The World We Need: Stories and Lessons from America’s Unsung Environmental Movement is a gripping new anthology published by The New Press and edited by Brooklyn-based journalist Audrea Lim. It expertly shows how and why environmental science and social justice activism must work together.
The protagonists of the stories in The World We Need are communities of color and low wealth that refuse to be steamrolled when chemical pollution and environmental destruction envelop them. In 37 chapters and with text, photography, and paintings, the anthology creates portraits of activists who, understanding the implications of sometimes arcane scientific findings, have re-imagined and, in some cases, rescued and remade their poisoned cities, towns, and rural areas.
The anthology begins with an exemplary “origin story.” In Alabama, a community called Africatown was originally located three miles north of the center of Mobile. (Today it’s not a separate town but part of greater Mobile.) Also known as Plateau, it was founded by a group of about 30 West African slaves after their 1865 emancipation. They had been imported illegally and at night in 1860 by a group of wealthy Mobile residents. (Slavery was still legal when the slaves arrived in Alabama, as was the domestic slave trade. Even so, importing slaves had not been legal anywhere in the United States for 53 years.)
Once the slaves were on shore, the smugglers burned and scuttled the boat to hide evidence that anything criminal had happened. Then they distributed the slaves among the “investors” who’d financed the illegal caper.
From the founding of Africatown and on into the 1950s, the West African slaves retained their language and customs. Africatown itself was idyllic — pine-forested and rural and lying at the junction of three rivers. In the 1920s and 1930s, though, two paper mills opened on riverbanks. Puking smoke and chemical odors, their chimneys released chloroform and benzene into the air. Other chemicals washed into the rivers. The people of Africatown had found work at the mills; the strong labor market had made the community thrive economically. Many workers, however, began dying of cancer, as did their families. Africatown became so noxious that the population plummeted from roughly 12,000 to about 2,000.
Around the year 2010, the oil industry wanted Africatown to become a hub for extracting oil out of “tar sands,” which are clusters of sand and clay that are rich in petroleum. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, processing the oil from tar sands creates three times the air pollution that normal crude oil processing does. The story of the awakening of the people of Africatown to their new toxic danger and their struggle against forces of colonialism, greed, and racism is told with restrained drama by journalist Nick Tabor, a reporter and writer living on the Alabama Gulf Coast whose work has appeared in New York Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, The Oxford American, and other publications. The chapter beautifully sets up the rest of the book, which argues by example that American capitalism has always thrived to a great extent on its habit of hurting and even killing marginalized people.
Another story: In Boyle Heights, which is a predominantly Latinx working-class neighborhood on the east side of Los Angeles, Exide Technologies’ battery recycling plant polluted the air for decades with lead and arsenic. (Locals now call Boyle Heights “California’s Flint.”) Government agencies knew about the contamination but looked away. Over many years, activists well-versed in the necessary environmental science got homes tested and applied pressure. Eventually, Exide was forced to close its plant. Even so, to this day, Exide’s battery recycling has health impacts. People whose homes and job sites were poisoned continue to die.
And so on, for 36 chapters. Activists need strategies and tools, which is why some chapters of The World We Need are interviews conducted by Lin with leaders of local and national grassroots movements. Together, the reported stories and interviews in The World We Need demonstrate that environmentalism is not a pet movement of middle-class whites. It depends on good science and strong community feeling and is a necessary crusade in the struggle for racial and class justice in America.
Is bigger always better? Does economic health demand growth? Do the resources of the poor and powerless always have to be the ones exploited?
These are no longer questions for economists alone to address. In Audrea Lim’s new book, a handful of world-class journalists help her respond to them with a resounding “No.”