Why Car Overreliance is a Human Rights Issue

By Lexie Woolums 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Rise of the Automobile 

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

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

 

Pollution, Human Health, and Small Business 

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

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

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

 

Urban Sprawl 

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

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

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

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

 

Connection to Human Rights Domestically 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Human Rights Violations in Congo 

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

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

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

 

Moving Forward 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What can we do? 

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

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

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

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

 

A Final Note 

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

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

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

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

Factors Affecting Poverty in Alabama

by Jordan Price

A child with no shoes, pink pants, and a light pink jacket sits on a red, blue, and yellow hard plastic toy. She is in a backyard surrounded by gray dirt, trash, and other junk. Her face is dirty, and her hair is messy.
Financial stress in the home can have negative psychological effects on young children. Source: Yahoo Images

One day, in the cafeteria of my small-town Alabama high school, my friend asked if I could sneak some extra snacks from the cafeteria as I went through the line, “Anything that I can put in my backpack for later.” I wondered why her question was asked so defeatedly but brushed it off as her just wanting some extra Rice Krispies treats. So I hid an extra snack in my pocket and grabbed a banana that I knew I wasn’t going to eat. As we sat down, she reached deep into her pockets and pulled out packs of carrots, an orange juice, two Rice Krispies treats, and an apple, quickly shoving it all in her backpack. I handed her what I had gotten and I didn’t ask any questions. This went on for the rest of the semester and it gradually became clearer that her love for Rice Krispies was not the driving force. Her mom had lost her job, and she had suddenly been hit with something that over 16% of Alabamians are facing: poverty

In this article, I will lay out some aspects of Alabama’s society based on my research that may correlate to the economic disparity of the state. 

Cultural Emphasis on the Free Market

Because of the biodiversity of the state and the emphasis on agriculture, many people have found success and stability in small-scale agricultural labor. When the main means of production in a community are small, family-owned-and-operated farms, most people in society have access to the means of production. Small farmers tend to pay their workers well and keep prices fair in order to compete with the many other small farms. Customers are willing to pay a fair price for the products because they trust that it is good quality due to the competition. This is how many communities in rural Alabama have historically operated, and it has fostered a strong sense of hospitality and community. This research from Auburn University in 1987 shows the cultural perception of farming and agriculture in Alabama at that time. Many people supported small family farms over larger, more industrialized farms. Many of these small farms were focused on manual, hands-on labor, wherein the employees worked closely with the means of production and saw the outcomes of their labor. This is why many people in the South hold onto values of a completely free market, with little regulations on employment, wages, and worker protections. When I mention the “shift in the industry,” I am referring to the shift from hands-on labor working directly with the Earth’s resources to more industrialized factory work and white-collar office jobs. 

When the means of production become larger and farther removed from the laborers, this type of economic setup becomes an issue. The shift in industries in which Alabamians make money has privatized the means of production and reduced competition. People now are more likely to work indoors in offices, factories, and businesses, far removed from the means of production of the goods and services that they facilitate. This shift has led to many of the problems of an industrialized unregulated system to show themselves in the economic struggles of Alabamians. Employers are farther removed from their employees, meaning they are less likely to directly see all of the work being done by them. Also, under an industrialized free market, salary and wages are often set by huge company employers with little to no competition. Many people must accept these lower wages or be unemployed, making no wages. This is not to say that the free market is necessarily bad. In many ways, Alabama still relies on small businesses and agriculture. There are many ways in which the free market is fundamental to the rights we enjoy, but when a market like this gets into the hands of greedy employers with little regulations on the minimum wage and maximum workload they can give to their employees, it can be used to contribute to the economic struggles of the working class.

Cardboard boxes full of bright orange peaches sit on shelves. The boxes read "Headley's Big Peach. Chilton County I-65 Exit 212. Located under Alabama's largest peach." There is a sign saying, "$9.99 per box, Do not mash on peaches."
In Chilton County, where I am from, the economy still relies heavily on farming, particularly peaches, which play a huge role in the culture of the county. Farming in Chilton County still maintains many of the good qualities that I mentioned in the first paragraph of this section. Source: Yahoo Images

In Alabama, many people have the attitude that if they earn their money or belongings through work, then they deserve to hoard all of the benefits of it. The “bootstraps” view of work is heavily valued in Southern culture, which has its benefits, but ultimately fails to bring fair wages and labor conditions to the middle class post-industrialization. By the “bootstraps” view of work, I am referring to the saying that one can or should “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” when they are of lower economic class. This promotes the idea that working hard is the best way to move up in one’s socioeconomic class; however, people can be of lower economic class for a multitude of reasons, not limited to merely work ethic. This view of work rarely has the intended effect in industrialized fields. It also often excludes people with disabilities whose work opportunities are limited. Watch this Tedx Talk, where Antonio Valdés explains the logistical issues with this view and the statistics surrounding the issue. Additionally, in a strictly free-market worldview, it is often hard to justify social welfare programs, since funding for them must come from the hard-earned tax dollars of people who claim that they deserve their money, and go to people who they claim do not. Although this view does encourage people to work hard and pull their own weight in society, this system can often be manipulated to benefit a few people while pushing a large portion of the population underneath the poverty line. 

Education 

Another factor that is affecting the wealth of Alabamians is the education system. Alabama consistently ranks in the bottom half – mostly in the bottom 10 – of states in every area regarding education. This article puts some numbers to these statistics. There is no doubt that education correlates to economic mobility, and the education that Alabama students are receiving does not prepare them to compete in a national – much less international – job market. With the industrialization of the workforce, it is important that Alabama puts more resources into improving the quality of our education system if we want to grow economically. 

During my research, I came across an article titled Alabama’s Education System was Designed to Preserve White Supremacy – I Should Know. It explains the history of the education system of Alabama and how – rather than designing schools for students to flourish through knowledge – the designers of the system were preoccupied trying to push a white supremacist political agenda. Effects of this can still be found in Alabama’s K-12 education system today, making Alabama school history and social studies curriculum a battleground of political ideologies rather than a place where children can gain a better understanding of their society. I highly recommend giving this article a read, as it was incredibly informative and helpful in my understanding of the pitfalls of the education system in which I was raised. 

