Q&A: Majora Carter

The MacArthur-winning "environmental racism" fighter talks about green ghettoes and the need for a new Work Projects Administration-style project on the Gulf Coast.

Mother Jones: What would it take to create green jobs that would help both the environment and the economy?
Majora Carter: People can complain as much as they want about $4-a-gallon gas, but the problem really is that the reason why the price is even that low is that the industry—the oil and coal industries both—have been subsidized a tremendous amount. We need to see that same tide of support given to the nonpolluting economy that is actually going to provide renewable energy, green manufacturing, those wonderful things that allow jobs to stay in our country, that aren't polluting the environment more and that are actually providing desperately needed environmental services that can actually help mitigate climate change and also clean up the environment and also provide jobs at the same time. So there needs to be an understanding, whether it's coming on high or from down below, the grassroots level, that these are the kinds of jobs that are necessary here. I like to think of it as something along the lines of a green New Deal.

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MJ: If we do create those green jobs, then how do we make sure they go to the right people?

MC: I've seen it happen, even in my own neighborhood: We've started working on a waterfront revitalization project, and the city would bring in folks from outside of our community to do this work, often AmeriCorps workers or something of that nature. If we trained our people to do this work, we could do this work. And that's what we did. There has to be a real proactive linkage in making sure that happens. And making sure everybody's issues and needs are actually being met, but that actually involves open, honest communication. There definitely needs to be some real deliberate collaboration between communities and unions in ways that help everyone understand that if we play this right, then there will be more jobs than any of us could possibly deal with.

MJ: Beyond gas prices, there's a case to be made that the less sustainable we are, the more the poor people pay the brunt of it.

MC: Yes. Absolutely. The pollution-based economy did so well because it was politically expedient to push these kinds of facilities and policies on these communities because there was less political power. We didn't have anybody fighting for us in our communities. In the South Bronx we absolutely experience that. It wasn't like we didn't have elected officials. You could count on less than two fingers the ones, not even 10 years ago, who had actually recognized that this was a problem and were actually doing something about it. I find it mind-boggling how these things are done so quickly in our communities without nary a peep, it seems, from anybody.

MJ: The community-building message is an important one. How do we make that message known to politicians?

MC: I do not think environmentalists have been incredibly good at putting that message out there. There's been much, much more of a moralistic argument rather than a moral one, like "This is our earth; we need to take care of it." The earth also will pay us back lots of benefits, and that was really the basis for our starting the ecological-job training program. We were like, "Look, we want to restore our environment and we also need to restore ourselves." And we thought you could do them both at the same time. That's why the whole idea of green jobs is that people can have a personal as well as a financial stake in the environment. That's a win win, that's something that people can understand. That's the kind of thing that could appeal to regular joes and also the politicians that are trying to get their votes.

MJ: What's your take on carbon taxing and cap and trade—the economic angle on climate change?

MC: I'm still a little worried about the cap-and-trade stuff. The whole idea of it is based on the idea that polluters can be allowed credits based on how much they pollute. For example, a company that does sewage sludge pelletizing, they know they're emitting lots of pollution. So, in some other part of the country or the world, someone decides to plant a big grove of trees to offset the amount of pollution that they're making in the South Bronx. But it has no local impact at all. Somewhere the environment is getting better, but it sure as hell ain't here.

MJ: It's sort of unclear whether the environment is even actually getting better somewhere else.

MC: People need to see that things have changed. Not just "Ten years from now, they're going to change." No. They need to know now, especially those who have no reason to believe in anything, because those are going to be your biggest supporters going down the line. I'm talking just celebrating the little victories. They don't have to be monumental things. I, personally, would love for our next president to say, "We're going to build a national grid, because it is about the transmission lines." Because our transmission lines and the system itself are pretty nonexistent. It's pretty hard to get energy where it needs to go. However, if our country decided that what it really wanted to do was make it easier for companies to invest in renewable energy so they could actually sell and get their stuff to market, they would need a vehicle, transmission lines, to do so. And if our country decided that this is where they'd want to make those investments—again, a huge green-job generator—it would be more jobs than this country could handle. And it would be a piece of infrastructure this country will absolutely need. It's an investment now. I have no idea how much it would cost. I know it wouldn't be cheap, but I know it's going to cost a hell of a lot more later when we're still trying to dig in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It's a little silly, if you ask me, to not think about things like that.

