by John L. Godwin
Editor’s Note: This article was presented in summary form on June 9 at a conference on global warming held at UNCW. The conference was organized by the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Wilmington in partnership with the UNCW Division for Public Service and Continuing Studies. For additional information on the conference, go to
Massive hurricanes, explosive tornadoes, typhoons in the Pacific, heat-waves that kill thousands, rising sea levels and coastal flooding on a worldwide scale, agriculture despoiled by drought and desertification in regions once noted for their productivity, melting glaciers and polar icecaps, a deluge of rainstorms in areas once noted for their aridity—these are but a few of the outward signs of global climate change. Scientists employing a wide range of methods have analyzed sedimentary cores, measured atmospheric gases, photographed the melting glaciers and the bleached and dying coral reefs of the Pacific. They have studied the migrations of plants and insects due to climate change, just as social scientists have measured the burgeoning growth of human population on the planet. A broad array of data seems to confirm what visually the weather has already conveyed. The June 2007 issue of National Geographic, with a brilliant photographic clarity reveals what Al Gore’s popular film and book, An Inconvenient Truth, along with scores of other recent studies, have already so well shown. Both wildlife and human cultures are today profoundly threatened by a pattern of warming seas and atmospheric temperatures, bringing devastation to native habitats, to plant and animal species, and in some cases to the humans who depend on them for their survival.
Those who study the environment have over the past thirty to fifty years and more offered a consistent prescription to cure the ills that in more recent times have been linked causally to global warming by environmental science. Federal and state laws designed to curb air and water pollution, protect threatened and endangered wildlife, while promoting the maintenance of national parks and forests in such a way as to maintain biological diversity in the U.S., have laid the basis for a new paradigm in the politics of environmental reform. But—as the global warming debate has already revealed—the first wave of nationally-applied environmental protection legislation has done little more than to establish a foundation for what is to come. The true social implications of the growing world wide environmental crisis have only just begun to be felt. And so the politics of environmental reform are only just beginning to reveal their outlines.
But already the imperatives of the new politics have become clear: clean air, water, and the maintenance of biological diversity locally, nationally and globally are all absolute requirements for the healthful survival of life on earth. But what will the impact of global climate change ultimately be for the poor and disadvantaged groups both locally and on a global scale? How does the problem of social and racial injustice, and the history of racial and class conflict and crisis in North Carolina and the U.S.A. figure into the larger equation for environmental reform today and for the future? If the problem of the environment as such presupposes that a new political understanding is necessary to bring about reform—the problems of poverty and racism remain as current today as ever before. Yet, over the course of American history, and through recent years, much has been learned about avenues by which to address the problems of social and racial injustice. A crucial feature of the new paradigm is the synthesis between social and environmental science borne out in the assertion that in any scenario for global climate catastrophe, it is the most vulnerable populations, the poor, the elderly, the sick or the disabled, and the historic victims of racial or social injustice—African Americans, Hispanics, small farmers and working Americans generally—who will suffer the most and ultimately pay the price with their livelihoods and their lives.1
The recent New Orleans disaster, as a global warming related disaster paradigm, is but a case in point. When on August 28, 2005 Hurricane Katrina made landfall it left not just a city, but an entire region in devastation. According to data produced by FEMA and made available through HUD, the two hurricanes, Katrina, and along with it Hurricane Rita which followed on September 24, left more than 700,000 people temporarily without housing over an area that stretched across parts of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Of these, some 300,000 were people of low income, creating a Diaspora as hundreds of thousands of permanently displaced persons left the region or were transported to regions beyond. New Orleans, which sustained the most damage due to its geography and location, was already a city of extreme poverty and degradation for the socially disadvantaged—a city where the impact of 1960s social and civil rights reforms and federal anti-poverty programs was seemingly nonexistent. With a poverty rate at 28% of the population, compared to 12% for the nation, New Orleans was also intensely segregated by race, with public schools at 93.4% Black and 80% poor, and public housing at virtually 100% Black. With over 75% of the city of New Orleans affected by flooding during and after the storm, much of the city was left contaminated by brackish receding waters, revealing a mixture of dead bodies and pollution from chemical residues, from paint, gas, oil, and polluted soils accrued from past generations. With a health care system that was all but destroyed, hospitals, clinics, health departments and nursing homes mostly closed or drastically reduced in capacity, and with basic transportation, communication and electricity shut down or unavailable for months thereafter—Hurricane Katrina offered the spectacle of a large-scale disaster linked increasingly in the public’s perception to global warming.2
But in social terms, especially reflecting the character and intensity of its impact on people, the disaster was as much the product of the failure of government as an act of nature. Perhaps equally important, the public face of the Katrina disaster was Black. Stetson Kennedy, a noted author who had exposed the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s, observed that the victims of Katrina “were poor and for the most part, dark-skinned... In a matter of days, America stood stripped naked in the eyes of the world... When catastrophe strikes, it’s not the women and children first, but the Haves, and the Devil take the Have-Nots.”3
As a disaster paradigm for global warming, the lessons of Katrina are complex—but can be reduced to a few simple points. First, in any potential global warming disaster scenario, the general condition of the victims overall will become a primary determinant in shaping the magnitude of the disaster. The history of social injustice and racism in New Orleans, as on a wider scale through much of the region, already revealed a deeper and pervasive failure of government to produce workable solutions to public problems. Second, the very persistence of racism, racial injustice, and the mentality of which it is a product—contributes greatly to the wider failure to bring governmental solutions to bear on specific problems related to environmental concerns. And if the Katrina event is significant as a climate change disaster scenario especially because of what it reveals about the social consequences of such a disaster, it must also be kept in mind that such a scenario is only one facet of a much broader scale of potential climate change side-effects. In any such disaster, large masses of impoverished persons cut off from adequate assistance from government by racial or ethnic discrimination become in effect dead weight—adding fuel to the fires of destruction as a large mass of potentially distressed persons are subjected to conditions of exposure, dehydration, starvation, public disorder, and contagious diseases.