Slavery, Segregation, and Civil Rights

For many of its first decades, Alabama’s economy was fully held up by unpaid enslaved Black laborers. The soil in this region was the perfect conditions for cotton to be grown, so cotton, along with tobacco, were the main crops that were produced by these laborers. Once the Emancipation Proclamation was carried out in Alabama, the economy took a big hit. Rather than blaming themselves for not working “labor wages” into their finances, plantation owners blamed the formerly enslaved people for not working for free anymore. Slavery grounded our state’s history directly into the soil of race-based hatred, prejudice, and power imbalances from which we have never recovered. Segregation immediately followed emancipation and lasted for 91 years. Following this, Alabama was a significant site for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. In Selma, an event called Bloody Sunday occurred when a group of police officers used whips, clubs, and tear gas to attack protesters. In Montgomery, Rosa Parks notably refused to give up her seat to a white man, for which she was arrested. In Birmingham, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” one of the most famous pieces of writing from this movement. Still today, Alabama is one of the most socially segregated states in the United States. 

Two similar emblems, each centering a black and white drawing of a rooster with a banner above and below. The banner above the first says, “white supremacy” and below, “for the right.” The banner above the second says, "Democrats" and below says, "for the right."
The emblem on the left served as the official emblem for the democratic party of Alabama from 1904-1966, appearing on all ballots, official government materials, and some government buildings. In 1966, they switched to the emblem on the right. Important note: the parties switched sides in the 1970’s, so the democratic party for which this emblem stood is now called the republican party. Source: Yahoo Images

It is unsurprising that a state so steeped in racism would have such a large percentage of people in poverty. When entire groups of people live in an area but cannot work certain jobs, access an equal education, earn equal wages, or make big purchases, the entire area suffers. Economies are reliant on the ability of people to participate in them, which is the reasoning behind stimulus checks. If people don’t, or can’t, make or spend money, a free-market economy will not be strong. Not only are people of color in Alabama denied from higher-paying jobs at a much higher rate, but when they do get these jobs, they are often paid significantly less than their white counterparts. This economic inequality leaves entire communities impoverished, more likely to find themselves without a house, and more likely to commit petty crimes for survival. This creates a harsh cycle of poverty, imprisonment, and stereotyping that is incredibly difficult to escape. 

Mass Incarceration

All it takes is a quick search on the Institute for Human Rights Blog to see just how many posts have been written about Alabama’s prison system. Anybody unaware of the prison crisis would think that we are beating a dead horse. They would be shocked to hear about the horrors occurring in prisons right down the road from where many of these posts were written. Maybe then, they would understand why we write so much. Because of the wealth of information on this topic, I will link a few articles written by my colleague Kala Bhattar here if you would like to learn more:

The Ongoing Alabama Prison Crisis: A History

The Ongoing Alabama Prison Crisis: From the Past to the Present 

 

It is not a stretch to link mass incarceration to poverty. Recidivism rates (the rate at which people who have spent time in prison return to prison) are high in Alabama. Roughly 29% of people released from prison re-offend within the first three years. The Alabama government seems to attribute this statistic to these people being morally depraved, that they are just “bad people” (whatever that means) rather than to the fact that their needs are not being provided for. The classic example of the link between poverty and crime is a parent stealing bread to feed their family, when the only other option is to go hungry. Technically, stealing is a crime, but most people would agree that the parent who steals bread for their kids should not be punished as harshly as someone who steals for other, more selfish reasons. Of course, poverty does not totally excuse or account for all crime, but there is no doubt that necessity mitigates moral culpability.

A graphic labeled “Incarceration Rates: Comparing Alabama and Founding NATO Countries.” The graphic is made of 13 horizontal bars representing the number of people per 100,000 that are incarcerated in each place. The first two bars, representing Alabama and the United States, are so long that they extend outside of the graphic. The specific numbers per place are as follows: Alabama - 938. United States - 664. United Kingdom - 129. Portugal - 111. Canada - 104. France - 93. Belgium - 93. Italy - 89. Luxembourg - 86. Denmark - 72. Netherlands - 63. Norway - 54. Iceland - 33.
Alabama has a seven times higher incarceration rate than any founding NATO country, excluding the United States. Source.

This is not an extensive list of reasons why Alabamians are having the amount of economic struggles that they are having. Some others include: political polarization, excessive legal fines and fees, the fentanyl and opioid crisis, and the social disenfranchisement of pretty much every minoritized group. As an Alabamian, it is incredibly upsetting to see my state fall short in so many ways. It often feels like there is not much to be proud of, but it is important to remember that pride in one’s homeland does not mean blindly defending everything about the state. Pride in one’s homeland comes from genuinely caring for the communities that live here, criticizing the government when warranted, and guiding the culture to a more harmonious place. And caring, criticizing, and guiding is what we will do until our state sees better days. 

Antisemitism: From the Bubonic Plague to the COVID-19 Pandemic

The prevalence of Antisemitism in the modern world is frequently discounted. When someone refers to antisemitism, it is common for your first thought to be about the Holocaust. While Holocaust education remains important, we should also remain aware of the more current acts of antisemitism. Antisemitism is “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews”. This can be manifested in many ways, both rhetorical and physical. Awareness is the first step to action, and if you discount the claims and stories of those being affected by antisemitism, you can’t contribute to the solution, and are, frequently, contributing instead to the problem.

 

It is worth noting that this post is based on a US context, as it would be difficult to capture the international nuances of antisemitism in one blog post.

 

Many people carrying signs stating “Zero Tolerance For Antisemitism.” Source: Yahoo Images
Many people carrying signs stating “Zero Tolerance For Antisemitism.” Source: Yahoo Images

 

 

 

History of Antisemitism

            Antisemitism stems back to before the Middle Ages. During the 14th century, people commonly accused Jewish people of causing the Bubonic Plague. Claims revolved around the (false) idea that Jewish people were poisoning drinking wells to spread the disease farther and faster. Centuries later, after World War I, it was common for German military leaders to perpetuate the idea that Jewish people had betrayed the country and that they were the reason that Germany lost the war. This, along with people’s need to focus on one group to blame, allowed Hitler and his supporters to rise through the ranks of German politics by claiming that the way to make the country strong again was to exterminate the Jewish people residing within the borders. These brutal opinions and stories all string together, resulting in major antisemitic events, such as the Holocaust.

