The alternative fuels industry is complicit in environmental racism

It’s easy to compartmentalize the work that’s being done in the world of alternative fuels. There are so many ways of approaching the task of hastening alt fuels adoption and reducing emissions from gasoline and diesel that sometimes we miss the forest for the trees.

This Black History Month, we’d like to focus on the ways in which the work we do directly affects Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPoC). Not only do health and environmental issues disproportionately affect Communities of Color, but many of the same representation and marginalization problems that BIPoC face broadly in our society are mirrored in the alt fuels industry.

Still, there are many alt fuel-oriented organizations that are working to address these issues, and it’s important that their voices are amplified this and every month.

There’s an access divide in the environmental and sustainability sectors

It’s a fact: the majority of individuals working in the environmental and sustainability sectors are white and middle-class, and the interests represented by those individuals predictably end up being the interests pushed by the work they do.

As Danielle Purifoy puts it, “environmentalism is white not because it is irrelevant to nonwhites. It is white because its primary considerations reflect the interests of mostly white and wealthier people — to the literal exclusion of nonwhites.”

Purifoy’s observation highlights both the representation and agenda problem with modern environmentalism: the sector is dominated by white folks who, knowingly or not, end up focusing on the issues that are easily-identifiable from their perspectives. It’s no wonder this lack of diversity has prompted a dearth of focus on environmental issues facing BIPoC.

Purifoy continues, “the failure of environmental organizations and agencies to increase recruitment and retention of people of color comes despite the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on communities of color [sic] and the fact that people of color [sic] poll higher than whites in support for environmental issues.”

The problem isn’t just that BIPoC are being left out of the decision-making process for environmental policy and advocacy; it’s also that BIPoC Communities are disproportionately affected by environmental issues. The communities most at-risk from environmental degradation are the ones without a say in the matter of addressing it.

Environmental issues are health and economic issues, too

The health of every being on our planet is affected by fossil fuel emissions — this is uncontroversial. However, since many BIPoC Communities encounter lesser access to healthcare and economic mobility, the health of these communities is at greater risk.

The broad term for this imbalance in risk-factors associated with emissions and environmental degradation is environmental racism:

Environmental racism refers to the many ways that communities of color — in the United States, Black communities in particular — face greater harms from environmental factors. The term, which was first articulated in studies of waste disposal, toxic dumping, and industrial uses, is now understood to encompass everything from the siting of industrial uses; to proximity to power plants and factories; to higher exposure to emissions from mobile sources of pollution, like cars, trucks, and ships; to the disproportionate harm that disasters like Hurricane Katrina do to Black communities. [SOURCE]

These problems are not isolated ones; like many aspects of BIPoC marginalization, they form a holistic web of injustice that intersects to create broad societal oppression. For example, one of the reasons that BIPoC Communities face greater harms from environmental factors is the legacy of racial segregation: “people of color are often concentrated in neighborhoods that have frequently been disempowered, both politically and financially.”

Here, economic and health issues stemming from environmental inequality combine: BIPoC often find themselves relegated to highly polluted areas, and the systemic issues facing them produce a lack of fiscal and political power to transform their communities.

The alt fuels world is a microcosm; it’s complicit, too

Like the environmental and sustainability sectors broadly, the world of alternative fuels faces issues pertaining to environmental justice and the marginalization of BIPoC Communities. In essence, the alt fuels world is a microcosm of the issues introduced above.

The individuals working for alt fuels organizations are disproportionately white and middle-class, and as mentioned above, this creates “priority blinders” that can privilege certain goals over others, especially when it comes to understanding the needs of communities not involved in alt fuels discussions at policy, advocacy, and implementational levels.

One example of this is the current set of strategies for building electric vehicle infrastructure. EV infrastructure is often prioritized in communities that are either historically white or are heavily gentrified, creating “charging deserts” that create barriers for individuals to utilize electric vehicle technology.

In Chicago, for example, “while electric cars are registered throughout the city, they, along with the city’s charging stations, are most heavily concentrated in the city’s affluent and mostly white North Side. As of 2018, 70% of all public charging stations were located in just three community areas. By contrast, 47 of Chicago’s 77 community areas, largely on the city’s South Side and West Side, had no public charging stations at all.”

