A review of “the world we need”.
The World We Need: Stories and Lessons from America’s Little-Known Environmental Movement is a gripping new anthology published by The New Press and edited by Brooklyn reporter Audrea Lim. This expertly shows how and why environmental science and social justice activism need to work together.
The protagonists of the stories of The world we need are communities of color and low wealth that refuse to be crushed when chemical pollution and environmental destruction envelops them. In 37 chapters and with texts, photographs and paintings, the anthology creates portraits of activists who, understanding the implications of sometimes obscure scientific discoveries, have reimagined and, in some cases, saved and remade their poisoned towns, villages and rural areas.
The anthology begins with an exemplary “origin story”. 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.) Also known as the Plateau, it was founded by a group of around 30 West African slaves after their emancipation in 1865. They had been imported illegally and at night in 1860 by a group of wealthy residents of Mobile. (Slavery was still legal when slaves arrived in Alabama, as was the national slave trade. Despite this, the importation of slaves had not been legal anywhere in the United States for 53 years.)
Once the slaves were ashore, the smugglers burned and scuttled the boat to hide evidence that something criminal had happened. Then they distributed the slaves among the “investors” who had financed the illegal caper.
From the founding of Africatown until the 1950s, West African slaves have retained their language and customs. Africatown itself was idyllic – pine forest and rural and located at the confluence of three rivers. In the 1920s and 1930s, however, two paper mills opened on the riverbanks. Vomiting smoke and chemical odors, their chimneys released chloroform and benzene into the air. Other chemicals were released into the rivers. The inhabitants of Africatown had found work in the mills; the strong labor market had allowed the community to prosper economically. However, many workers began to die from cancer, as did their families. Africatown has become so harmful that the population has dropped from around 12,000 to around 2,000.
By the year 2010, the oil industry wanted Africatown to become a hub for extracting oil from the “tar sands,” which are clumps of oil-rich sand and clay. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, processing oil from tar sands creates three times more air pollution than normal processing of crude oil. The story of the awakening of the people of Africatown to their new toxic danger and their struggle against the forces of colonialism, greed and racism is told with drama by journalist Nick Tabor, a living reporter and writer on the Gulf Coast of Alabama whose work has appeared in new York Magazine, Washington Post Magazine, The Oxford American, and other publications. The chapter beautifully sets up the rest of the book, which argues by example that American capitalism has always thrived to a large extent on its habit of hurting and even killing marginalized people.
Another story: In Boyle Heights, a predominantly Latin American working-class neighborhood in east Los Angeles, Exide Technologies’ battery recycling plant has polluted the air for decades with lead and arsenic . (Locals now call Boyle Heights “the California flint.”) Government agencies were aware of the contamination but looked away. For many years activists well versed in the necessary environmental sciences had houses tested and lobbied. Eventually, Exide was forced to shut down its factory. Even so, to this day, recycling Exide batteries has health impacts. People whose homes and construction sites 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 stories reported and the interviews in The world we need demonstrate that environmentalism is not a favorite movement of middle-class whites. It depends on good science and a strong sense of community and is a necessary crusade in the struggle for racial and class justice in America.
Is bigger always better? Does economic health require growth? Should the resources of the poor and powerless always be tapped?
These are no longer questions that only economists must answer. In Audrea Lim’s new book, a handful of world-class journalists help her answer them with a resounding “No”.