Another way to see Earth Day

By Taylor Hasson

This article was originally published in April 2022

farm workers harvesting greens

The first American Earth Day celebration took place in April of 1970, spurred in part by growing concerns about human impacts on the environment. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring” is often credited as a public breakthrough helping inspire that modern environmental movement, particularly her findings on the damage pesticides such as DDT inflicted on delicate ecosystems.

The movement led to landmark laws like the Clean Air Act— and DDT, which contributed to the near-extinction of the bald eagle, was banned here in 1972. But that growing public awareness of pollution’s damage in nature didn’t always extend to its unevenly distributed impact on human beings. A far lesser-known story of DDT’s abuse, for instance, came from the Bracero Program bringing migrant workers from Mexico to American farms during a U.S. labor shortage from 1942 to 1964. Workers entering the U.S. “were told to strip and were sprayed with the pesticide DDT” intended as a disinfectant, according to the National Museum of American History. “They sprayed us like rats, like insects. We left covered in powder,” ex-worker Isaías Sánchez said in a museum exhibit.

While Earth Day is marked locally and globally April 22 with park cleanups, seed plantings, and other sunny actions, today’s environmental movement also works toward that complex missing piece: Environmental justice. The concept addresses the disproportionate damage that pollution and contamination has inflicted on historically marginalized communities.

First steps

Recognition of that longtime burden led to significant legislation in Washington state in 2021: The Healthy Environments for All (HEAL) act, supported by PCC, mandates that seven state agencies incorporate environmental justice into their strategic plans.

Environmental justice carries particular urgency here given Washington’s large population of farmworkers.

Farmworkers, the majority of whom are Latinx, have the shortest life expectancy of all professions measured by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, living an average of only 49 years compared to an overall life expectancy of 78 in the U.S, according to the nonprofit Center for Farmworker Families. That shortened lifespan has been attributed to prolonged pesticide exposure and illnesses related to working outdoors in high temperatures, among other factors.

Farmworkers aren’t the only people affected.

A 2021 study funded through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that non-white people in the U.S. breathe more particulate air pollution, on average, than white U.S. residents, regardless of their income levels or whether they live in urban or rural areas. The results expand “a body of evidence” showing they are disproportionately exposed to such pollution, the report said, with serious health implications.

Geography does have an undisputed effect when it comes to other forms of environmental harm: Communities of color more often live in areas polluted by industry or without access to amenities. The lower five miles of south Seattle’s Duwamish River, for instance, in one of Seattle’s most racially diverse neighborhoods, was named a Superfund cleanup site in 2001 due to toxic chemical levels.

An unfair burden

This idea that pollution is segregated, or that some communities are hit harder than others when it comes to climate related vulnerabilities, is not new.

It was first coined by environmental policy professor Robert Bullard, commonly referred to as the father of environmental justice. Bullard told the Journal of International Affairs in 2020 how in Houston, Texas, from the 1930s to the 1970s all of the city-owned landfills were in black neighborhoods and a majority of the city-owned incinerators were in black neighborhoods. Further, three quarters of the privately owned landfills were in black neighborhoods – even though African Americans made up only 25% of the population. Houston had no zoning laws, Bullard noted, and the landfills weren’t simply falling into “poverty pockets,” but many of them were in middle-class neighborhoods, decided by a city council that was all white.

Environmental empowerment

Decades later, the concept is more generally accepted, but the people most affected by its problems still see vast room for improvement and inclusion.

The 2016 film “Our Story,” focused on Seattle-area voices, makes that clear. As Belinda Chen with the Seattle-based Environmental Professionals of Color organization (EPOC) said in the film, “From my observations and from reading the history of land in this country, people who have the most intimate relationship with the land tend to be people of color, and yet are the least-heard voices in decision making around environmental issues.”

Julio Sanchez, also with EPOC, added that, “In environmental jobs, we only see about 16% are people of color. And usually the people of color who are working on environmental issues are on the ground level or the entry level.”

Moving forward will clearly require a lot — but a crucial first step is learning this history.

“The fight for environmental justice requires all identities and the acknowledgement that different communities face diverse forms of environmental oppression,” according to the Intersectional Environmentalist, a national nonprofit.

“Of course, our advocacy and organizing work remains grounded in the fact that we all face compounding and interrelated struggles. But only (by) being conscious of the folks being targeted and acutely harmed by these systems and honoring, centering and protecting their experiences can we create equitable change and lasting solutions.”

While Earth Day is billed as the world’s largest secular civic event, organizers now recommend it as more than a day. It’s intended as a month of action, And, ideally, a way of life. In some cases that means seeing it through a new lens.


To support or learn more about a local farm worker rights organization, see Bellingham-based Community2Community at

The New York-based Earth Day Initiative is calling for “climate justice and environmental justice” in its 2022 Earth Day events. Presenters on its virtual stage this year include U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), noted climate change author Bill McKibben, and farmer Karen Washington, a leading figure in the food justice movement. Information is online at

For an overview of the environmental justice movement in Washington, see

To support the Duwamish River cleanup and community see

The NRDC’s introductory video on environmental justice is online at

The “Our Story” film by Laura Stewart and Julian Kane, a project on environmental justice connected to Seattle’s Henry M. Jackson Foundation, is online at

Taylor Hasson is a PCC Community Relations Program Manager.

PCC and environmental justice

Environmental justice is the foundation of many of PCC’s advocacy efforts, from decisions on our product standards to supporting specific legislation such as the HEAL act. Among the co-op’s work:

  • Prioritizing organics, resulting in fewer harmful chemicals affecting farmworkers, their families, and communities.
  • Prohibiting many harmful ingredients from food and health and body care products carried in PCC stores so that they won’t contaminate waterways or perpetuate petrochemical pollution, often concentrated in marginalized communities.
  • Supporting individuals and organizations dedicated to reducing environmental impacts and health disparities.

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