Catherine Coleman Flowers: environmental injustice in the American South

Green World spoke to the Alabama-born activist and author about her work, and how environmental and climate justice can be achieved both in the American rural South, and worldwide.

Catherine Flowers
Green World

Catherine Coleman Flowers is an Alabama-born environmental and climate justice activist. The author of ‘Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret’ and a MacArthur fellow, Catherine has led and worked with a number of organisations, including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission on Accelerating Climate Action, the Equal Justice Initiative, the Natural Resources Defence Council and Climate Reality Project, the Centre for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. In 2019, she was appointed to the Joe Biden Task Force on Climate Change, followed by a 2021 appointment to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

Green World spoke to Catherine about her activism, the American rural South, and environmental injustice worldwide.

What does your work focus on? 

The central focus of my work is advocating for equal access to clean, drinkable water and functioning sanitation systems. The lack of access to both of these necessities is an environmental justice issue because the people most likely to be impacted often live in rural, poor communities. They are also most likely to be impacted by climate change and other social injustices.

How did you become involved in environmental justice activism?

I became involved in environmental justice activism as a natural evolution from the fight for civil rights. My parents were civil rights activists, and, as a child, I was surrounded by many folks that worked for social justice. My work evolved into environmental justice work when I discovered that poor residents of Lowndes County, Alabama – where I grew up – were targeted for arrest because they could not afford onsite sanitation. This was the equivalent of a debtor's prison, in my view.

What kind of environmental disparities exist in the rural South, and how long have they been an issue?  

There are many environmental disparities that exist in the rural South. Rural communities often lack working sanitation infrastructure, which is a danger to personal and communal health. In addition, polluting facilities are often situated among rural communities and are a danger to air and water quality. These issues have existed for more than thirty years.

What are the potential strategies to achieve environmental in the rural South?

The potential strategies that would achieve environmental justice in the rural South include government support for poor rural communities to get access to resilient wastewater treatment; the development of a new engineering paradigm where people impacted by faulty septic systems are a part of creating the engineering solution; and changed funding formulas to position rural communities that are overburdened and left behind to receive support for the just transition from environmental injustice to a clean energy present and future.

How does environmental injustice show up worldwide, and what can be done to reverse it? 

Environmental injustice shows up worldwide through racial and economic inequality. Structures that support inequality and racism must be changed, and deploying resources necessary to clean up impacted communities can go a long way in reversing years of injustice.