Community in the Time of Climate Crisis
Imagine that you live in a Town of half a million people, bigger than many US cities, on a thin little island/peninsula in the Atlantic Ocean.
Imagine that this Town’s waste plan for the past 50 years has been landfilling garbage, and then burning the garbage and landfilling the ash.
Imagine that this Town’s landfill has a 50 year history of mismanagement and blight including leachate plumes federal and state air quality emissions violations, noxious smells, and public health concerns.
Imagine that the community living closest to the Landfill is a Black, Latinx, Indigenous working class community, with a high population of children, many under the age of 5.
Imagine that this particular community adjacent to the Landfill has the lowest life expectancy of all of Long Island.
Imagine that you are living in the midst of climate crisis.
Imagine that incineration, burning waste is toxic and polluting.
Imagine that new incinerators and ashfills are almost impossible to build in this country, in this day and age, so those that exist, usually placed decades ago next to communities of color and/or poor communities—are expanded and refitted as the last gasps of a dying industry.
Imagine that in 2017 a documentary was made about the adverse health outcomes of the students and staff at a public school near the Landfilll.
Imagine that in the midst of the anguish and fear of parents, teachers and community, Town officials promised that the Landfill would close down when it reaches the end of its life in 2024.
Imagine that the Town officials do very little to plan for the closure of the Landfill, and instead apply for and win a state grant not to close the landfill but to expand it by building a new ashfill next door to it.
Imagine the community’s mistrust, the frustration, the uncertainty.
Imagine that the community says enough is enough and #ClosedMeansClosed!
Imagine that we say we will no longer accept the Town’s mismanagement and lack of planning! That we say human life is worth more than tipping fees. That in 2020 we can do more than burn increasingly large amounts of garbage and fill up holes in the ground until they become mountains, and then dig new holes next to the old toxic ground until the land spits us out.
Rise up Brookhaven, it’s time. Enough is enough! #Closed Means Closed
This was a FB post I wrote in October before one of our Landfill protests. Hopefully if we have time in the Q&A afterwards, I can share the rest of the story of where the fight to close and clean up the Brookhaven Landfill is right now)
Thank you for inviting me back here today. I am cognizant that there is a certain cyclical aspect to my return to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stony Brook pulpit. I am grateful for your desire to remain in community with me as the years pass, thankful to have this space to come, listen, and share, again. In the past. you invited me to talk about the Black Lives Matter concept and what it meant in Eastern Long Island. Today you have asked me here to talk about Earth Day and to share a little bit about my work as part of the Brookhaven Landfill Action & Remediation Group or BLARG.
Before we march toward Earth Day and talk about BLARG, I have to first return to one of our earlier meetings, in the year 2016, when I came to this pulpit to speak, I believe for the first time.
Now, I know that a lot of water has passed under the bridge in the years between then and now. Not everyone who was here then is here now; there have been shifts and losses. I want to acknowledge all that has happened since we last met. We have lived through the Trump presidency, we are living through the Covid 19 pandemic, I am joining you on video. There is a lot that has changed.
When I was last here, the fellowship was in the midst of some heavy discussion about a Black Lives Matter sign that kept on being stolen, a Black Lives Matter sign that made some of Felowship’s tenants and members concerned and fearful, a Black Lives Matter sign that spurred a intense discussion about who you were in this community and what that meant. In 2016, after I spoke, some in this community raised concerns that these three words strung together : Black Lives Matter were divisive or unnecessarily exclusive. These words Black Lives Matter, some worried, sought to prioritize a particular population, to lift up a small slice of the human community above others.
These concerns are not unique to this fellowship, obviously. The retort, ALL LIVES MATTER is a crystallization of the fear, this suspicion that Black Lives Matter somehow stands in opposition to recognizing the humanity of all of us. So when we spoke in 2016, I tried my best to explain the vision of interlocked and interdependent freedom buoying up these words: Black Lives Matter.