On a global scale, the destruction of indigenous farming practices in developing countries, with impoverished masses pushed back against the threshold of diminishing resources, threatens rapidly growing populations around the world with declining nutrition, deteriorating public health, and with infestation of diseases, threatening to compound such disaster scenarios into a wider fabric of regional catastrophe. The biblical image of the apocalypse may well seem appropriate to describe this, for the experience is not a new one: famine, pestilence, plague and catastrophic mass death have been frequent enough visitors in the course of human history. Historian Clive Ponting has argued in his Green History of the World (1991) that such episodes of environmental devastation linked with cataclysmic mass death have indeed been a recurrent theme, defining to some extent the rise and fall of human societies. By 1850, according to Ponting, a combination of modernization in technology, improved techniques in agriculture, the introduction of new foods, along with the quickening pace of the world economy enabled modern societies to break through the constraints that had defined traditional cultures through the centuries. The result was an explosive growth in world population, mushrooming cities, a new level of human affluence, but along with it a new range of threats from social dislocation, pollution, environmental destruction on a massive scale and ultimately the threat of global climate change itself. With human society on earth having advanced to a stage of mass global culture, the potential scenario in the twenty-first century threatens to engulf the entire planet in a wider pattern of mass death—in short, an impending global apocalypse borne from out of the shadow of antiquity.4
Here in North Carolina there is no shortage of environmental waste, contamination, and destruction to indicate that the state is confronted ultimately with the same environmental dilemma shared by the rest of the planet. Chemical effluents from industrial production in the air and water, the conversion of forests into fields and sprawling suburbs, the decimation of mountain and coastal forests of native species due to the harvesting of timber, infestation and blight, along with the impacts of air pollution, the destruction of coastal habitats for fish, birds and other wildlife due to water and air pollution—these suggest but a few of the environmental impacts seen in recent years. In the mountains and on coastlines a reckless pattern of overdevelopment has pushed human habitation onto barrier islands and into mountain hollows once left for the most part for wildlife with only an occasional human visitor.5 The post-1960s transformation of North Carolina agriculture brought the consolidation of production, especially in livestock, bringing the growth of mass corporate farms with vast concentrations of hogs and poultry producing an outpouring of wastes on a scale unheard of in North Carolina. Within a matter of a few years, the hog population of many rural counties skyrocketed from tens of thousands to tens of millions. Then, in 1996, 1998 and again in 1999, Hurricanes Bertha, Fran, Dennis and Floyd brought North Carolina its own version of the paradigmatic global warming Katrina event—a series of hurricanes and torrential rainstorms that laid bare the environmental crisis by flooding river plains and wetland areas, forcing spills from giant hog waste lagoons that then caused millions of gallons of waste contamination to pour into North Carolina rivers. On the Neuse and Pamlico Rivers newspapers recorded the results—the massive fish-kills numbering in the billions. Pollution in coastal sounds and waterways threatened vital fish spawning grounds that rightly belong to all the world, while in the air and water, the threat to public safety led to an outcry against massive corporate factory hog farms.6
In the search for a new paradigm of environmental responsibility, revealed in the case of New Orleans, as for North Carolina and beyond, public policy solutions must include issues of social and racial justice in the reform equation. In both situations, long before the hurricanes struck, the failure of government that put short-term profit takers in charge while shortchanging the public—brought profits for money takers while the working poor, the small farmers, the unemployed masses of the cities, and the socially outcast were left to fend for themselves. Adam Fairclough, in his sweeping study Race and Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972 (1995), surveyed the panorama of civil rights activism by African Americans in Louisiana and the city of New Orleans. Forced to take the leadership by pervasive opposition to equal civil and human rights by whites, Blacks waged a long, slow, agonizing campaign characterized by lurid denunciations, legal pettifoggery, deception, manipulation, terrorism and murder itself. Blacks made enormous progress through victories in voting rights that led to public office, broad participation in government and a degree of social and cultural integration never experienced before in the history of Louisiana. But as for the case of civil rights reform in North Carolina, the stresses of reform in the face of white manipulation, bigotry, and violence led to a breakdown in the intense idealism and optimism of the 1960s. The costs of reform were high, so high that many cashed out of the movement and a deepening split over basic issues helped to sustain the nationwide drift toward conservatism in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.7
