EJ for Earth Day


I was satisfied that if we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force this issue onto the political agenda. It was a big gamble, but worth a try.
- Senator Gaylord Nelson, Founder of Earth Day

Today is the 40th anniversary of Earth Day.  Many of us rightfully equate Earth Day with the natural environment.  It is a day we reflect on how to better reduce the impact humans are having on the air, water, and land that collectively provide us a safe home in this vast universe.   Traditionally, Earth Day is marked by a call for collective action to reduce those impacts.  People ask governments to take more aggressive regulatory action to reduce pollution.  Government asks people to make commitments to reduce personal consumption.  Environmentalists ask everyone to volunteer more time and money in the sake of saving planet Earth.

All of this is, of course, good.  It is right that we have a day to celebrate and advocate for the protection of nature.  Moreover, as environmental issues continue to become globalized, the focus of many organizations on Earth Day 2010 will rightfully be directed at issues like climate change, green energy and economic-environmental sustainability.

In the midst of addressing these important issues, I hope people can also find the time to reflect on the health of our local communities.  We need to remember that for millions of Americans living in communities that are seemingly neglected by the outside, it will be difficult today to think about the larger state of the natural environment.  For many, the focus today will be like any other day.  For them the question is simple -- how best to cope in an environment disproportionately impacted by pollution?  Moreover, whether cognizant of it or not, millions are relegated to life in neighborhoods that are less green (fewer trees, deteriorating parks, less open space) and less sustainable (older housing stock, few bike paths, and poor public transportation choices) than those neighborhoods of their more affluent counterparts.

So today, I want to thank those who spend their entire year working to make these oft-neglected communities a better place to live.  I am not necessarily thinking of those, like myself, who advocate for environmental equality.  Instead, my thanks go out to those, like my friends Wendy Hawthorne and Katie Sullivan at Groundwork Denver, whose mission is to directly work with minority and lower income people to improve the physical environment, health and well-being of their communities.  Going door-to-door to give away energy saving compact fluorescent light bulbs, planting trees, promoting household energy audits, advancing childhood health initiatives, and assisting communities to design new parks and open spaces is just example of what Wendy and Katie do 365 days a year.

As we go about our Earth Day activities, I hope you will also give some thought to those working to reduce environmental injustice and promote more healthy, livable urban communities.  Until we have an EJ Day, planet Earth must simply learn to share a little of the attention.

Author’s note:  If you are part of an organization working on urban sustainability issues in the West, please send me an email telling me about your work.  I personally would like to know about organizations like Groundwork Denver doing this work, and with your permission would like to share information about your organization on the University of Denver’s Environmental Law Clinic website.

Michael Harris is Assistant Professor of Law and Director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. He has worked as a Senior Deputy District Counsel for the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Los Angeles, as an Associate Environmental Counsel for the Los Angeles Unified School District, and as a Project Attorney with Earthjustice. He can be reached at elc@law.du.edu.