Review of Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret by Catherine Coleman-Flowers (2020)

“We’ve had fires in Australia since time began, and what people need now is a little bit of sympathy, understanding and real assistance – they need help, they need shelter. They don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital-city greenies.”
Michael McCormack, Australian Deputy Prime Minister on those linking climate change to the 2020 Australian bushfires

“The best thing you’ll learn about going to a protest is how to join the dole queue. Because that’s what your future life will look like, up in a line asking for a handout, not actually taking charge for your life and getting a real job.”
Matt Canavan, Former Australian Resources Minister on participants in the ‘Fridays for Future’ Global Climate Strikes in 2019

Since I gained political consciousness, environmental preservation has been portrayed by its opponents in the developed world as a niche cause that wealthy, white hipsters in chic suburbs use to flaunt their moral superiority over salt of the Earth laborers. Those fighting for reduced carbon emissions and less deforestation, renewable energy, sustainable agriculture and a Green New Deal have been intimated as having no stake in the implementation of the policies that they are championing. As such, their beliefs are branded as a mere lifestyle branding that is self indulgent and parasitic. While no ally of politicians the caliber of such as Canavan or McCormack, even the great anticolonial intellectual Edward Said once stated that environmentalism was ‘the indulgence of spoiled tree-huggers who lack a proper cause.’

The quotes above from two senior members of the Australian government reverberates with the contemptuous messaging that the denialist camp has used to bludgeon those advocating for a more robust approach to environmental protection. The aim of this type of commentary is to calcify in their target audience’s minds that their opponents are feckless, over-privileged, hysterical, self-righteous, superficial and disconnected.

This narrative is either intentionally manufactured by deliberate mendacity, or is unintentional ignorance borne of insularity. The purpose of environmental conservation is not to play to the consumer choices made by guilt ridden, bohemian leftists feigning empathy. It is a reality for the vast majority of the world’s most vulnerable, economically excluded and marginalized people.

As journalist and author Naomi Klein said in her 2019 book On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal, ‘although climate change will ultimately be an existential threat to all of humanity, in the short term it does discriminate, hitting the poor first and worst, whether they are abandoned on the rooftops of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina or are among the thirty-six million who, according to the United Nations, are facing hunger due drought in southern and East Africa‘.

Climate change will impact the lives of those living in the developing Global South more radically and devastatingly in it’s initial phases when compared to the lives of wealthy suburbanites living in more racially homogenous neighborhoods. The abovementioned situation is moral turpitude when one considers that someone living in a developed country such as Canada) has roughly a climate footprint fifteen times the size of someone living in a developing country like those listed above. Regions not readily associated with material wealth such as the South Pacific, the Mekong Delta Basin and Sub-Saharan Africa will be witness to calamities such as perilously increased sea levels, more destructive storms and lingering drought, disease and famine. And this is on top of environmental issues that aren’t immediately linked with the observable disasters caused by temperature rises sparked by climate change. Air pollution in places like Pakistan is now so severe that it is estimated to be responsible for 22% of all deaths in that country. The denuding of the Amazon rainforest, an area whose traditional owners are self sufficient indigenous peoples, to farm the cattle and soybeans that appeal to Western culinary sensibilities has increased by 9.5% to be at a 12 year high. Areas in countries like Indonesia and Guatemala now are cursed with waterways and beaches logged with ghastly plastic pollution. Ultimately, these people, our fellow human beings, will need somewhere to go to escape the natural despoliation that has made their homes unlivable. Already, the low lying Pacific island state of Kiribati has purchased land among the Fijian islands that it can evacuate it’s people to in the face of rising sea levels.

While those living in the developing world are indeed besieged by environmental vandalism, those living in the developed North suffer also from the degradation of their surroundings. However, in this case, it is often those who have been excluded from economic and political power who bear the brunt of the damage inflicted by environmental and capitalistic vandals. A conspicuous example that springs to mind is the Flint water crisis, but African American, urban and colored communities have had their neighborhoods entrapped in the claws of these corporate vultures and government officials for many years and across many different theatres. Some examples include:
The environmental justice movement in the United States was kickstarted in Warren County, North Carolina when a multiracial coalition of activists protested the dumping of PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls) in majority African American communities.
In Reserve, Louisiana, a town that has a majority Black population and is the site of the Japanese owned Denka chemical manufacturing plant, you are 50% more likely to get cancer than the mean average in the USA thanks to air toxicity that is 50 times higher than the national average.
〇 On a macro level, as climate change is further aggravated, neighborhoods of color are more vulnerable to increases in temperature due to a lack of green spaces, a surfeit of concrete and asphalt and, in some cases, segregationist planning laws dating back to the 1930’s.
〇 This pattern is not exclusive to the USA either. A 2015 study conducted by Imperial College in London found that the most deprived 20 per cent of neighborhoods within the United Kingdom that they investigated had higher air pollution levels than the least deprived neighborhoods; the bulk of these being in the capital city. The worst air pollution levels were tellingly seen in ethnically diverse neighborhoods.

The author of ‘Waste: One Woman’s Fight against America’s Dirty Secret, Catherine Coleman-Flowers
Credit: Columbia GSAPP, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Another example that reflects upon the role that race and class plays in determining the exposure one gets to the effects of environmental spoilage is ‘Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret’ by Catherine Coleman-Flowers. The theatre it is set in is Lowndes County, Alabama, and it’s main theme is the lack of functional sewage provided for the African American population in the area.

