Content warning: Anti-Black racism, environmental racism, slavery
It’s been 30 years since Octavia Butler published her dystopian novel Parable of the Sower. Known for her masterful use of Afrofuturism and sociopolitical commentary, Butler’s body of work focuses mainly on the positionality of Black communities in the future. Parable of the Sower is no exception. Set only a year away, Parable is a coming-of-age story that takes place in 2024. Lauren Oya Olamina, a 15-year-old Black girl growing up in the fictional town of Robledo, California, lives in a world where climate crises, wealth inequality, and systemic racism have risen to dystopian extremes. Lauren and her family are at the mercy of corrupt politicians for basic necessities such as clean water, clean air, and access to medicine. Climate change and corporate greed have accelerated to inhumane levels, and it is ultimately Black civilians who pay the price. You might be thinking: “Surely this is nothing more than speculative science fiction. How could such a world exist in real life?” Unfortunately, many of Butler’s predictions are coming true.
According to Tarshia L. Stanley, Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences at St. Catherine University, much of the appeal of Butler’s novels stems from her approach to worldbuilding. Butler grounds her faraway science fiction worlds in our current lived reality. She takes a deep systemic problem that is often overlooked and follows it to its logical extreme. Stanley argues that “she’[s] been trying to tell us that if we do not make changes, this is what’s going to happen. She constantly [gives] that message: ‘this is the logical conclusion if we keep treading down this path.’” Butler’s novels frequently act as cautionary tales that warn us against allowing latent systemic issues to grow and eventually fester. In Parable of the Sower, this issue is environmental racism.
Environmental Racism Today
What exactly is environmental racism? Civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis coined the term in 1982 following an eruption of protests in North Carolina that same year. Several nonviolent protests had been organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in response to the local government’s decision to dispose of 40,000 cubic yards of soil laced with carcinogenic chemicals in the Black farming community of Warren County. Pushback from police was extreme, and over 500 arrests were made, including of Chavis himself. Chavis subsequently defined environmental racism as “racial discrimination in environmental policy-making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of colour for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of colour from leadership of the ecology movements.”
Although the term was coined over 40 years ago, environmental racism still exists today. Polluted air and water has disproportionately affected Black communities for decades – and it only seems to be getting worse. According to a 2017 study by the Clean Air Task Force, “Fumes Across the Fence Line,” Black Americans “are exposed to 38 per cent more polluted air” than white Americans, and are “75 per cent more likely to live in communities that border a plant or factory.” In a shocking 2021 study from Science Advances, it was found that Black Americans are exposed to more air pollution than white Americans from every possible source: industry and agriculture, emissions from vehicles, residential sources, and even some restaurants. And as of 2021, Black Americans are roughly four times more likely to die from pollution exposure than white Americans.
Exposure to polluted air wildly escalated health problems in Black communities during the pandemic. According to research from Duke and Stanford University, from the start of the pandemic in 2019 through July 2020, over half of all in-hospital deaths from COVID-19 were Black and Latino patients. In addition, it was found that Black patients were far more likely to need ventilation than white patients. According to Robert D. Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University and the author of Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality, the culprit here is none other than environmental racism. “If your Zip code is buried with garbage, chemical plants, pollution,” he argues, “you’ll find there are more people that are sick, more diabetes and heart disease.”
Environmental Racism in Canada
Environmental racism is not unique to the United States. Although Canada has made attempts in recent years to become a leader in climate action, not all of its promises have been fruitful, as detailed in the Daily’s article “Justin Trudeau’s Pseudo-Environmentalist Agenda.” There have even been attempts to address environmental racism directly, but not much progress has been made. The National Strategy Respecting Environmental Racism and Environmental Justice Act, or Bill C-230, was first presented to the House of Commons in June 2021. It proposed “a requirement for the federal minister of environment and climate change to examine the link between race, socio-economic status and environmental risk, and develop a national strategy to prevent environmental racism and advance environmental justice.” The bill had support from four out of five parties in Parliament but never came to a final vote. Attempts have been made to bring Bill C-230 back to Parliament, but as of 2023, the bill still remains at a standstill.
In the end, legislation such as Bill C-230 is a response to historic wrongs. To look forward, we must first look at our past. The legacy of environmental racism today ultimately stands on the shoulders of historic segregation and institutional oppression. Although laws explicitly decreeing segregation were never passed in Canada, separating communities on the basis of race persisted well into the 20th century. The provinces of Ontario and Nova Scotia had segregated schools for almost a century; the last segregated school in Nova Scotia was closed in 1983. The Maritime provinces commonly had designated areas for white and non-white people. In 1946, Canadian civil rights activist Viola Desmond made headlines when she was arrested for refusing to sit in the section of a Nova Scotia movie theatre designated for Black audience members. These practices produced effects that would be felt for many generations, and they have lasting effects today when it comes to environmental racism.