 

Image of an open area in the United States Holocaust Museum. The walls are made of red brick and the ceiling is an open window. Source: Yahoo Images.
Image of an open area in the United States Holocaust Museum. The walls are made of red brick and the ceiling is an open window. Source: Yahoo Images.

 

Antisemitism Today

The COVID-19 pandemic left millions dead in its wake; deaths brought on both by the illness as well as the societal changes that it caused. Jewish people were not blamed for the pandemic like they were in the 14th century, but a rise in antisemitism online made it more accessible to the average person. As opposed to the very beginning of the 21st century, now people can connect with those who share their opinions—no matter how hateful those opinions may be. This makes it much easier for people to validate their beliefs, instead of being contradicted by those who won’t stand for hates towards Jewish people, they nestle away in communities that share their hateful sentiments.

Social media does not just provide opportunities for individuals to group together and relate, it allows social media companies to potentially profit from hate-based searches. YouTube is the greatest culprit of this issue, as it runs ads directly before videos championing white supremacist and antisemitic groups. YouTube also generates channels for musical artists or other forms of media with “significant presence.” These generated channels have included heavy metal artists with a history of antisemitism and white supremacy, as well as video games with similar ideologies.

The rise of antisemitism online correlates with the increase of physical attacks against Jewish people. Data was collected by the Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry (CSCEJ), and this tells us that in New York alone, there were 261 anti-Jewish hate crimes in 2022, 47 more than in 2021. These numerical trends follow in other major cities in the United States, with an increase in hate crimes in Los Angeles and Chicago. Nationwide, harassment towards Jewish people increased by 29% and vandalism by 51%. One striking statistic is that there were 91 bomb threats towards Jewish institutions. This is the largest number since 2017, and the CSCEJ makes it clear that there is no sign of these attacks abating any time soon.

 

Someone to Blame

All throughout time, people have looked for a person or a group to scapegoat. When troubles arise, it is easy to take the blame from yourself and put it onto a group you can look disdainfully on. Not only that, but people who feel like they are at the bottom of society’s pyramid are eager to look for those who are seen as worse off than them. In the case of antisemitism, there is an interesting contradiction of stereotypes. A more traditional take on hatred views Jewish people through the lens of white supremacy, for example, the Charlottesville riots in 2017. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some antisemitism perceives Jewish people as a privileged group, both in ethnicity and in class. This view of antisemitism views Jewish people are “part of the establishment”, and this stems from economic stereotypes about Jewish people controlling financial markets.

This duality contributes to the persecution of Jewish people from all directions.

 

 

Image of a crowd of Caucasian men protesting. They are carrying flaming torches, and it appears that they are shouting something. Source: Yahoo Images.
Image of a crowd of Caucasian men protesting. They are carrying flaming torches, and it appears that they are shouting something. Source: Yahoo Images.

 

 

Creating Change

To eradicate antisemitism, there are things that must be done on both small and large scales. While you likely don’t have direct access to government policy and law enforcement, there are things that you can do as an everyday citizen to help Jewish communities. The first thing you can do is be aware of the hate that happens online. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has a great resource that helps you report antisemitism in the most effective way. Reporting actions you see in person is just as important as reporting online hate. Report antisemitism directly to the ADL as well as your local law enforcement to prevent antisemitic harassment or to help those who have been harassed receive justice. In a more policy-oriented approach, you can sign petitions that will encourage Congress to enact laws that will protect Jewish communities.

To those who do have access to a greater platform, mandates for public reports are imperative. Public reporting on hate, violence, and other antisemitic issues would bring awareness to the issues so often not brought to justice due to either the stigma of reporting or the fear that said reports will not be handled appropriately. Large-scale changes in education would also benefit Jewish communities in the United States. Educational standards need to include a Holocaust education curriculum, as well as Anti-Bias education.

It is vital that we empower ourselves and our communities to directly fight against antisemitism. And education is the first critical step. Listen to Jewish voices in your community so you know best how to create active change. Unlearn the prevalent stereotypes against Jewish people that have been surrounding you since before your grandparents were born, and continue working every day to beat the bias that has been instilled in you.

 

International Day of Science and Peace

by Wajiha Mekki 

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

History of IDSP

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

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

 

ISDP 2023

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

 

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

Science and Human Rights

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

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

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

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

How Countries Can Get Involved

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

 

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

How Citizens Can Get Involved

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

 

Environmental Rights = Human Rights: Air As a Human Right

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

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

The Right to Clean Air and the Consequences of Air Pollution

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

Layers of the Atmosphere 

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

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

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

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

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

Greenhouse gases, air pollution, and global warming

An infographic explaining the treehouse effect
Source: Yahoo Images

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

Sources of Air Pollution and Their Health Impacts

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

Anthropogenic (caused by humans) Source

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

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

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

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

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

Natural Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human Rights Approach to Air

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juneteenth – What It Is and Why We Should Celebrate It

Alt text: A sign that reads “July 4th” with a line through it, scratching it out, and instead, with “JUNETEENTH is my independence day” written on it to bring attention to the inequality that continued to exist in America and the hypocrisy of the “freedom for all” phrase in the Constitution during its conception, when it did not apply to everyone.
Image 1 – Source: Yahoo Images

Juneteenth has been historically celebrated by many Americans since the late 1860s, yet it is only recently that it has become mainstream. Today we focus on why that is, what Juneteenth celebrates, and how we can do a better job incorporating this holiday into our lives.  Although it has been around for so long, Juneteenth was only recognized as a federal holiday on June 19th, 2021, following the summer protests of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the brutality experienced by George Floyd at the hands of the law enforcement system.  June 19th, or Juneteenth as it is known widely by those who have celebrated it since its founding, is the day we commemorate the abolition of slavery in America, freeing enslaved African Americans through the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment.

