By Nathanael Johnson
For years, environmental justice advocates have been saying that it’s time to shift the focus of the environmental movement from beautiful landscapes and big animals to the people choking on black carbon or poisoned by lead in their water.
Now, some of those people who grew up in dumping grounds have come into power and are shaping politics on the world stage. And when California sent a delegation to the U.N. climate conference in Bonn a few weeks ago, it was packed with members of the movement, including state Senator Ricardo Lara.
Lara grew up downwind of burning carcasses and diesel exhaust in Los Angeles. In his seven years in the California Legislature, he’s helped pass several laws to cleanup pollution and cut greenhouse gases. Lara sees himself as a champion for the environment as a whole, not just for environmental justice. The environmental justice goal of combatting the health effects of living with pollution is increasingly shared throughout the environmental movement.
Grist recently spoke with Lara about his childhood playing baseball in the cinders of a railyard, his reasons for focusing on sickness and death rather than the abstract “environment,” and why we should all start “waving the super-pollutant flag.”
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q. I wanted to talk to you because you were at Bonn representing California, and you were really changing the conversation by talking about people who are suffering rather than polar bears.
A. Well, first of all, polar bears are important. But the whole conversation in Bonn was about how to keep the temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius. What does that mean to people back home? Absolutely nothing.
So I was having conversations with scientists about alternative metrics that mean something to people. How do we go to farmers and talk about the percentage of farmland that will be destroyed? How do we go to L.A. and talk about what will happen in asthma clusters, cancer clusters, low birthweight areas? How do we present metrics in terms of property loss or potential to save people’s property? Can we at least start the research to quantify the impacts not just on polar bears, but on the daily lives of people?