The effects of redlining – what Cornell Law School defines as “the systemic denial of services such as mortgages, insurance loans, and other financial services to residents of certain areas, based on their race or ethnicity” – persist today. In the U.S. and in Canada, redlining has resulted in majority-Black communities being historically relegated to “less-desirable” areas. In 2016, the Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership (NCRP) conducted an analysis of Black rental and homeownership concentration in Toronto and found that “Black communities are largely concentrated to the city’s suburban ends, to the west in Etobicoke and to the east in Scarborough. By contrast, Black people only represent 2% of the homeowners in the city’s downtown core.” These neighbourhoods then become first in the running when local governments must decide where to dispose of toxic waste. Additionally, a 2007 report from York University found that in Toronto, predominantly racialized neighbourhoods were much more impacted by pollution caused by soil contamination, industrial land use, and waste sites than were white neighbourhoods. This practice leads to a vicious cycle in which “less-desirable” areas are essentially created by white-majority governments and imposed on Black communities. And once an area is considered “less-desirable,” it is almost impossible to recover.
Perhaps the most notorious and disturbing instance of environmental racism in Canada is the story of Africville. Africville was a majority-Black community located in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that existed from the 1800s until its destruction in the 1960s. The town was originally composed of formerly enslaved peoples and their descendents as well as Black refugees from the War of 1812. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights describes Africville as a “self-sufficient […] thriving, close-knit community.” Yet for the entirety of its existence, the City of Halifax refused to provide Africville with such basic necessities as clean water, sewage systems, and garbage disposal, despite the fact that Africville residents were required to pay taxes to the local government. Conditions in Africville only worsened throughout the early 20th century. The City of Halifax began to place “undesirable services” in the community, including “a fertilizer plant, slaughterhouses, and human waste ‘disposal pits.’” In the 1950s, a massive garbage dump was placed in the community after white residents of Halifax refused to allow it to be located in their neighbourhoods on account of “public health concerns.”
Environmental racism also exists right here in Montreal. According to the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF), Montreal North “has the fourth highest percentage of people identifying as members of a visible minority” of all the city’s boroughs and experiences some of the most extreme environmental challenges. The DSF’s Albert Lalonde reports that Montreal North’s Adélard-Desrosiers Elementary School has the highest poverty rate of all the elementary schools in Quebec and is “bordered on two sides by two underground oil pipelines.” It was reported back in 2017 that these pipelines pose a direct threat to safe drinking water for the entirety of Montreal North, yet no efforts have been made to remedy the situation since then. Albert Lalonde asserts that “Montreal North is living under environmental risks that would likely not be tolerated by the public and institutions if they were experienced elsewhere.” Dalila Awada, a prominent Quebecois anti-racist activist, adds to Lalonde’s claim, arguing that “it’s racism […] because when the risks of pipelines on human health and the environment affect devalued, dehumanized populations, they are tolerated.”
Clearly, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is not a piece of science fiction rooted in groundless speculation. Its predictions on how environmental racism might progress into the 2020s are eerily relevant to our world today. Butler’s novel raises the same question that drives many of her other stories; if we continue this, then what? However, unlike her other works, the foundation of environmental racism upon which Parable’s dystopia stands is not so far removed from our own world today.
Environmental racism is an incredibly insidious form of oppression; it places restrictions on simply existing in your own body. The effects of pollution alone are devastating. In recent years, studies from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have drawn a concrete connection between air pollution and a whole host of heart and lung diseases. And as we all know by now, any preexisting heart or lung condition that impairs breathing in any way greatly increases one’s risk of becoming very sick or even dying from COVID-19. In response to a similar study done by Environmental Science and Technology Letters, Professor Robert D. Bullard said: “This groundbreaking study builds on the solid empirical evidence that systemic racism is killing and making people of color sick, it’s just that simple.”
Breathing is synonymous with being human – with being alive. By selecting which communities should or should not have access to clean air, we are actively dehumanizing one another. And, unfortunately, Black communities bear the brunt of this dehumanization. Although the plea “I can’t breathe” has become emblematic of the Black Lives Matter movement, Benjamin Chavis adds that it “echoes generations of environmental activists of colour.” At 73, Chavis recalls that this cry was also made by the North Carolina protestors fighting against the toxic waste dump back in 1982. “There were public outcries of ‘We can’t breathe’ and ‘I can’t breathe’ by African American environmental justice protesters in Warren County.”
Today’s parallels to Parable are horrifying. We must continue to fight for a better future and honour the memory of Octavia Butler by not succumbing to her fears for the 2020s. Consider supporting the following organizations fighting against environmental racism in Canada: Ecojustice Canada, Environmental Defense Canada (EDF), and MiningWatch Canada. We have the power to create change. As Octavia Butler says in Parable of the Sower, “All that you touch You Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change.”