The Mohawk people, one of the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, lived in northern New York near where I live, and many still do. Their leaders had a rule that every decision must be made considering its effects seven generations in the future.
That’s roughly 150 years. How many times do you think our leaders have made decisions considering the impact they could have 150 years in the future?
It’s doubtful they ever have, at least from what I see from my home, which overlooks the Cobleskill Creek in the Schoharie Valley. The wildlife patterns have changed. The weather patterns have changed. In my 30-plus years here, I’ve seen manifestations of the climate crisis we are facing.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and while the milestone was celebrated worldwide April 22, for many it was overshadowed by COVID-19. That’s unfortunate. But to view these catastrophes separately is a mistake.
They are symptoms of the same problem—environmental degradation. These crises predominately impact the poor in communities of color. Clearly, we face a global crisis of environmental justice.
The roots of this injustice are deep and centuries old, and they spread as our industrialized society continues to exploit the Earth in pursuit of profits and our own comfort. While the population has more than doubled since the first Earth Day in 1970, the extinction of species, loss of wild lands and amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has grown exponentially.
Through a radical retreat from environmental protections by the Trump Administration, over 100,000 Americans die each year from illnesses caused by overuse of coal, natural gas, and oil. With our never-ending hunger for energy and consumption, we are killing our world. The poorest communities are paying the steepest price.
At the same time, people die daily from the coronavirus. As I record this, more than 224,000 people have died of COVID-19 worldwide and more than 3 million cases have been confirmed. We know that the rates of mortality are highest in the cities and specifically in communities of color, where air pollution is the worst.
It’s not just in the cities, though, as the rates of coronavirus infection and mortality are unacceptably high in Native American communities — especially in the west. The Navajo Nation has the third-highest per capita rate of COVID-19 after New York and New Jersey.
So, the question asked at the first Earth Day remains. How do we heal our Earth—or at least begin to? One thing is certain; we must come to terms with how we manipulate and exploit our natural world. Our actions have real effects on our lives through long-term illness, floods, fires, and other natural disasters.
United University Professions, the nation’s largest higher education union, has developed proposals for our campuses to lead the way in changing how energy is created and stored in our communities while training the next generation of scientists to combat the climate crisis.
For years, UUP has pushed for an expansion of health care delivery systems in the poorest communities ravaged by COVID-19, especially Brooklyn. We’ve advocated tirelessly to expand public support for our Academic Medical Centers, which provide necessary health care to hundreds of thousands of people and produce cutting-edge research to improve the health and security for all New Yorkers.
UUP has also called for reduced costs for medical education while expanding and diversifying the professional ranks of healers in our state and nation.
We will need healing after the coronavirus is contained. But without addressing the greater issue of environmental justice, we set ourselves up for the next natural disaster.
For our nation to get beyond the simplistic, partisan responses to these crises, we must have an educated population that will make better choices for our future. That’s why now is the time to expand funding for public higher education, not cut it.
An educated, motivated population will bring about the changes we need to address environmental injustice, especially in those communities where so much suffering is taking place.
Let’s build SUNY. Let’s build a just, healthy world. Let’s protect the environment for our children, their children, and their children’s children.
Seven generations into the future. 150 years. That is our task today and every day.
We are a part of this Earth, and we always will be.
Dr. Fred Kowal is President of the 35,000 member United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 New York State Campuses. UUP is an affiliate of NYSUT, The American Federation of Teachers, The National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.
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