Robert Bullard, a professor at Clark Atlanta University who some call the “Father of Environmental Justice,” brought his unique ability to expand perspective in environmentalism to UCSB’s MultiCultural Center on Thursday, February 19 as part of the campus’s celebration of Black History Month. “I am proud to say that I am an environmentalist,” explained Bullard, before joking, “and I have been black most of my life.”
Although obscure to some, environmental justice is a field concerned with the protection of human rights, said Bullard, who explained that whales, while important, are not the only things in need of saving. “The right to breathe clean air is a fundamental human right,” he explained. Landfills, sewage plants, and other unwelcome neighborhood pieces are most often installed in lower income or minority neighborhoods, he explained, and that fact often goes unnoticed by the mainstream environmental movement.
“Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being,” said Bullard. “It is not merely the absence of disease and infirmity.” Not only is the air darker and the water less clear in city centers, but there are often fewer grocery stores and parks. The fact that liquor stores outnumber grocery stores in many inner city areas is an environmental issue for Bullard, and represents an unequal distribution of resources in American society. When we deny any people their right to a clean and healthy living environment, we are violating their human rights, he said.
The country was given an unavoidable example in the importance of environmental justice in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Katrina exposed to everyone watching the fact that in our society there is rampant unchecked poverty, and that there is unavoidable discrimination in the way federal funds are distributed.
Bullard recalled with a smile being invited to the White House to sign an executive order with President Bill Clinton. “I still have the pen,” said Bullard. “For the last eight years, I have not been back. Now, there’s a good chance I will.”