I should have referenced the Combahee River Collective, a Black, feminist socialist organization in the 1970s, who theorized it clearly when they explained that “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” The Black Lives Matter Guiding Principles, which are geared toward explaining the BLM concept to children explan this vision of interlocking freedom in this way: “To love & desire justice for ourselves is a necessary prerequisite for wanting the same for others.” Perhaps the simplest articulation of this idea that I’ve heard is a chant that you often hear at protests: All Lives Will Matter When Black Lives Matter.
Now, the difficult thing about accepting that a vision of interlocking and interdependent freedom requires setting some priorities, is that this flies in the face of everything we have been taught about how power works within our national history. What happens to my freedom, the All Lives Matter crowd wonders, when I fight and center the rights of some other community. The concept of a shared, interlocked liberation seems unbelievable in a country like ours, founded on settler colonialism, forged through the transatlantic slave trade and built up on a diet of war and wealth pursuit. In a country like our, power is always mapped onto domination. And so there are those these words some insist that BLM is a trick, a way for Black folk to grab resources and power. And those with more liberal sensibilities immediately start to wring their hands, wondering whether the framing may be too divisive and lack traction.
Even though our political heritage in the United States tells us that freedom is something to be hoarded, and that our power comes from our ability to dominate resources; the earth that groans under the weight of our choices and our apathy, tells us another story.
What is our responsibility in this season of floods and droughts, of wildfires, of pandemics? The earth is teaching us a lesson about where we are and when we are; we are being taught new priorities. As we confront a climate crisis that will not be denied, our inherited understanding of progress and power must be shifted. Part of what BLARG has taught me is that, given the time it is on the clock of the earth, there is no greater priority than community.
That is my topic for today, strategic community in the time of the climate crisis.
I am a member of the Brookhaven Landfill Action & Remediation Group or BLARG, a community coalition that has come together since the summer of 2020, in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder and the summer of uprising to support the closure and the clean-up of the Brookhaven Landfill.
In the summer of 2020, advocates and activists from North Bellport came together to insist that Black Lives Matter must have local agenda. These activists came together to insist that in Suffolk County, we could not say Black Lives Matter without also saying something about the Brookhaven Landfill.
The Brookhaven Landfill is a grave environmental injustice hiding in plain sight. In 1974, the Landfill was placed next to one of only two majority Black neighorhoods in Brookhaven Town. Since then, the Landfill has been a particular blight on the working class community of North Bellport and has expanded and grown over the years. Now it is a regional waste destination, and the mountain of waste has grown to 276 feet. There are fifty years of toxic odors, fifty years of complaints from the fenceline communities. The properties of North Bellport have been impacted by their proximity to the Brookhaven Landfill, the public school district has been impacted. The Landfill has been a troubled and mismanaged site for decades, has been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars by the US EPA for violating the Clean Air Act. Something is terribly wrong. And even as I also want to acknowledge the beuty and resilience of North Bellport . There is so much innovation, so much talent, so much heart and history and pride and genius in this community, and the Landfill is a limiting factor that limits the construction of affordable housing, a destabilizing factor as teachers leave the district in order to not teach at the base of the Landfill, it takes people away too soon.
For all these reasons, at BLARG we center and prioritize the experience of North Bellport, the fence-line community that has borne the brunt of our region’s waste needs for the past five decades. For this community, the Landfill is a toxic neighbor; the families who breathe in the noxious smells, whose mental and emotional health is impacted; whose ability to gain equity and wealth in their homes is impacted must have a voice, and a seat at the table.
But we should also be clear about one thing: the Brookhaven Landfill is not solely a North Bellport problem. Today, the Brookhaven Landfill accepts the waste of 2 million people, approximately 660 K housheholds. Every year, around 700 K tons of construction and demolition debris and 350 K tons of incinerator ash is deposited into the Brookhaven Landfill. As a lynchpin in the Long Island’s regional waste infrastructure, we have to understand that all of us in this room are connected to the Brookhaven Landfill. In this highly segregated Long Island, the Landfill is one thing that we all have in common. Our Brookhaven Town elected official in both political parties have embraced the Landfill as a cash cow, they have shielded it from scrutiny because its net revenues account for a certain percentage of the Town’s operating budget, and so, for decades, the complaints of the proximate communities have been brushed under the rug. The Brookhaven Landfill is part of our collective story, and as we often say at BLARG, it will take all of us to close the Landfill and get it cleaned up.
