Home Commentary Who’s Carrying the Backpack? Environmental justice legislation would ensure equitable distribution...

Who’s Carrying the Backpack?
Environmental justice legislation would ensure equitable distribution of burdens and benefits

By Marisa D. Keller

Imagine that you and I go on a hike. I give you the heavy backpack full of food and water as we start off, and then I get so far ahead you can’t ever ask me to take a turn carrying it. When you finally catch up with me at the top of the mountain, you throw yourself down for a well-deserved break. But after you’ve finished stretching your sore muscles, you discover that I’ve eaten almost all of our food. All that’s left for you is one small apple. While you’re nibbling on the core, I declare it’s my turn to carry the backpack and take off down the mountain with the rest of our water, leaving you hungry and thirsty and tired and alone.

I think we can all agree that’s an example of an inequitable distribution of burdens (in this case, a heavy backpack and sore muscles) and benefits (food and water and hiking energy). 

There’s a bill in the Vermont Senate right now, S.148, that would address a significant burdens-versus-benefits issue in Vermont: environmental justice. Compared with issues such as childcare, property taxes, or COVID, environmental justice may seem like an abstract concept with no direct bearing on people’s lives. That could not be farther from the truth.

For example, mobile homes make up 7.2% of Vermont’s housing stock, but were 40% of sites damaged by Tropical Storm Irene. Members of the Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) population are seven times more likely to have gone without heat in the past year, and are seven times less likely to own a solar panel. And individuals of the BIPOC population are also disproportionately exposed to air and water pollution, mold, and lead, and are three times more likely to get Lyme disease. A fifth of white Vermonters and three-quarters of BIPOC Vermonters live in “nature-deprived” areas. These examples of disproportionate burdens and benefits are all from the “Findings” section of the proposed bill.

All in all, according to the bill’s findings, 52% of Vermonters are considered environmentally disadvantaged in some way. In other words, half the population of Vermont is carrying the backpack and not getting any lunch. Correcting this situation is not only a human rights issue, it is an essential piece of giving Vermont communities the resources and resilience needed to respond to the escalating climate crisis.

Senate bill 148 would address these disparities. The bill, currently in the Senate’s Natural Resources and Energy Committee, would create an Environmental Justice Advisory Council of representatives of impacted communities. It also directs relevant state agencies to review their spending, implement community engagement plans, and deploy a mapping tool to show how environment-related burdens are distributed around the state.

Two important aspects of the bill are still under discussion:

1. The bill calls for 55% of environmental justice funds to be invested in environmental justice populations — communities identified as overburdened and underserved. Some would like to reduce this percentage. However, given that 52% of Vermont qualifies as an environmental justice population, allotting these communities 55% of funding seems the minimum we should do.

2. The bill establishes a process in which the Environmental Justice Advisory Council would have to approve, by a supermajority, rules proposed by relevant state agencies. Agencies have been pushing back against this idea, but consider, if three-quarters of a council of representatives of environmental-justice populations can’t agree that a rule is a good idea, do we really want to be implementing it? For too long, low-income and BIPOC people have had decisions made for them. The most well-intentioned efforts to correct past and present injustices will be flimsy if we do not give meaningful power to those most affected by these issues.

Allotting sufficient funds for this work is critical. Environmental injustices have been ongoing because of a lack of resources directed toward those who need them most, who have borne the environmental costs. It is past time to provide them with meaningful benefits, and that means fully funding the Advisory Council and the agency staff needed to make this happen. 

No one should have to carry the backpack all the time and then go without lunch.

Marisa D. Keller is an editor, writer, and volunteer climate justice advocate. She lives in Montpelier. 

Join the Climate SOS rally on the Statehouse lawn at 11 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 18, in support of S.148 and other legislation that takes meaningful steps toward climate justice. The event is cosponsored by 350Vermont, Youth Lobby, Fridays for the Future, VPIRG, BALE, Rights and Democracy, Vermont Renews Coalition, VT AFL-CIO, Standing Trees, and Vermont Extinction Rebellion. More details at 350vermont.org.