History of Juneteenth, The Emancipation Proclamation, and The Thirteenth Amendment

Alt text: An illustration depicting a chain that has been sliced in half, with the words, “JUNETEENTH, June 19, 1865 – Galveston, Texas” written between the two halves of the broken chain, representing freedom for all enslaved people.
Image 2 – Source: Yahoo Images

The Civil War was one of the bloodiest wars that Americans have ever fought, and it lasted four long years. The war was between the Union, which was made up of much of the northern states above the Mason-Dixon Line, and anyone below that line seceded from the main country and swore loyalty to the Confederacy. The Mason-Dixon line, which was passed in 1861, was designed to be a compromise that allowed Southern states to continue to use slave labor in the South in their fields and farms, while the Northern states were moving to abolish slavery within their boundaries. While the North depended on their seaports and industries, the South primarily produced the cash crops like cotton, rice, and indigo, that were being shipped across the oceans and transported by railroads across the lands. There were a few border states in the middle that did not want to give up slavery in their states. Lincoln, recognizing that he needed those states in the Union to have a chance to win the Civil War, permitted them to continue to use slavery while being a part of the Union.

In an attempt to change the course of the Civil War and keep the nation from breaking into two parts, President Abraham Lincoln wanted to weaken the Confederate forces so the Union forces could be victorious. This, he assumed, could be done by targeting the Confederacy’s economy and economic infrastructure, which at that time, was primarily dependent on slave labor. President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 as an executive order, freeing all the enslaved individuals in all Confederate states that did not yield to the Union troops. With the passage of this document, the South could no longer rely on unpaid labor, leaving them in financial turmoil and giving them no other option but to surrender to the Union troops. The document is largely believed to have abolished slavery entirely in America, but the reality is that this was a political move during a war by the President to ensure that the Southern economy would be devastated. This proclamation did not include the border states which were already part of the Union but were employing slavery in their states. This meant that the enslaved individuals in those border states continued to be enslaved. This proclamation also excluded those who lived in the southern states which had already surrendered to the Union, meaning that those who did not rebel against the Union were allowed to continue to use slavery as their economic system. What the Proclamation did, however, was transform the morality and cause for fighting the Civil War. The Civil War began over the question of whether slavery should exist or not, with the Vice President of the Confederacy delivering a speech declaring the sole purpose of secession to be the disagreement on slavery between the Union and the Confederacy.  However, to President Lincoln, being victorious meant keeping the nation intact, and the abolition of slavery was an aftermath. Once the Proclamation was passed, many Americans were convinced that the war was being fought for the abolition of slavery in its entirety in the United States. The Proclamation even gave way for newly freed African Americans to join the Union army and help liberate their brothers and sisters in the Confederate states.

While the Union’s victory was generally a good thing for the progress of America toward equality among all people as it was first outlined in the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation was not the document to achieve this goal. Although it changed the trajectory of the Civil War, transforming the initial cause to keep the nation united, into a moral cause of abolishing slavery, it was not until the Thirteenth Amendment was passed that slavery was truly abolished in all the states of the nation. This Amendment, which had followed the proper channels of the Legislative branch, was passed right after the Civil War ended, and right before the rebellious states were admitted back into the Union. On December 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment was officially ratified into the Constitution of the United States. Along with the Thirteenth Amendment, the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to all formerly enslaved individuals, and the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted suffrage rights to African American men, altogether addressed the Civil War’s conflicts, providing a final Constitutional solution to the issue of slavery in America.

So, where does the term “Juneteenth” come from? Although the Emancipation Proclamation had passed in 1863 and the Thirteenth Amendment had passed in 1864, it was not until two months after the Civil War had ended, that many of the enslaved individuals in most Southern states had been made aware of their free status. On June 19th, 1865, two thousand Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce the freedom of all who were enslaved there, and the newly freed African Americans coined the term “Juneteenth” to commemorate the day they received independence and could be truly free.

The Continued Struggle for Freedom and Equality

Alt text: An image with an American flag in black and white with an African American person walking across it in black and white stripes, with the words, “FROM SLAVE TO CRIMINAL WITH ONE AMENDMENT” reading across the top.
Image 3 – Source: Yahoo Images

The end of the Civil War, the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, were supposed to be the official end to slavery in America, but many scholars have pointed out that slavery only transformed into a modified system. These scholars highlight issues with the wording of the Thirteenth Amendment, which states that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The amendment abolished slavery in all instances, except as a punishment for crimes, and the Reconstruction Era, which followed the end of the Civil War, took advantage of the loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment. In the 1890s, legalized segregation became the new normal. The South had faced a lot of loss, both to its infrastructure as a result of the war, as well as its economy (primarily held up by slavery), due to the freeing of their enslaved laborers. Additionally, many white southerners also were not ready to accept the newly freed African Americans, who they did not view as equals.

The infamous Jim Crow laws were proposed as a solution to all of the White Southerners’ problems with the outcome of the war. These laws were made to criminalize as many newly freed individuals as possible, to re-enslave them in the prison systems, and force them to help rebuild the nation, as they had once done under slavery following the Revolutionary War. The Jim Crow laws criminalized such things as being unemployed, not bowing to white people while walking on the streets, drinking from a “Whites Only” water fountain, and many other harmless, everyday actions that displeased any white residents of the area. Many times, lies were told about African Americans simply to land them in prisons and put them to work. These laws were designed to be a criminalization of blackness.

Alt text: An image of the historical marker found at Sloss Furnaces regarding the racial terrorism and convict leasing that took place at the facility. It reads, “Thousands of black people were the victims of lynching and racial violence in the United States between 1877 and 1950. Lynching was a form of racial terrorism that went beyond only hanging, often including death by gunshot, burning, or mutilation. After the Civil War, violent resistance to equal rights for black people led to decades of racial subordination. Alabama’s mining industry, which relied on enslaved people’s labor since the 1840s, continued such abuse and exploitation after slaver was abolished. Southern legislators used a loophole in the 13th Amendment to pass laws to criminalize free black people as vagrants and loiterers. Local governments then sold incarcerated individuals to private and government entities for labor. Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Company used this practice of ‘Convict Leasing’ in Jefferson County, leasing predominantly black laborers to work at the Brookside and Coalburg mines died while working there. Without legal protections, black laborers, and black leaders of labor movements, were often terrorized to prevent them from challenging unjust and dangerous employment conditions. Although the names of many victims of racial terror are unknown, over 300 documented lynchings took place in Alabama, with at least 30 victims in Jefferson county.”
Image 4 – Source: Kala Bhattar; An image taken at Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, Alabama

This was also the time when Convict Leasing systems began, where imprisoned individuals would be leased to businesses and the state to work as laborers for whatever positions they needed to be filled. This could be working on farmlands, working with heavy machinery, or even in coal mines. Our own Sloss Furnaces, the famous Steel and Iron plant that transformed Birmingham from a small town into the large city it is today, made use of Convict Leasing as well. To read more about the history of the prison systems in America and in Birmingham, as well as details about the convict leasing programs, click here.