When the Brookhaven Landfill completely closes, it will be because we have gathered together as a community to push our local and state government to develop a rational, regional and sustainable plan for waste management. When the Brookhaven Landfill is finally cleaned up, it will be because we gathered together as a community again, and pushed our government to acknowledge the harm of the past decades and to prioritize economic, environmental, and social redress for the communities that have been impacted. The existence of the Brookhaven Landfill, which allows the Town to profit from the cycle of burn and dump has protected Covanta Energy, the multinational incinerator company operating on Long Island from scrutiny. Covanta as one the biggest polluters, one of the largest sources of emissions in NY state, and when the Landfill finally closes it will be because we care about leaving a habitable world for our grandchildren. The closure of the Landfill is also an impetus to develop and commit to a zero waste plan with clear and measurable targets for reducing and recycling our waste. Our abysmal recycling rates will be a thing of the past, because we will have had to roll up our sleeves and create a plan to actually be accountable for our waste. When the Brookhaven Landfill finally closes it will be because we have come to terms with where we are, and when we are, and have decided to be accountable for our impact on the Earth.
BLARG’s fight for justice for North Bellport is also a fight for a liveable future for us all and an ethical relationship with our neighbors, near and far, and our earth.
I would like to share a short video clip at this time of comments made by Supervisor Romaine at last week’s Long Island Metro Business Association breakfast meeting. After speaking about the solid waste crisis, the Town supervisor opened himself up for question and answer period. I asked a question about why environmental justice concerns were not a part of the supervisor’s presentation and specifically why the experience of North Bellport residence and other proximate areas was not a part of the Supervisor’s presentation. This was the Supervisor’s response: “Abena, for example, does not live in North Bellport. She lives in Brookhaven Hamlet, one of the wealthiest communities, that we have in Long Island. So for her to speak for North Bellport is somewhat disingenuous.”
North Bellport speaks for itself. North Bellport has been speaking for itself for fifty years or more about the Brookhaven Landfill. When neighbors join their voices with North Bellport to advocate for a better future, it is the opposite of disingenuous! It is strategic community!
Without attempting to single the Supervisor out, I share these clips because it is rare to have such a clear distillation of how an impoverished sense of community has been weaponized to insulate the Brookhaven Landfill from criticism and to circumvent accountability.
For Supervisor Romaine, my home’s location in Brookhaven hamlet somehow invalidates my concerns about my neighbors in North Bellport. Our Supervisor drops my address in Brookhaven Hamlet as though the location of my home somehow makes it impossible for me to care about conditions that are past the end of the road. Perhaps the Supervisor does not know that before I was a resident of Brookhaven Hamlet, I was a Black woman in America, and that for me, injustice wherever it is found, is definitely always my business. Perhaps the Supervisor does not know that long before I was a resident of Brookhaven Hamlet I was a follower of a Middle Eastern teacher and mystic who posed the question, ‘who is my neighbor?’ as a life ethic and policy program. Perhaps the Supervisor does not know that before I was a resident of Brookhaven Hamlet I was a resident of planet earth.
One of my civil rights heroes Grace Lee Boggs, a Detroit civil rights activist and revolutionary thinker, it is said, always used to ask comrades, friends, and advocates doing liberation and movement work the question: what time is it on the clock of the world? Grace Lee Boggs posed this seed of a question as a way to challenge justice-minded people to consider whether their strategy and choices were actually aligned with where and when we actually are in historical time.
In some ways, this is the same question that the climate crisis youth activists are shouting from the rooftops. How must we organize, live, and travel, and feed ourselves, considering the clock of our world?
When I consider the clock of the world, there is nothing more important than strategic community. So this is the question that I will leave you with today? What time is it, UUFSB, on the clock of the world?