I sit here writing this, trapped in my house, a virus ravaging the world. Nightmarish headlines, yet I consider myself lucky. The house is full of food and family. We love each other, we have space to roam, a Netflix subscription, an abundance of books, a dog and plenty of food. A yard in spring with buds and beds and seeds and blossoms bursting. There are worse places to be. We live a life of privilege. We’re trapped but we can flee. If we had to, we could run, escape into the wilds of Central Oregon at a social distance of miles. It makes me think about a conference I went to last summer, where we talked about a different global crisis and different trapped people.
It was June, and I was in Detroit at a conference focused on marketing and sustainability. I went in with cliché questions like, “How are brands advancing their sustainable practices?” and “What innovative things are they doing to reach new audiences?” I left with questions that had me considering the broader reach of sustainability, the participants in that conversation and the web of complicated storylines involving race, privilege and voice. I was enlightened and embarrassed. I never thought about the people.
Detroit—big-city flavor. Hip restaurants and cool bars. Vacant, accessible. An ideal geographical location. They say it’s experiencing a resurgence. There’s a palpable feeling of transparency in that city, facade stripped away to reveal infrastructure and inhabitants. It has a gritty, raw, East Coast feel—but without the hard shell—that is familiar to me. For $35, I sat two rows from the dirt on the third base line watching the Rays beat the Tigers. You can’t do that at Yankee Stadium, and it was a treat for this Brooklyn-born boy. I felt at home. I had never stepped foot in that city, but I knew it. I knew these people.
Here’s what else I know: Low-income communities will be disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis. These communities, already vulnerable to environmental risks, typically bear the brunt of natural disasters. The exodus from Detroit left the city to those who could not flee because of circumstances and government policies out of their control. The statistics on how the climate crisis is impacting poor communities are not new. But in this setting, they were humbling. It reminded me of home and a different time, when the health of the planet was far from my mind.
Choice is a privilege. My current ability to choose where I live and to leave with my family in the midst of the current global crisis is decades removed from when I was growing up poor in Brooklyn. My immigrant parents focused on putting food on the table. They didn’t have the option to be concerned about asthma rates for kids growing up in New York City or about saving the whales or reading The Monkey Wrench Gang. It triggered a reflection on how my priorities have changed outside of age and experience.
Back at the conference, conversations turned to this very juxtaposition between the privileged working to fix the fate of the world and those most vulnerable to our failings. It was unmissable among my peers. Professionals whose jobs are to advance sustainable practices for major brands, to bridge the gap between corporate and community. We were the privileged, working in sustainability to varying degrees and advocating for an audience we were mostly blind to.
Detroit has a poverty rate nearly three times higher than the national average. As an attendee, you have to recognize the privilege of participating in these conversations when, for the past five years, 68 miles away, Flint residents are still unable to drink water from the tap. Sustainability is an abstraction to those historically underserved. People can’t worry about the ocean if they can’t drink the tap water. What would those affected by Flint’s water crisis have taken away from these conversations? Were we adequately including affected communities in the discussion? Can we have purpose if we don’t connect directly with those who bear the brunt of our environmental impact?
If sustainability is a social movement, are we creating space for underserved communities to speak? What would the servers at Niki’s Pizza in downtown Detroit think of the millions of dollars spent ridding the planet of plastic straws while they serve soft drinks in Styrofoam cups?
If we made space for the voices that were not at the table, how would they define responsible practices? How would they define impact? What does the message of zero impact mean to marginalized communities? Is zero impact enough of a message? Does the message resonate if it doesn’t include repair?
If companies have socialized costs without socializing the benefits, shouldn’t they, at least, socialize the solutions? (Hundreds of flights, thousands of miles to a conference in Detroit did nothing to improve the water quality in Flint.)
Why did it take me so long to ask these questions?
When we write about sustainability, we must consider society’s most vulnerable, who suffer the greatest consequences from environmental catastrophes. We have to.
Someday, the coronavirus and all its tragedy will be behind us. And we will have a say in how we get to the other side, what that pivot needs to look like. How we spend money, who we save (the airline industry?) and who we sacrifice. Will we do more to seek out the voices of those who can’t escape?