The exception in the Thirteenth Amendment has today led America to have the highest rate of mass incarceration in the world and has given way to the Prison Industrial Complex. America houses only about 5% of the world’s population, yet the mass incarceration rate is so large that 20% of the world’s prison population is made up of Americans alone. This is not only unjust, costly, and inefficient, it also shares its roots in the racist history of America’s founding. Many of those who end up in prison are disproportionately people of color, which speaks to the systemic racism present within our institutions. What’s worse, many of the people held in local jails have not even been charged with any crimes. They are awaiting their trial, too poor to post the high bail amounts. Still, others have lived out sentences for crimes they have never committed. This atrocious list goes on and on with injustices, yet a simple solution is to cut down on our incarceration rates. One reason why this is more than an issue of criminality can be determined by looking at the Angola Prison in Louisiana, a plantation farm that operates as a state penitentiary, with their prisoners in chains (like enslaved individuals of the past), officers on horseback (like overseers on the plantations), and the farmland that they are expected to till, harvest and package food for the rest of the community. Until white supremacy and racist ideology continue to exist in America, so too will these unjust forms of oppression, clouded by the legal cover provided to them by the justice system.

Alt text: An image depicting a line of inmates, all who look like they are people of color, each holding a shovel in hand walking in a line inside the penitentiary, as a white man rides on a horse away from them.
Image 5 – Source: Yahoo Images

These facts are bleak but necessary for everyone to understand, so as to be conscious of the continued struggle for true equality in this country for African Americans, and others who have dealt with oppression throughout the history of this nation. Many people think that slavery died following the Civil War, or that it was “more than 200 years ago, so what can we do about it?” Yet, the reality remains that slavery never died, but only transformed into a modern, industrialized version of the same system, which now incorporates a wider umbrella of people to oppress. Juneteenth is not only a celebration of the resistance, courage, and triumphs over oppression by people of our past, but also a day to come together and address the new forms of oppression we face in society today. It is a continuation of the legacy of freedom, equality, and justice started by those before us.

Importance of Juneteenth

Alt text: A collage of various African American historical figures, from Fredrick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Muhammad Ali and Louis Armstrong, Dr. King, Malcom X, to modern-day influencers such as Sidney Poitier, President Obama, Michelle Obama, and Oprah Winfrey. Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom, culture, heritage, ancestry, and the progress towards peace, equality, and justice.
Image 6 – Source: Yahoo Images

Juneteenth was officially recognized as a holiday in Texas, which was the first state to do so in 1979. It has recently been recognized as a federal holiday since 2021 after President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. Juneteenth is a day to celebrate the shared history of African Americans, but also the progress towards peace, freedom, equality, and justice. Fredrick Douglass, a famous orator, author, and abolitionist, in 1852, had famously asked his audience in a speech he delivered on July 4th, what Independence Day meant for those who were enslaved in America. Juneteenth is the true Independence Day for many people who recognize the hypocrisy of the Founding Fathers, who fought the Revolutionary War for “freedom” while enslaving African Americans and stealing lands from the Native Americans. Juneteenth is a time for the rejuvenation of culture among a group of people whose cultures were stolen from them, and all that they were left behind with are their shared ancestry and shared histories. This day is a day to instill a sense of community despite those hardships and losses. Juneteenth is also a time to reflect on the past, rejoice in the resilience and solidarity of those who fought for this freedom, and discuss current events and how to best approach them moving forward. Juneteenth is a day to learn from the past, live gratefully in the present, and prepare for the future.

How Is It Celebrated and Who Can Celebrate It?

Alt text: An image depicting a Juneteenth celebration with song and dance, in a celebration of cultural heritage.
Image 7 – Source: Yahoo Images

There are many ways to celebrate Juneteenth. Many cities hold parades and festivals, with local black-owned businesses and food trucks as vendors for the event. These events might include prominent guest speakers and workshops on various topics each year, based on the community’s needs and wants. Others celebrate the holiday by holding potlucks, family gatherings, and backyard barbecues for a more intimate celebration with family and friends. If you want to celebrate Juneteenth but are not comfortable engaging in community activities, there are many things you can do in the comforts of your home, or with friends and family members as well to honor this day. For one, you could learn about the history of Juneteenth. If you are reading this article, then good job, you are already celebrating it!

You can educate yourself about the history of slavery, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment, and any other topic that you might not be too sure about as it pertains to Juneteenth and why it is important to celebrate it. You can do this by going to a museum near you, like the Legacy Museum in Huntsville, which is a great historical walkthrough from the times of slavery to mass incarceration today, or the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which focuses on a detailed history of the Civil Rights movement that took place in the heart of Birmingham. You can watch a documentary about these topics, including “The 13th” on Netflix, which takes a deep dive into the loophole of the Thirteenth Amendment that gave rise to the mass incarceration crisis we face today. You can listen to a podcast, like “Deliberate Indifference“, a podcast by Mary Scott Hodgins that focuses on the local Birmingham history of policing and provides details about convict leasing practices in Alabama. You could read literature written by Black authors, whether they be informational, like “Medical Apartheid” by Harriet A. Washington, or fictional like the short story, “Recitatif” by Tony Morrison. You could support Black-owned businesses, locally or online, such as buying your books from a Black-owned bookstore or going out to eat at a Black-owned restaurant. You could educate others about the importance of Juneteenth, including your friends, family members, and even co-workers. As an ally, you can maybe pick up a shift for your Black friend who may want to celebrate Juneteenth with their family, or if you are someone in a supervisory position, you could give a Black co-worker the day off to celebrate Juneteenth. Encourage and empower your Black friends, family members, or co-workers, to feel comfortable to share their opinions and voice their concerns. You could even volunteer at any local Juneteenth event to help make the events successful!

