Poverty and the Environment- Musing on Intersectionality



I am blessed and privileged to work at an amazing place, The Morton Arboretum. The Arboretum is a leader in conservation research in the scientific community. They have a large number of PhDs on staff, and are constantly involved in partnering with other scientific organizations in the area on research projects.

Sometimes, our science staff will host visiting scientists and open up a presentation by the visitors for staff to come listen. It’s a great opportunity for someone who works in another department (like marketing, which is where I am) to come hear about the great work being done by scientists to support our mission­­—“to collect and study trees, shrubs, and other plants from around the world, to display them across naturally beautiful landscapes for people to study and enjoy, and to learn how to grow them in ways that enhance our environment”. It inspires me to continue my everyday work of promoting programs which drive revenue. Revenue which then goes back to the more “world-saving” work. These science and research based talks are known as “Tree Talks” and are hosted by The Arboretum’s Center For Tree Science.

Monday, January 30th, a group of scientists from the Field Museum of Chicago came to give one such talk. Their names are Chao Fan and Mark Johnson, and they are also working as part of an organization called CRTI (which pops up a lot in partnership with The Arboretum.) CRTI stands for Chicago Region Trees Initiative, a collaboration of organizations around Chicagoland which works to improve and restore a healthy urban forest (urban forest: all the trees within the urban area.) So far in my experiences at The Arboretum I have learned that these science partnerships are often complicated and confusing, and it seems like no scientist works in a vacuum. If it gets confusing, I apologize, I’m doing my best to explain something even I don’t have a full grip on.

The scientists from the Field are working about a “forest composition model” for the seven-county region surrounding Chicago, as part of CRTI’s efforts to improve Chicago’s urban forests.

I’m not going to go into the weeds here in regards to the actual research, because it got very confusing very quickly. What struck me about the talk was a question asked by an audience member: had the scientists investigated correlations between socio-economic factors and the number of trees?

Think about it:

How often are you driving through an area with significant poverty and notice a lack of trees or green spaces? Maybe you don’t, because maybe your eyes aren’t looking for them. However, it’s been researched- it is often those people who are the most disadvantaged that suffer the most from environmental degradation are those who are not well off in the first place. According to a group of researchers from Portland State University, “One of the most visible indicators of neighborhood income, and vegetation density is directly tied to health outcomes, especially for the vulnerable group, such as kids, the elderly, and people living below the poverty line.” (read more) This gets at the intersectionality of environmentalism, or environmentalism at its best.

The environmental movement is important to the overall health of humans. We know that trees and green spaces provide community and health benefits. (I’ll explore more in later blog posts) Unfortunately, those who do not have a lot of money often live in neighborhoods without a lot of green space due to low property value. This becomes a self-perpetuating trend in which the residents of the impoverished area then can’t afford to plant trees, and may not even understand the value of trees and green spaces to human, community, and land health.

It is the job of the environmental movement, in my opinion, to always keep an eye on environmental justice by making sure that our movement not only serves as a feel-good way for educated, white, upper class liberals to “save the world.” Frankly, many of the spaces I have been in (clubs, classrooms, workplaces) with an environmental focus, are white, middle and upper class men. At its best, and in order to best serve all people, we need to ensure that we are serving those populations which need our help the most. Whether that is working to ensure, as CRTI does, that our urban forests are healthy, volunteering to plant trees in an impoverished neighborhood or educate people on the benefits of green spaces to their community, or lobbying to ensure that corporations don’t locate their polluting factories in communities that don’t necessarily have the time or education to fight back, we have to serve all people, because the environment is here for all people. A green, clean earth should not just be for the wealthy, and I for one will always seek to make sure that my environmental activism is as intersectional as possible. (And if it ever isn’t, I always appreciate feedback as to how it can be more so!)


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