Detroit: The Engine of the Green New Deal (that could be...)

On this week's pod, take a trip to 'Michigan's Most Polluted Zip-Code'

Hi there, Generation Green New Dealmakers!!

There’s a tweet about environmental justice from climate journalist Rachel Ramirez that’s been rattling around in my head for about a month. It’s an important one to keep in mind…


Many don't understand that when people say 'environmental justice,' it doesn't just mean hurricanes or wildfires disproportionately affecting BIPOC communities — it can also mean, the fossil fuel industry, or military intentionally setting up shop in communities of color.


I open with this idea because it’s a good way to frame our latest episode of the #GenGND podcast (and also GenGND’s first GOTV video) about the potential of a new future for the most polluted zip code in Michigan: the 48217, in southwest Detroit.

It’s in the 48217 that community activist Theresa Landrum was born, raised, and still lives. At the beginning of the episode, Theresa takes us through a local park, just across from the I-75 highway and the sprawling Marathon Oil Refinery…“When I was a kid, this area was a wetland,” she says. “We have more than 33 heavily polluting industries that are located in the southwest Detroit area, and 48217 is home to more than half.” 

It’s no coincidence that 71% of the residents in Michigan’s most polluted zip code are Black. According to The Guardian, race is the single biggest determinant of whether or not you live near a site of toxic pollution and waste. In Detroit, and elsewhere, this is a consequence of redlining, discriminatory banking and insurance practices that resulted in the chronic divestment in low-income, predominantly people of color neighborhoods, like 48217. “This is by design, I feel, I feel it’s by design,” says Landrum. 

Toxic land and air is a slow-moving health disaster. Along with releasing earth-warming CO2, these polluting industries release sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides that can lodge deep in the lungs and lead to a host of cardiovascular, respiratory, and neurological issues. Recently, it’s been found that living in a community with a higher concentration of particulate matter makes people more susceptible to dying from COVID-19. Epidemiologist and progressive activist / Podcast-Host, Abdul El-Sayed became an “accidental environmentalist” after observing the detrimental health impacts from pollution, as he explains in this week’s podcast.

Our kids are 3 times as likely to be hospitalized for asthma than the state average, and that has everything to do with the kind of air pollution that we see coming out of smokestacks in this deeply industrial city,” says El-Sayed, referring to Detroit, where he was the executive director of the Detroit Health Department before running an impressive campaign for Governor, that ultimately fell short, in 2018. 

The impacts of pollution are one of the biggest reasons why dedicated advocates, like El-Sayed and Landrum, are working to transition from a racist, extractive economy to one that works for everyone. “So you cannot solve climate change, you cannot solve the human consequences of climate change unless you’re willing to rethink the way that you pattern access to resources in society,” says El-Sayed.

Landrum shares her vision for a Green New Deal with us: “If I could be a constructor of the Green New Deal, it would be a future for my children and grandchildren to have air that is not brown, that is not grey, that is not black with pollution. It would be where my children could run barefoot on the grass and their feet not be burned up by chemicals that may be hidden in there from the surrounding industry.”

There’s more to her vision, like universal healthcare and a strong education system, but you’ll have to tune into this week’s episode of the pod (and last week’s GOTV video with Theresa) to hear more.


On NEXT week’s pod, we’ll be diving deep into the 2020 Election—learning about how the Green New Deal has made a big splash throughout the campaign, and how the climate movement has helped shape Joe Biden’s climate plan into the most ambitious and comprehensive in Presidential history—so, please make sure you’re subscribed & stay tuned!


For this week’s Green New Reading List, here are a few articles worth checking out if you want to deepen your knowledge of the environmental racism and injustice, as well as the resilient and inspiring activism, that’s taking place in Detroit:

COVID plus decades of pollution are a nasty combo for Detroit,” Bloomberg

The blackest city in the U.S. is facing an environmental justice nightmare,” The Guardian

Why Detroit residents pushed back against tree planting,” Grist

Why Detroit could be the engine of the Green New Deal,” Yes! Magazine.


This week’s newsletter was written by contributor Greta Moran, & edited by Nate Birnbaum.


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