Earth Day 2010: Environmental justice at home | Andrew Villeneuve

Forty years ago, the first Earth Day was organized to draw attention to the serious environmental problems created by decades of thoughtless development and industrialization. Few Americans realized the extent to which we had deforested our wild places, strip-mined our mountains, and carelessly polluted our air and water.

Thanks to the tireless work of activists all over the world, we have a better understanding of how our activities affect humanity's house — the only home we have and the only home we have ever known. When we consider what we still collectively don't know about the planet we all share, our knowledge seems woefully shallow. We keep failing to treat the Earth with the reverence and respect it deserves.

The best way to participate in Earth Day: Commit to deepening our environmental awareness. Building a deeper awareness supplies the motivation to make sustainable and responsible choices in our lives year round (like turning off the lights or saving hazardous substances for a municipal recycling day instead of throwing them into a trash bin).

To that end, I'd like to share a couple of my favorite books chronicling environmental injustice.

My first selection is "The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health – and a Vision for Change," by Annie Leonard.

The author is a Seattle native who has spent years traveling the world, trying to find out what exactly happens to our garbage after we put it out on the curb for collection. She's tracked toxic ash to Haiti, followed contaminated fertilizer to Bangladesh, sifted through landfills, and lived in poor villages half a world away from the Pacific Northwest.

The book isn't just about where our "stuff" goes after we think we're getting rid of it. Other chapters cover resource extraction, production, distribution, and consumption in stark detail. Leonard explains in the introduction that she is not against "stuff" – in fact, she says she is “pro-stuff.” She just believes we need to value our things more and improve our understanding of what it truly means to reduce, reuse and recycle (and in that order).

My second selection is "Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream." Anyone wanting to understand why cities like Federal Way, Redmond and Kirkland have been largely built the way they are — that is, around the automobile — should read this book.

It definitively answers the question "What is sprawl... and why?" The book explains how traditional town planning got discarded in the wake of World War II in favor of cookie-cutter subdivisions, office “parks" and giant shopping malls.

Of course, as anyone who has visited a historic district knows, it didn't used to be this way. Communities used to be designed around proper street grids, with shops and homes mixed together on every block. Neighborhoods were walkable and welcoming to foot traffic.

We can have those kinds of neighborhoods again, the authors contend, if we simply re-adopt tried and true town planning practices.

Before we can be the change, we have to be informed. Make the most of this Earth Day by diving into a good book about environmental justice.

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