Reflections on Flint and environmental justice

The Flint water crisis: a time for reflecting on the need for ecosystem resilience and human well-being in urban communities of color

By Kellen Marshall, graduate student in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at and a fellow at the Institute for Environmental Science & Policy at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @greenkels.

Calumet River in south Chicago. Credit, TheUrbanophile (flickr).

Calumet River in South Chicago. Credit, TheUrbanophile (flickr).

All humans deserve clean drinking water. The Flint water crisis has unearthed the reality that our most sensitive populations are not receiving the benefits of nature’s services. While the crisis itself is a result of poor decision-making, the issue nonetheless has provided an opportunity to highlight the state of urban ecological systems that serve communities of color. We lift up that the issues of pollution and environmental degradation are a system wide problem, and are not issues of the poor. Flint brings about reflection on the cost to the rest of life connected to water resources, the flyers, the diggers, and the wigglers depending on these systems. With climate change threatening all of earth’s systems, it is essential that society adopt ways of working compatible with the ecological health of both land and water on sufficient scale to support wildlife and humans.

African American communities (and other groups with unfairly low political power) bear more of the costs of environmental damage to the Great Lakes watershed. For example the predominantly Latino community of Little Village on the south side of Chicago deals with the unbearable stench of the cities Collateral Channel, which suffers from a century of pollution. There is then the southeast side of Chicago, an industrial section of the city where African American anglers are more likely to fish for consumption in the polluted waters of the Calumet region than any other cultural group. The great lakes basin holds a lot of fresh water, but development has put many pressures on the system that have had costs for people and other species. The benefits and costs are not distributed evenly to the 30 million people living there. A history of segregation in the area is at the root of this inequity. Considering the connections between environmental health and human health, it is both the systems and people that are negatively influenced from poor environmental decisions. Ecology in and of cities is not just an interesting research paradigm, it directly addresses the nations most vulnerable and underserved communities.

There is an immense amount of energy and intellect within our ecological community. We have contributed to the protection of endangered species, the validation of climate change drivers, best practices for sustainable food production, and the restorations of remnant prairies, wetlands and forests. We have done amazing things for the living system at all scales. We can do more.

Social injustice and inequity are another great challenge in our living system. It is uncomfortable and it is unfortunate, but we have shown that we have the depth of perspective to make a difference in this world. We see Flint as a reminder of the work ahead to dig deeper into the connections between humans and nature and invite our most esteemed colleagues to be reminded as well.

As cities are restructuring to become more sustainable, ecology can play a role in balancing the benefits of nature’s services to address humans needs. The science of ecosystem services for human health and well-being can have a very positive impact on landscape decisions for urban areas.

The recent events in Flint, Michigan have brought about a time for deep reflection in some Ecological Society of America members. The Environmental Justice, Urban Ecology Section reiterates the powerful perspective of ESA regarding earth stewardship. We invite ESA members and supporters to consider the many positive implications of these words as they relate to the most vulnerable urban communities in America and other developed countries:

Earth stewardship involves shaping trajectories of social-ecological change at local-to-global scales to enhance ecosystem resilience and human well-being. Over the next decade or two, society has a window of opportunity to radically redefine our relationship with the planet to reduce risks of dangerous global changes that could otherwise seriously degrade Earth’s life-support systems.”


I would like to thank my colleague Sarah Anderson for her input and guidance in the development of this piece. I would also like to recognize the leadership of the Urban Ecology and Environmental Justice Sections for their full support.

More guest posts by Kellen:

Author: Liza Lester

ESA's Communications Officer came on board in the fall of 2011 after a Mass Media Science and Engineering fellowship with AAAS and a doctorate in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Washington.

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