Local Juneteenth Celebrations to Attend

Alt text: An image of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where they host a Juneteenth celebration every year, and spread the festivities to all in the Birmingham community. On their Juneteenth celebration day, admissions to the museum are free so that people in the community (and visitors from other places) can learn and appreciate the local Civil Rights history that took place in the heart of Birmingham.
Image 8 – Source: Yahoo Images; An image of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where they host a Juneteenth celebration every year, and spread the festivities to all in the Birmingham community. On their Juneteenth celebration day, admissions to the museum are free so that people in the community (and visitors from other places) can learn and appreciate the local Civil Rights history that took place in the heart of Birmingham

There are many local events that you can attend to celebrate Juneteenth in Birmingham, Alabama. Here are a few that might be of interest:

  • Juneteenth: The Cookout, hosted by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute on June 17, from 10 am-4 pm. There will be food trucks, live entertainment, a children’s village, tournaments, food competitions, genealogy workshops, and even a free tour of the museum!
  • Juneteenth Social is hosted by the UAB Black Alumni network at the Southern Kitchen Roof Top Bar on June 17th from 7 pm to 11 pm. Tickets are $25 each, and the proceeds go to the Kappa Delta Omega Psi Phi memorial scholarship for incoming African American Male students.
  • Second Annual Juneteenth Freedom Celebration, hosted by The Lifting As We Climb Foundation on June 18th, from 2 pm-9 pm at the Arlington Historic House in Birmingham. There will be food, fun, education, entertainment, and fireworks, and the tickets start at $20 for early bird tickets and $25 for general admissions. Bring small tents and lawn chairs, and be ready to eat from the food trucks on site.
  • Juneteenth in the Magic City 2023, hosted by Simone’s Kitchen ATL, on June 18, from 4 pm-10 pm at the Club M Compound. There will be food trucks, vendors, live bands, fireworks, African dances, and various other entertainment. Tickets start at $15 for Early Bird tickets and $20 for general admissions.
  • Juneteenth Pop Up Art Exhibit, hosted by Studio 2500 on June 16, at 6 pm for all the artistic, creative folks. Admissions start at $10 per person, children under 13 are free, and tickets can be purchased online at their website. They will have food, music, and an open mic, so bring lawn chairs and your own beverages, and take in the creations of our fellow Birmingham local artists and performers.
  • Juneteenth Open Mic is a virtual event being held on June 19th to highlight musicians, poets, hip-hop artists, and other Black artists who would like to participate. If you are a local artist and you would like to increase your followers, this is the event for you. If you just want to show up virtually to support local artists, you can do that to buy going to their website and purchasing tickets to vote. Tickets start at $10, whether you are performing, a part of the audience, or even a vendor. Again, this is a virtual event, so all you need is your laptop and internet!

However you choose to spend the day, make sure to be conscious of what Juneteenth represents to you and to those around you, and together we can actively, and intentionally work to make our world a better place for future generations!

 

The Parisian Protests

paris city hall
(source: yahoo images)

Perhaps, recently, you have seen TikToks, videos, or news broadcasts discussing the ongoing protests in Paris. If you are not sure what is going on, do not fright. In this blog, I will discuss this topic and hopefully help bring to light what the current French demonstrations mean.

What is Article 49.3?

The Arc De Triomphe
(source: yahoo images)

Before we can get to discussing the protests in Paris, we must first talk about a crucial fact about the protests: the fact that they started due to a feature of the French Constitution. Article 49.3 of the French Constitution, put lightly, allows the government to push through a piece of legislation without the approval of France’s lower house of parliament, the National Assembly.

This legal maneuver is completely legal and has been in practice since 1958, when it was introduced by Charles De Gaulle. Despite this, many French citizens see Article 49.3 as undemocratic. This is not a surprising assertion, as using Article 49.3 forgoes one of the most rudimentary components of democracy—votes. 

However, the government is not completely unchecked. After Article 49.3 is used, lawmakers who oppose the published legislation have 24 hours to file a no-confidence motion against the government. A one-tenth majority amongst the lawmakers in the lower house is required for the motion to go to the floor where it is debated. For the next couple of days, debate and voting about the bill will take place amongst the politicians.

For the no-confidence motion to succeed and reject the bill, it must get an absolute majority of votes. That is, more than half of the lawmakers must vote to reject the bill pushed forward by Article 49.3. If the motion does not get an absolute majority, the motion fails and the bill remains.

Notably, successful no-confidence motions are rare in France. The reasoning for this is that a successful no-confidence bill not only stops a bill from being enacted, but removes the Prime Minister and Cabinet from office (the president remains). Due to this, many lawmakers who are loyal to their higher-ups in government may hesitant in voting in favor of the no-confidence motion, as it will end up “toppling” the government. 

Interestingly, since Article 49.3 was legitimized in 1958, only one successful no-confidence motion has ever passed. It was in 1962.

The Protests

Paris in the summertime
(source: yahoo images)

Now that we have constructed an understanding of the French legal system, we can look into exactly what has sparked protests and how Article 49.3 was involved. 

On March 16, 2023, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, pushed a bill via Article 49.3 that raised the retirement age in France from 62 to 64. This sparked widespread protests in Paris, the capital of France, as citizens deemed this move by Macron to be undemocratic. Allegedly, Macron used Article 49.3 because he calculated that his bill would not pass if it went to the National Assembly. Interestingly, it has been reported that this move was an unprecedented move by Macron, as even members of his own party urged him not to invoke Article 49.3.

As has been aforementioned, after Macron’s move, citizens took to the streets of Paris and began protesting. Garbage fires, road blockages, and even graffiti were some of the things conducted by the protestors. In fact, the protests were so widespread at some point that visitors arriving at Charles De Gaulle, France’s biggest airport, were unable to order rides into the city as roads were blocked. 

Therefore, it ought not to be surprising that lawmakers instantly filed a no-confidence motion against Macron and his bill. However, after debate and deliberation, the no-confidence motion was unsuccessful, which falls aligns with the motion’s typical fate. On March 20th, the motion was voted on and only received 278 votes out of the 287 votes required to nullify the bill and unseat the government. 

Moving Forward

Louvre museum
(source: yahoo images)

What the failure of the no-confidence motion means, we have yet to find out. However, what we do know is that moving forward, the bill proposing the change in the retirement age from 62 to 64 will become law. Currently, protests are still ongoing in Paris. Whether or not they will continue, we have yet to find out. Moreover, what lawmakers will do about the fact that their constituents are protesting a bill is also unknown. 