In Lowndes County’s case, their African American population is in what is considered a solid ‘red state’ (though it should be mentioned that the abovementioned example of Louisiana is nearly as strongly Republican as Alabama). Waste takes us to a part of the US which would not likely resonate with capital city environmental activists, and deals with those who might not come to mind initially when talking about the negative blowback of environmental degradation.

Stokely Carmichael was one of the civil rights leaders who the author associated with when she was younger.

The book is also partly a biography of Coleman-Flowers, and part investigation into infrastructure shortfalls in an area whose 9,726 population as of the 2020 census boasted a ratio of 72.4% African American residents. The county is part of what is called the ‘Black Belt’, because of the rich, dark soil as well as it’s history of being inhabited by both slaves and freedmen who worked said soil. Lowndes played a special role in the struggle for civil rights and encompasses much of Highway 80; the path of the historic march that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led to fight for voting rights. It was the arena which birthed the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO), a political party set up to protest the voting barriers put on the area’s Black population. The LCFO’s logo was a snarling black panther; an image to be adopted by the eponymous Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The organization itself was also to be used as a blueprint by Stokely Carmichael in the conception of Black Power. Tragically, Lowndes is also referred to as ‘Bloody Lowndes’, thanks to it’s history of racial lynchings and violence against those fighting for enfranchisement, self determination and freedom.

What ‘Waste’ adds to this discussion is a dissection of where environmental issues are impacting Black communities. This is launched into in chapter 1 when Coleman-Flowers outlines the paucity of infrastructure in the area where she grew up. This has lead to a situation where up to 90% of resident are confronted with sewage being ‘straight piped’ from their homes into fetid open sewage pits riddled by mosquitoes. Should said homes be supplied with a sewage system, these systems are prone to fail due to the high clay content of the soil of the land that the homes were built on. Furthermore, in a locale in which the average mean income from 2015-2019 was $20,0000 USD (in 2019 dollars) and the poverty rate 26.2%, septic tanks can cost up to $15,000. Staggeringly for the homeowners in that district, not only is not owning one a horrific burden on one’s health and well being due to an associated increase in hookworm infections, it is also a criminal offence.

From chapter 2 onwards, the book moves into Coleman-Flowers autobiography. This divergence is a fascinating insight into the life of someone with a history of activism in the field of civil rights and environmentalism that I admire deeply. However, I believed the book’s raison d’être got somewhat muddled at this point, and that this story would be told better if it were divided over two separate books. A separate book on sewage infrastructure in the US and environmental racism would have kept the narrative more tightly focused. That being said, her personal history is one definitely worth exploring. Born into a family whose home saw regular visits from prominent figures of the civil rights movement, Coleman-Flowers played a lead role in having her subpar high school principal, Dr. Robert Pierce, fired and in fighting against the merger of Alabama State University. She has also worked as a teacher as well as having served in the Air Force before being asked to return to tackle the problems in her hometown by an acquaintance from her youth. In her work as an activist, she has mingled with people with views that might be considered reactionary, such as Jeff Sessions, to those with genuinely progressive views, such as the Dr. William Barber II and Bernie Sanders. Names such as these prominently figure throughout the book.

This extensive dropping of names could be viewed as an attempt at self promotion. My genuine, and less cynical, intuition is that Coleman-Flowers was trying to put names to faces, thus allowing the reader to relate better with the story that she was trying to tell. Nonetheless, my belief is that a greater emphasis on people such as Pam Rush (whose passing, which was announced at the end of the book, was genuinely sad) and Shar, a mother with an autistic child and another on the way and whose $700 income was preventing her buying her legally mandated septic tank would have better personalized the issues she was highlighting. While there were many famous politicians listed, a lot of names were those involved in the NGO industry or politics, and this I felt made the text harder to access and potentially left it open to the aforementioned charge.

While what Coleman-Flowers lays bare is confronting, her investigative work also extends as far as Allensworth, California and Centreville, Illinois, I also wondered if the focus on individual personalities and behind the scenes wheeling-dealing tended to atomize the situation as a set of problems to be dealt with in isolation, rather than something that required a broader structural analysis. I appreciate that to achieve outcomes, you often have to work with those you don’t agree with. However, while working with Jeff Sessions to achieve a positive outcome on this end, I contend that many of the policies he championed while senator for Alabama, like opposing a reduction in minimum sentences for non violent crimes, supporting draconian policies like mandatory death sentences for those convicted of selling relatively benign drugs such as marijuana, bolstering the Bush era tax cuts, and cheerleading the war in Iraq, indirectly punished Black people by leaving them to the mercies of an already slanted criminal justice system, and by taking necessary monies away that could be used to empower their communities. While working with Sessions on this particular topic is constructive and to be commended, the rest of the reactionary project he represents needs to be unequivocally fought against to ensure this damage can be repaired and never replicated. I should mention at this point it is easier for someone like me to say this with the privileges I have compared to someone who is confronting the problems depicted in ‘Waste’.

Nonetheless, ‘Waste: One Woman’s Struggle Against America’s Dirty Secret’ is a good glimpse into a problem that many casual environmentalists may not have considered. It also focuses on an area that I believe the modern environmental movement itself tends to ignore: the role of communities of color in this fight. Until now, the movement has had a history of not being as sensitive to those from communities of color as it needs to be. We, as white activists, also need to understand their stake in this fight and embrace their comradeship.

Further References:
How the Problem of ‘Waste’ Affects the Rural Poor, NY Times, November 7, 2020
Activist Catherine Flowers: the poor living amid sewage is ‘the final monument of the Confederacy’, The Guardian, February 11, 2021

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