Remaining Inclusive in the Fight for Environmental Justice

The clash of Charleston, South Carolina’s social and coastal environments.

Passionate about educational and environmental equity. Prefers muffins to cupcakes and the original Law & Order to any and all spinoffs.

Charleston, South Carolina is a study in contradictions. The city made headlines in the wake of the tragic Emmanuel AME shooting for its demonstration of unity and forgiveness, yet that very same shooting made clear that the city is still rooted in its dark past of systematic oppression. The pungent odor of the paper factory that sits on the edge of North Charleston is in sharp contrast to the sweet smell of seagrass and salt on the more affluent coast. And the city’s history, painted by its cobbled streets and iron-wrought balconies, is so central to the community’s identity that it feels as if it will exist forever, and yet Downtown Charleston disappears beneath floods every time it rains.

Downtown Charleston disappears beneath floods every time it rains.

On a national scale, climate change is still unfortunately regarded as a political issue to be believed or disbelieved. In Charleston, however, a city dependent on its coastal tourism, it has become increasingly difficult to deny a matter of scientific fact. While South Carolina is nowhere near shedding its notorious reputation as a very conservative state, its coast has shifted considerably to the left when it comes to the care of our ocean.

In the most recent midterms, Joe Cunningham took the country by surprise when he was able to flip the state’s 1st congressional district from red to blue. Campaign intern Robby Gourdie knew the race was going to be unpredictable as soon as Katie Arrington, President Trump’s favored candidate, overtook incumbent Mark Sanford in the Republican primaries. While Cunningham and Arrington predictably disagreed on a whole host of issues, it was the point of offshore drilling that really shook up the race. While Arrington refused to take a decisive stance, Cunningham, a former ocean engineer, ardently opposed offshore drilling from the beginning of his campaign, a position that proved crucial to his victory by less than 4,000 votes. This goes to show that thus far, the environmental movement emerging in Charleston has been politically unifying.

“Joe’s anti-offshore drilling stance was very influential because it showed that [he] cares about the Lowcountry more than he cares about self-advancement or political tribalism,” Gourdie says. “His win has made people realize that threats to our environment are also threats to our community.”

It is important going forward to make sure that any environmental advocacy is socially inclusive.

However, even though the environment affects us all, racial divides in Charleston even pervade environmental advocacy. Although the City Council recently issued an apology for Charleston’s historical role in systems of oppression such as slavery and Jim Crow, Charleston is a city still very much grappling with the effects of the aforementioned systems. The African-American population of the Charleston area struggles with displacement as a result of gentrification, unequal education and employment opportunity, and even police violence, as evidenced by the Walter Scott shooting. It is important going forward to make sure that any environmental advocacy defies these trends and is socially inclusive. A recent study shows that, across the country, while low-income people and people of color report high levels of concern regarding environmental issues, most people, those groups included, associate the term “environmentalist” with the white, affluent, and well-educated.

Perhaps this phenomenon occurs because it is not widely acknowledged that marginalized communities bear the brunt of environmental crises: “most of America’s “Superfund” sites — areas that are badly polluted and have been poisoned by careless industrial enterprise — are located adjacent to black communities.” Even with the recent conversations focused on offshore drilling, it’s rarely been publicly discussed that any potential pollution that would result would first affect the historic Gullah-Geechee Corridor, a culturally rich people group located on the Sea Islands and descended from former slaves.

Solutions to environmental problems must be comprehensive and inclusive for them to work. An example: in November 2018, Charleston joined a long list of coastal South Carolina communities implementing a gradual ban of single-use plastic and foam products, including plastic grocery bags. While this move is much needed in reducing maritime pollution and garnered enormous community support, it can only achieve success if the city ensures that affordable alternatives are accessible to the people who need them.

John Tecklenburg, mayor of Charleston, addressed this concern in a comment to Charleston City Paper: “We reached out to grocery stores, talked to a number of you, included that every store would have to provide a free bag of some kind to customers. A lot of thought has gone into this.”

Frequently pummeled by the hurricanes that assault the Carolina coast and situated on the very edge of a rising sea level, Charleston is primed to be one of the first cities to face the environmental issues anticipated for the world in the coming decades. As this occurs, however, the city cannot forget that its natural and social environments do not exist separately from one another. One affects the other, and time will only tell whether the city will crumble under the waves, or rise to the upcoming challenges with innovation, inclusivity, and Southern grace.