However, this series of events in France has raised a meaningful question: how much authority do the people of a nation have over the government? Should the people dictate how the government is run? Does government reflect the people, or do the people reflect the government? 

Empirically, it seems that the majority of the French oppose this bill. Yet, despite this, it was not only enacted by their president, but it failed to be overturned by lawmakers. However, if there is one motif the French have instilled in history, it is the motif of representation of the people. One only needs to look to the French Revolution, and all of the many revolutions afterward, to be remained of the fact that the French take pride in their nationality, and will simply not rest until the government reflects the ideals of the people. 

Environmental Rights = Human Rights: Food As a Human Right

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

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

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

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

Food Insecurity

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

Community Gardens

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

Alternate forms of Agriculture – Hydroponics

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

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

Alternate forms of Agriculture – Aeroponics

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

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

Alternate forms of Agriculture – Aquaponics

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

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

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

Wasteful Practices – GMOs and Food Waste

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

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

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

Conditions in Meat and Dairy Farms

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

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

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

Food is a Human Right

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Source: Yahoo Images

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

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

Want to interact with NGOs? Here are some to consider!

 

the earth being held by hands
(source: yahoo images)

Naturally, many human rights violations and atrocities leave one wondering, “What can I do to ensure these violations do not happen again?” Unfortunately, however, many don’t know how to help to support human rights and a lot of information online is convoluted. This in turn causes charities and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which seek to promote humanitarian efforts, to often get overshadowed by bad news.

In this blog, I will share notable charities and initiatives that one could support in an effort to make a difference in the world. 

Human Rights Watch

logo of Human Rights Watch
(source: yahoo images)

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is an organization that investigates and reports on human rights violations and atrocities throughout the world. The advocacy of Human Rights Watch, as said by them, is directed towards “governments, armed groups and businesses, pushing them to change or enforce their laws, policies and practices.” 

Moreover, Human Rights Watch does not accept any sort of funding from the government or corporations, as they seek to remain unbiased and bipartisan. The organization is complied of over 400 lawyers and human rights experts, and they would be a great organization to help out with donations.

Human Rights Watch prides itself on its transparency in its affairs, and it was thus awarded the Guidestar Platinum Seal of Transparency, an award given by an organization that “gathers, organizes, and distributes information about U.S nonprofits in an effort to advance transparency, enable users to make better decisions, and encourage charitable giving.”

Moreover, if that was not enough to show you the commitment of Human Rights Watch, allow us to make note that in 1997, they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for helping create the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty — a piece  of legislation that brought about newfound protection to citizens from bombs which previously “killed and maimed indiscriminately.” 

Therefore, with all of the aforementioned facts in mind, donating to Human Rights Watch would be a sure way in bringing about change and ensuring that human rights violations get exposed, lessened, and stopped.

Amnesty International

logo of Amnesty International
(source: yahoo images)

Amnesty International is one of the most influential and famous nongovernmental organizations in the world. Amnesty International, simply put, could be defined by its mission statement: “[we are] a global movement of more than 10 million people who take injustice personally. We are campaigning for a world where human rights are enjoyed by all.” Amnesty International, like Human Rights Watch, is primarily funded by its supporters – not governments or political institutions.

Moreover, Amnesty International is both unbiased and bipartisan – they simply just seek to ensure all people enjoy human rights. Amnesty International functions by lobbying governments to ensure they keep their promises and passions for human rights; investigate and expose all violations that occur in the world, despite of where or what might have happened; and seek to educate and mobilize all people who wish to learn more about human rights.

Amnesty International was founded more than 50 years ago when the owner, Peter Benenson, saw two Portuguese students jailed for raising a toast to freedom in 1961. Since then, Amnesty International has been one of the most prominent and respected NGOs on the scene, and they have accomplished a lot. 

In just 2022 alone, Amnesty International has helped free individuals who were imprisoned unjustly and ensured that human rights abusers got locked up. Moreover, Amnesty International was a driving force behind the decriminalization of Abortion in Colombia. Needless to say, Amnesty International’s impact, passion, and dedication to human rights is incredibly influential, and donating to their cause would definitely help bring about good changes. 

Human Rights First

Egypt's desert mountains
(source: yahoo images)

Human Rights First (HRF) was established in 1978, with the mission of “[ensuring] that the United States is a global leader on human rights.” Human Rights First is centered in the United States, but it conducts a multitude of work abroad to ensure that “human wrongs are righted.” 

Human Rights First has been involved in a lot of international political affairs which sought to eradicate injustice and, as they put it, human wrongs. For instance, in 1988, Human Rights First initiated its Lawyer-to-Lawyer network, which was an initiative that helped ensure all lawyers that have been imprisoned unjustly internationally are released. As of now, the program has worked with over 8000 lawyers in over 130 countries. 

In addition to helping create the International Criminal Court, Human Rights First also helped establish the Fair Labor Association in 1999. This Association brought together over 60 major companies, such as Nike and Adidas, to help set workplace standards for industries throughout the world. In doing so, Human Rights First helped ensure that those who work for major international companies are not going to face hardships or disparity in their workplace environment. 

Human Rights First, in addition to all that has been mentioned, has been a major actor in the anti-torture movement. In 2009, Human Rights First stood beside President Obama when he signed the executive order banning all torture in the United States. Then, in 2015, Human Rights First sought to make Obama’s order even more powerful and impactful. After the release of the Torture Report, Human Rights First was able to gain public support and then work with Senators McCain and Feinstein to craft what they consider to be the “strongest anti-torture law in U.S. history.”

Needless to say, Human Rights First is an incredibly dedicated, driven, and successful organization, which has had years of successful changes in the world of human rights. You definitely would not go wrong by donating or supporting them. 

Summary

Beautiful nature scenery
(source: yahoo images)

In summary, human rights is a very complicated topic that is often convoluted and hard to understand through the media. Due to this, many do not always know what is the best way to donate and help out, despite wanting to. In this blog, I have listed multiple different organizations that have a proven history of success and change, and I thus hope to have made the process of getting involved in human rights easier. 

If more people are involved in human rights, more change will happen, and more people internationally will have access to these same rights. It is my hope that, one day, human rights will be as accessible to everyone on this planet as oxygen is. This will only happen with support, and that is exactly what I hope to have urged you to do in this blog — support the NGOs which fight for human rights. 