In North Carolina, champions of Black civil rights among elected officials in the 1980s were as hard to find as representatives of the small farmers who had once held a distinctive place of influence in the state’s political culture. Although small farmers were hardly perfect stewards of the environment, the catastrophic impacts of pollution events such as hog waste lagoon spills and massive fish-kills punished these residents twice. Cut off from adequate returns by big corporate agriculture, small farmers, Black and white, lost out in the race toward farm consolidation, and then—lost access to the commons—the forests, streams, rivers, lakes, the sounds and in some cases even the ocean itself as corporate agricultural pollution contaminated water and destroyed wildlife. Farmers who had survived in the Great Depression era of the 1930s through fishing and hunting to supplement meager incomes, in the 1980s and 1990s, saw their grandchildren cut off from the agricultural economy that left them little room to survive within the industry. In New Orleans, long prior to Katrina, and in North Carolina, the dominant conservative philosophy of government has meant that public interest solutions have too often been lacking. And eastern North Carolina has remained one of the most impoverished regions of our state, with a rate of poverty and unemployment among white and Blacks to rival that of New Orleans itself. A special report compiled in Carolina Civic Voice for the winter 2006 issue showed a poverty rate of 15.1% for North Carolina as whole. But among African Americans that rate is significantly higher at 24%, and these numbers have been on the increase since 2000. Reports also indicate that for rural counties across the state and especially in the east, the rate of poverty may be as high as 40% for the general population.8
From the environmental side of this debate we know that the search for solutions is only just beginning to be heard from. The new paradigm of green reform must find public policy solutions to the problems of food production, air and water pollution, and the reduction of carbon emissions that contribute to greenhouse gases linked to the larger problem of global climate change. But the wider environmental debate today suggests that a change in the policies and behavior of governments and business is but a beginning. The new paradigm must involve a change in our most intrinsic underlying assumptions, in a manner likely to produce changes in our culture and our way of life. This suggests that the poor along with those very minorities that have been the victims of injustice have much to contribute that is larger than a mere scenario of disaster in which their role is that of helpless victims. The history of reform struggles within the U.S. shows that repeatedly, where effective grassroots organizing occurs, changes in public attitudes, policies and economic practices can ultimately occur. Through the long history of reform in the U.S., African Americans, so often the victims of injustice, have also been active players in the political process—and how they contribute to the new paradigm will have enormous bearing on the success of reform as well as the role played by the U.S. in the larger global process of reform. The same is true for the Southern states where the influence of African Americans remains large, where the need for reform has been great, and where the conservative philosophy of government has remained a pervasive influence.
But the new paradigm of reform will present African Americans as well as the rest in the U.S. and the rest of the world, with a series of unique challenges that will test to the limits of endurance. The history of population growth, industrialization, and the mechanization of agriculture in Western countries suggest that the Western model of growth and development has been a deciding factor in the emerging global climate crisis. By the year 2,000, as world population ticked upward of six billion and counting, seemingly on its way toward an inconceivable 15 billion by 2100, the consequences of the spread of the Western model to Asian, Latin American, and African societies suggests that the problem has and will continue to compound itself in a Malthusian cycle of population growth threatening always to outstrip resources and the capacity for basic survival. In China, a nation of more than a billion persons, where the traditional practice of village agriculture has remained in place until very recent times, we can only imagine the devastation and social dislocation that would result with the mechanization of agriculture on a scale similar to that in the United States. Yet the mechanization of agriculture was intrinsic to the social transformation in the U.S. since World War II, where the introduction of the mechanical cotton harvester and the tobacco harvester uprooted whole communities of African American and sent tens of thousands into the cities where urban crisis and racial discrimination set the stage for ghetto riots of the 1960s and the continuing malaise of the American city.9
As so often has been the case, the richest examples from which we may profit in consideration of the future may be drawn from an appreciation of history. Acting on a philosophy of government that embraced social change and diversity while extolling human rights, progressive reformers in the twentieth century joined in the campaign for fair labor standards that paved the way for the legislative advances of the liberal era from 1933 to 1969. The minimum wage, the forty-hour work week, the abolition of child labor, the establishment of Social Security and Workmen’s compensation programs were ardently sought by those who sought to join forces with African Americans of the Civil Rights Movement to extend the benefits of active government on an equal basis to persons of color. Through more than a century of activism, African Americans in North Carolina waged a continuing campaign for fairness, citizenship and an equal stake in the state economy. And in the 1960s, as state sanctioned racial segregation became a thing of the past, a new era of political participation and social equality was inaugurated. White North Carolinians often resisted these advances with the same furor and antagonism as in the state of Louisiana. A deeply ingrained ideology of resistance pitted Blacks and whites in opposition for the control of governmental, educational, and cultural resources. The ideology of resistance stressed a divinely sanctioned social order based on white superiority and insisted that a winner/ loser model of social relations must ultimately define the state’s social horizons for all time.
Uncovering the New Paradigm:
History, Politics, Poverty, Racism and Global Warming in North Carolina and Beyond
From Carolina Civic Voice
Vol. 7, No. 2, Summer 2007