle class incomes shrank accordingly. The Labor Department did report the first increase in union memberships in twenty-five years in 2007, which was also the largest increase since 1979, but it appears that this was a short-term gain in the larger scheme of things. Taking a broader look shows that from 1983, union membership has been on a steady decline.

chart of union membership
Union membership by category, 1983-2018

One silver lining is that there seems to be a slight turning of the tide among women and Black people, whose membership in unions is stabilizing at least, if not increasing slightly. If unions are meant to preserve and protect the rights of workers, it should inspire some optimism that some of the most vulnerable workers, BIPOC and women, are seemingly joining unions at higher rates than other demographics.

In a series of blog posts for the Institute for Human Rights, I will explore some of these challenges with which the Appalachian region are faced — workers’ rights challenges and the possibility of renewal for unions, socioeconomic disparity and the ensuing human rights failures in the region, and the political inequalities that are especially present in the region. In my next post, I will tell the story of the Battle of Blair Mountain, and describe the ways corporations have exploited workers and prevented unionization in the past. We will analyze how these barriers affect workers’ rights in some of the most vulnerable populations in America.

References:

  1. Hurst, Charles. (1992). Inequality in Appalachia. Social Inequality: Forms, Causes, and Consequences, 6th Edition. Pearson Education. pp 62-63.
  2. Speer, Jean Haskell (January 1, 2010). “Appalachian Regional Commission”. Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Nashville: Tennessee Historical Society and University of Tennessee Press.
  3. Denham, Sharon. Mande, Man. Meyer, Michael. Toborg, Mary. (2004). Providing Health Education to Appalachia Populations. Holistic Nursing Practices 2{X)4:I8(6):293-3O1.
  4. “ARC History”. Arc.gov. Appalachian Regional Commission. Retrieved July 12, 2020.
  5. Duncan, Cynthia Mildred. (1999). Civic Life in Gray Mountain. Connection: New England’s Journal of Higher Education & Economic Development, Vol. 14, Issue 2, Retrieved July 12, 2020.
  6. Billings, Dwight. (1974). Culture and Poverty in Appalachia: a Theoretical Discussion and Empirical Analysis. Social Forces vol. 53:2. Retrieved July 12, 2020.
  7. Madland, Walter, and Bunker, “As Union Membership Rates Decrease, Middle Class Incomes Shrink.”, AFL-CIO, May 24, 2013.
  8. Freeman, Sholnn (January 26, 2008). “Union membership up slightly in 2007; Growth was biggest in Western states; Midwest rolls shrank with job losses”. The Washington Post. p. D2