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A reflection on the influential Civil Rights leader and the state of environmental justice today

This week, we observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day—a holiday intended not only to honor this giant of the American Civil Rights movement who was assassinated more than 50 years ago, and to commemorate the immense struggles of Black Americans over centuries to achieve racial equality, but perhaps more importantly to reflect on the work left to be done to make this country into a more just and inclusive place for all. Looking back is instructive; we must understand our history to learn from it and understand who we are now. But looking forward and rededicating ourselves to racial equity and individual equality is the real work of today. We believe that reflection and commitment to change are vital, and that racial justice and marine conservation intersect in real and significant ways.

Looking back, it’s important to recognize that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an early leader in the American fight for environmental justice. Dr. King’s protest against poor housing conditions in Chicago in 1966 and his strike in 1968 against bad sanitation conditions in Memphis, Tennessee, might have helped plant the seeds for what is now our nation’s environmental justice movement. Environmental justice seeks to allow communities of all races, income levels, and backgrounds equal access to safe living conditions and meaningful involvement in the decisions that dictate their environmental health. While the history of environmentalism in America often focuses on the protection of landscapes and wildlife, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helped turn attention to the importance of protecting our neighbors and neighborhoods, as well. Dr. King’s world was complicated in ways that are both different and uncannily similar to the challenges we face today. Studying that history is helpful in understanding the intersection between environmental and human health at the heart of the problems we seek to address today, from a changing climate to suffering seas.

Reflecting on the state of the world today, it’s clear that Dr. King’s fight for justice is far from over, even in the world of marine science. Ongoing discrimination, financial barriers to early-career unpaid internships and field work, and a racist and exclusionary history all serve to limit diversity in American environmental organizations (although in many ways BIPOC communities have been working for environmental health longer than the organizations we currently see at the forefront of the movement). Even now, minority candidates are often at the very end of the line when it comes to attribution on journal articles for which they collect data. Locally and globally, communities of color experience the mounting damages from climate change more acutely. Social justice and environmental justice are tightly woven strands of the same braid, which means that the vitality of one will necessitate vitality in the other. Diverse leaders will be, by absolute necessity, the driving force behind building a more sustainable future for this blue planet. Speaking of voices, here are a few podcasts that are worth a listen as we all seek to be better students in a world still seeking balance:

  • Brown Girl Green – a podcast that “interviews environmental leaders and advocates about diversity and inclusion and creative solutions to the climate crisis.” (https://browngirlgreen.org/podcast)
  • Reading the words of minority women making their way in the field of marine science provides specific stories of individual struggles. We thank the website Women in Ocean Science for collecting the stories (www.womeninoceanscience.com/diversity) of minority women trying to advance over obstacles that many Americans are privileged never to experience.

Dr. King would not be satisfied with only identifying problems; he would ask us to heal the world and its people. So what can be done? Some of the solutions lie in the fight against racial and income inequality, against illegal fishing, and against climate change, as the above podcasts explore. As Dr. King suggested prophetically a long time ago, we must change the worldview that sees progress as chiefly the expansion of consumption of things and focus instead on people and their wellbeing.

We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.