MJ: You're probably really familiar with Obama's green-jobs initiative. What do you think about it?

MC: I think it's pretty ambitious. I do wish that it had more in it about horticultural infrastructure and low-impact development, because climate change is already happening. Period. It's not sort of going to happen; it's already happening. And we're seeing it in particular around more intense storm surges. They're starting to close down subways in New York when it's really bad. The city stops. And it happened twice last year. That's going to happen more and more often. So if we're not thinking about ways to capture storm water before it moves forward, then it's going to be much harder to deal with it going forward.

I'm going to be proposing another huge, kind of Work Projects Administration project in the Gulf Coast region to unearth all those wetlands that have been capped over for whatever reason, many of them incredibly stupid and not even serving any purpose right now. Last Wednesday, I think, on the front cover of the New Orleans Times-Picayune there was a story about how everyone's trying to pass the buck on who's going to try to fix up New Orleans. There are parts of it that are lovely and have been totally restored, and then you walk a block away and it's just like Katrina happened yesterday. It's unbelievable. No one wants to deal with it. And guess what? People are going to suffer. And right underneath the story was this fantastic article about how dollar for dollar, low-impact developments like wetlands restoration could be much more effective in storm-water management than anything else. And, of course, the EPA backs them up on that, too. But nobody wants to look at that, these infrastructure projects. If they unearth the nonessential wetlands that have been paved over in the Gulf Region, that could be an enormous amount of support for the people of New Orleans in terms of jobs created now and minimizing the impact of hurricanes later.

MJ: Do you believe there's a green bubble?

MC: I've heard Tom Friedman say this isn't a green revolution; it's a green party. It's probably easier for him to say if he's not working in an environmental-justice community. For us, it has been quite a revolution. There have actually been lots of casualties, which is why we're focusing so much on how to create a real cost-effective way to deal with the stuff that allows people who've been cut out of every major economic boom to not only participate but be the real heroes in it in ways that allow for it to prosper. For us on the ground, we've seen the effects of the public health costs, and now we know without a shadow of a doubt that exposure to fossil fuel emissions causes learning disabilities in young kids, and we know that makes them better candidates for jail rather than for higher education or for decent jobs. So for us it's really important to realize that if we green our ghettos now, we're actually saving the planet. And we're doing it in a way that allows the folks—I don't care what color they are—in our ghettos to be the active participants in the betterment of the environments and makes them less of a drain on society as well as themselves.

MJ: How do we get that message into the mainstream?

MC: We need to start understanding the connections: Even if you don't give a rat's ass about poor people of any color, you can't expect for the narwhal or the polar bear to do just fine if you ignore the cities. You're never going to fix the Arctic until you deal with the point sources for greenhouse gases. And they are located in poor communities of color all over this world. We've been so conditioned in so many ways not to see the earth for the people unless they're part of that eco-elite kind of thing. But I've seen them in all colors—people who have felt completely disconnected from the mainstream environmental movement, who are just like, "Oh, wait a second, there ain't no environment in the South Bronx and that crazy black chick is talking about it. And it actually makes sense that she's talking about people." That inspires folks to think, "You know, maybe there is an environment, and maybe it does have my name on it. And maybe I can be a part of its getting better." The fact that we're talking about the green economy is a way to move people, to help them realize that their self-interest is tied up in the environment getting better. That's the more realistic way for people to start seeing it. And hopefully we will start seeing the mainstream environmental movement wanting to be a part of it. I think they're moving slowly in that direction.

MJ: So you don't think we've already passed the point of no return? That people have just given up?

MC: I don't think we're at that place just yet. The kind of socially uplifting environmentalism that we're doing, it's the kind of thing that people respond to because it's a hopeful message, not doom and gloom. It's not in our best interest to be preaching that right now. This is about, "You can do well in this new green economy; you can actually have a healthy life as well. You don't have to worry about the choice between saving the environment and having a job. You can have one that does both." And that's a message that needs to get out there more and more. I mean, I just wish someone would say, "Let's just stop subsidizing oil and coal." But then he'd just get shot right off the bat. Might not be helpful. I don't think we've passed the point of no return. I just don't think we've really taken into account how much further we can go. I'm incredibly optimistic about the future that we have right now. It's going to take some time, but sometimes hitting rock bottom is a good thing for humanity.

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