United States: The Case for Transitional Justice

“Statue of Lady Justice” Source: Jernej Furman via Flickr

Note from the Author: This blog was written to accompany the Social Justice Café Transitional Justice: Here & Now hosted by the Institute for Human Rights at UAB on Wednesday, November 30th at 4:00pm CST. At this event we will discuss a brief history of Transitional Justice in the United States and hold an open discussion about what it could look like in the home city of the Institute, Birmingham Alabama. You can find out more information and join the virtual event here. In this post, we will explore transitional justice in the United States. We will have another post on the international context of transitional justice. 

Transitional justice is a field of international justice that “aims to provide recognition to victims, enhance the trust of individuals in State institutions, reinforce respect for human rights and promote the rule of law, as a step towards reconciliation and the prevention of new violations” (OHCHR). Often referred to as TJ, transitional justice is a system of multiple mechanisms and processes that attempt to create stability and ensure justice and remedies for victims of oppression and human rights transgressions. Some of the most commonly used mechanisms of TJ are truth commissions (TCs), reparations, and trials of perpetrators.

In practice, transitional justice has often been restricted to nations following active conflict or repressive authoritarian regimes, otherwise known as transitional time periods. This traditional understanding of transitional justice is beginning to evolve as stable, established democracies like Canada and South Korea implement TJ mechanisms such as truth commissions and reparations to address and amend state-sponsored abuses of certain groups. As it evolves the international gaze has once again turned to the United States and the uncomfortable discussion about the historical and ongoing oppressions. This article intends to establish the historical basis of transitional justice in the United States and recent developments to encourage a conversation about acknowledgement, fact-finding, reparations, and justice in the land of the free.

Section 1: Historical Examples of Transitional Justice in the United States

With an international spotlight on the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States in 2020 came an increase in conversations about reparations to African Americans for the abuses of slavery, segregation, police brutality, prison labor, exclusion from housing and education and other forms of state-sponsored oppression that have proliferated for centuries. The discussion about the harms the American government has caused to Indigenous tribes, Alaskan Natives and people of Hawai’i, and other marginalized groups has been a matter of public discourse for decades. While the word reparations saturated international media, little attention was given to what reparations would truly look like, could look like, and examples of when the United States have provided reparations before. 

While the spotlight of this discussion about reparations is often on monetary forms, such as property, cash or pensions, transitional justice recognizes that reparations can and should come in many different guises in order to provide a more holistic and healing process for victims. Reparations are deeply context-specific, and should be tailored to the needs of the victim, nation, and individual circumstance. However, examples of other forms of reparations and TJ include official acknowledgements and apologies, funding of research to uncover facts and educate the public on the truth, providing education and/or healthcare to victims and their families, and preserving historical sights and monuments. Ultimately, they should be determined by and catered to the people involved. 

I have included both a brief infographic timeline and a more detailed look at a few examples of government-led transitional justice mechanisms in the United States below. It is important to note that, as many of these instances occurred prior to our modern definitions of transitional justice and reparations, this timeline encompasses cases of compensation which, under similar circumstances today, would likely be considered reparations, but were not explicitly intended as such at the time. The same goes for fact finding commissions that are analogous modern Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, though they lack that title. I have excluded instances of payments or acknowledgements being issued following a lawsuit through our judicial system, as well as instances of TJ being led by non-governmental entities like community organizations, charities or other non-governmental institutions.

Infographic by Maya Crocker for the Institute of Human Rights. Source: https://guides.library.umass.edu/reparations
  • President Lyndon B. Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, otherwise known as the Kerner Commission, in 1967. It was established to serve the purpose of a fact-finding mechanism akin to a Truth Commission today. The goal of the commission was to identify the causes of the violent race riots of 1967. While widely ignored, the Kerner Commission found that the root of the unrest were unequal economic opportunities, racism, and police brutality against minority racial groups in America. 
  • Following concentrated efforts from interest groups and international attention, the United States federal government committed to two massive examples of explicit transitional justice mechanisms in the 1980s for Japanese Americans that were interned by Executive Order 9066 during World War II. In 1980 President Jimmy Carter signed the  Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) into law, establishing a clear transitional justice mechanism (truth commission) at the national level. The CWRIC published the full report of their findings in February of 1983, and momentum from the commission persisted with the recommendations which were published in June 1983. The recommendations included an official apology, pardons for those convicted of violations of the executive order or during detainment, and the establishment of a federally funded foundation for research and education on the incident. 
  • Shortly after the results of the CWRIC circulated across the nation, the United States Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which provided all eligible interned individuals with a one time payment of $20,000 in reparations as well as official acknowledgement and apology from the United States. In addition, all individuals who were convicted of disobeying the executive order or violating rules while interned were officially pardoned.
  • In response to the massive Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, many subnational level truth commissions and reparations programs were initiated, including those in the State of California, Evanston, Illinois, and Asheville, North Carolina. As the national conversation continues, we may see an increase of examples of transitional justice at work in United States communities.
“Freedom?” Source: Nicu Buculei via Flickr

Section 2: You, us, and the future of transitional justice in the United States

Whether in Europe, Africa, the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, or the Americas, civil society plays a key role in the transitional justice sphere. Civil society actors are civilian organizations which can be activist groups, media, charities, non-profit organizations, educational groups and schools, or just citizens interacting with policy. Most recent transitional justice measures that have been implemented in the past few years in the United States have been on the subnational level. They are occurring as a result of citizens’ calls for action, constant attention on the need for transitional justice, and the everyday acts of discussing transitional justice. 

Birmingham, Alabama is a historic city for human rights, civil rights and civic action. Civil society here, in this city, has influenced national change through the Civil Rights Movement as well as citywide changes like the removal of confederate statues in public parks and the preservation of historic sites from the Civil Rights Movement like the Greyhound Bus Station and 16th Street Baptist Church. 

The Institute of Human Rights at UAB fosters an educational environment where you can see civil society at work, and hosts Social Justice Cafes on the second Wednesday of every month during the school year at 4:00pm CST. We will be hosting our last Social Justice Café of the semester, Transitional Justice: Here & Now on Wednesday, November 30th to discuss what transitional justice should look like in American cities like Birmingham. You can find out how to join these open discussions, and become a civil society actor yourself, and attend more free educational events from the Institute of Human Rights here