A review of The World We Need. – Advice Eating

The World We Need: Stories and Lessons from America’s Unsung Environmental Movement is a compelling new anthology published by The New Press and edited by Brooklyn-based journalist Audrea Lim. It expertly demonstrates how and why environmental science and social justice activism must work together.

The protagonists of the stories in The world we need are communities of black and low-income who refuse to be flattened when surrounded by chemical pollution and environmental degradation. The anthology has 37 chapters and contains texts, photographs and paintings creates portraits of activists who understand the implications of sometimes obscure scientific knowledge and have reimagined, and in some cases rescued and redesigned, their poisoned cities and rural areas.

The anthology begins with an exemplary “history of origin”. In Alabama, a community called Africatown was originally located three miles north of central Mobile. (Today it is not a separate city but part of the greater Mobile area.) Also known as the Plateau, it was founded by a group of about 30 West African slaves after their emancipation in 1865. They had been imported illegally and at night by a group of wealthy Mobile residents in 1860. (Slavery was still legal when slaves first arrived in Alabama, as was the domestic slave trade. Despite this, importing slaves has not been legal anywhere in the United States for 53 years.)

Once the slaves were ashore, the smugglers burned and sank the boat to hide evidence that something criminal had happened. Then they distributed the slaves among the “investors” who funded the illegal prank.

From the founding of Africatown through the 1950s, West African slaves maintained their language and customs. Africatown itself was idyllic – pine forested and rural and situated at the crossroads of three rivers. However, in the 1920s and 1930s, two paper mills were opened on river banks. Their chimneys spewed smoke and chemical odors, and released chloroform and benzene into the air. Other chemicals were washed into the rivers. The people of Africatown had found work in the factories; The strong job market had allowed the municipality to prosper economically. However, many workers began dying of cancer, as did their families. Africatown became so damaging that the population plummeted from about 12,000 to about 2,000.

Around 2010, the oil industry wanted Africatown to become a center for the extraction of oil from “tar sands,” which are oil-rich accumulations of sand and clay. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, processing the oil from tar sands causes three times more air pollution than normal crude oil processing. The story of the awakening of the people of Africatown to their new toxic threat and their struggle against the forces of colonialism, greed and racism is told with restrained drama by journalist Nick Tabor, a reporter and writer based on the Alabama Gulf Coast whose work has appeared in new York magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, The Oxford American, and other publications. The chapter builds beautifully on the rest of the book, which exemplifies the argument that American capitalism has always thrived in large measure on its habit of hurting and even killing marginalized people.

Another story: In Boyle Heights, a predominantly Hispanic, working-class neighborhood in east Los Angeles, Exide Technologies’ battery recycling plant spent decades polluting the air with lead and arsenic. (Locals now call Boyle Heights “California’s Flint.”) Government agencies knew about the contamination but looked the other way. For many years, activists versed in the necessary environmental science have tested homes and applied pressure. Eventually, Exide had to close its factory. Despite this, Exide’s battery recycling still has health implications to this day. People whose homes and workplaces have been poisoned continue to die.

And so on, for 36 chapters. Activists need strategies and tools, which is why some chapters of The world we need are interviews Lin conducted with leaders of local and national grassroots movements. Together the reported stories and interviews in The world we need show that environmental protection is not a favorite movement of middle-class white people. Dependent on good scholarship and strong community spirit, it is a necessary crusade in the fight for racial and class justice in America.

Is bigger always better? Does economic health need growth? Must the resources of the poor and powerless always be exploited?

Economists are no longer the only ones to ask these questions. In Audrea Lim’s new book, a handful of world-class journalists help her answer them with a resounding “no.”

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