The student group Fossil Free Penn held a discussion on environmental racism as part of its weeklong engagement project called “Divestfest” Wednesday afternoon.
About a dozen students participated in the event, detailing how the negative impacts of industries disproportionately affect minorities. The speakers at the event, who will remain anonymous, hailed from two student groups on campus: Students for Justice in Palestine and the United Minorities Council.
The message of the presentation was threefold. The first student argued that while “the impacts of climate change and fossil fuels are devastating for all communities, the effects are worse on marginalized communities,” specifically people of color and low-income communities. The second presenter discussed the eco-colonialism that occurred under the British rule of India and the millions of deaths it caused. And the third wanted to “show through the post-colonial theory how we can problematize the idea of forestation in different contexts—how we can use this to show how intersectionality can affect human rights as well as the ecosystem and how it can serve the neocolonialist propaganda.”
In discussing environmental racism, the speakers highlighted the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Jewish National Fund, an organization that plants trees in Israel, was a major subject of discussion. After asserting that the organization acted unjustly by purchasing land from Palestinians in the early 1900s in deals from which the Palestinians did not profit, the presenters looked into the symbolism of “making the desert bloom,” a phrase the students argued connected the forest environment to whiteness, evoked the notion of “a vacuum that the European savior can come nourish,” and ultimately incentivized “artificially making these areas look more like Europe.”
The students found a particular problem in the planting of pine trees in Israel and the West Bank, drawing a “connection between pine trees, forestation, and the way they further the colonialist agenda through capitalistic (sic) means of timber production.”
While pine trees are an invasive species and can be bad for certain environments, the solution is not merely to plant native trees like the olive tree.
“If we are talking about environmental justice, we have to consider intersectionality,” one of the presenters said. “We have to consider the way that different environmental agendas are being used in order to romanticize and support things that may be in violation of human rights and ancestry rights.” Additionally, the students urged the audience to “look for the complexity in the way that issues are whitewashed.”
The presentation also detailed the current water access situation in Palestine and Israel. To show the discrimination of the Israeli government, the students cited statistics that revealed a daily average water consumption per capita of 73 liters for West Bank Palestinians in comparison to 369 liters for Israelis.
The indictment of Israel continued as more statistics were given regarding the government’s distribution of water. “During negotiations [with Palestine] they decided on a set amount to give to Palestinians, but that number hasn’t been raised even though the population is increasing, temperatures are rising,” one student explained.
“During the negotiations they said they would decide on the final number in the final round of negotiations, but the final round of negotiations hasn’t happened… The question is why some groups are allowed to have pools in the middle of the desert and some aren’t.”
The students mentioned how environmental racism has occurred in the United States as well. They explained that 58% of people living near oil train tracks in Philadelphia are people of color, so “the placement of these oil trains specifically cut through minority neighborhoods.”
The presenters urged that the companies begin “thinking critically about where they are placing the train tracks… even though that might be more economically expensive.” They also talked about the placement of a landfill in Chester, PA, a city with a population that is 90% African-American, and contended that “the placement of that itself raises a lot of questions, and this is emblematic of landfill problems across the United States… as landfills tend to be placed in communities of color.”
Fossil Free Penn is a student group whose mission is convince the university to divest its endowment away from the fossil fuel industry by organizing students in a way that cannot be ignored. This week’s Divestfest program culminated in a silent protest of a Board of Trustees meeting on Friday morning at 11:00.