Alt fuels inequalities contribute to health disparities in BIPoC Communities

Charging deserts are not only an access problem, but contribute to health disparities between communities as well. Communities with higher EV adoption will experience lower localized emissions exposure, potentially reducing rates of asthma and other lung issues.

As well, because rates of asthma are notably higher in BIPoC Communities than in white, Asian, and Hispanic Communities, this only compounds previously-existing inequalities surrounding health outcomes.

Blacks and American Indian/Alaska Natives have the highest current asthma rates compared to other races and ethnicities. (SOURCE)

These are not insurmountable problems. But if the problems facing BIPoC representation and recognition in the alt fuels world are not addressed, they are far less likely to be recognized and acted on.

Equitable access to alt fuels technologies cannot be an afterthought when considering strategies of adoption. It must be a part of the conversation from the beginning, and this means widening the conversation in this world to include BIPoC voices.

Barriers to entry: alt fuel costs and availability

Let’s keep our focus on electric vehicles as our prime example of an alt fuel that has barriers to accessibility. Electrification has the potential to affect every mode of transportation, but as noted above, affluent communities are often the ones to primarily benefit from these technologies.

It’s not only a question of access to charging. When the public thinks about electric vehicles, we primarily think about single-family cars. In Limited Income Communities (LIC), however, such vehicles are often not economically accessible, and so these communities frequently rely on public transportation options that utilize emissions-heavy diesel engines.

As Gabrielle Gurley writes, “once sought-after by wealthy early adopters amassing cool points, electric passenger vehicles must now be affordable for all. Local, state, and federal policymakers need to knock down the barriers that the market does not address.” This includes pushing for the electrification of mass public transportation.

Municipalities of many sizes are good candidates for mass transit electrification. In Tennessee, the City of Chattanooga has begun introducing a fleet of BYD mass transit buses into several of their routes. This has led to lower localized emissions and a cleaner, quieter, and safer experience for riders as well as residents of densely populated areas of the city.

The issue of diversity in transportation electrification is overlooked by most, but not all

While the majority of organizations promoting alternative fuel use systematically overlook the lack of diversity and availability for BIPoC in their efforts, there are a select few groups prioritizing the needs of these communities. EVHybridNoire, co-founded by Dr. Shelley Francis and Terry Travis, is the largest network of diverse EV drivers and enthusiasts in the United States. This Black-owned non-profit champions environmental, energy and transportation equity for at-risk and underserved communities.

The American Association of Blacks in Energy has also completed extensive research outlining the need for diversified transportation electrification efforts. They assert that “energy regulations and laws should be equitable and not burden (or benefit) one class of consumers over another.” This philosophy extends to the transportation sector.

Organizations such as EVHybridNoire and The American Association of Blacks in Energy deserve extensive recognition for the vital role that they play in a field seemingly focused on environmental justice. The fact of the matter is, though, that these concerted efforts for diversity in the alt fuels movement are necessary because of the systematic failure to include representation of BIPoC perspectives on issues that have the greatest impact on their own communities.

Environmentalism must mean justice for all

There are numerous issues that must be addressed for the work of the environmental and sustainability industries to successfully reach BIPoC communities, but two vectors along which they need to be realized are representation and recognition.

First of all, our industries (and the alt fuels world in particular) must work to include a far greater diversity of voices into their decision-making processes at all levels. When it comes to environmental policy, advocacy, and implementation, the exclusion of BIPoC voices can only lead to ignorance of the issues uniquely facing these communities.

But representation alone is not enough. Our industries must also think hard about the practices we have realized in our work and learn to recognize that our priorities may be leaving out some of the most at-risk and marginalized portions of our societies.

We must build our industries into diverse places, of course, but we must also ensure that our industries are structured in ways such that BIPoC voices are recognized and their priorities affirmed. Without this representational and recognitional work, the alt fuels world and the industries they connect to are doomed to be seeking justice only for some. And justice for some is not justice at all.

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Sarah and Daniel are environmental advocates currently working in the alternative fuels sector.

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Sarah Roth & Daniel Siksay

Sarah Roth & Daniel Siksay

Sarah and Daniel are environmental advocates currently working in the alternative fuels sector.

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