U.S. Rep. wants to bring environmentalism to the ‘kitchen table,’ but do voters?

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Davis Burroughs: Within three months of assuming office in the House of Representatives, you started the United for Climate and Environmental Justice Task Force. What’s the origin story there? What sort of life experiences or teachings led you to make issues of environmental justice a top priority as a new federal lawmaker?

Donald McEachin: Well, you know, I had my previous experience in the state Legislature. And, to be quite honest with you, not too far from here is a landfill that has just been the plague of the neighborhood that surrounds it. 

They were bringing those issues to me when I was in the state Senate, so it started triggering that issue of making sure that people of color are included in the conversation about the environment.

That landfill in Henrico, Virginia, was put out here when there was nothing but farmland. One of the challenges, I’m almost convinced of this, was that when they started to develop this part of town no one of color was coming to the planning commission meetings. 

They decided they would do affordable housing out here. So how is it that when these houses were constructed around this landfill — were people of color actually involved in the planning process and the zoning process? 

Because, really, there should be no houses out there. I mean, we can talk about and debate the merits of landfills, but if there's a landfill there, it shouldn't be so close to housing. So that whole experience in trying to push back on what was going on, trying to get DEQ to do the right thing and cite these people, penalize these people more and more. 

Eventually everything worked out, to a degree. It's still there, it still has its issues, but it's not as bad as it was. Those things led me to think about the fact that African Americans, in particular, people of color in general, need to be more involved in environmental issues.

You mentioned everything worked out. What were some of the solutions that you were able to achieve?

Change of ownership was the big thing. Ultimately, these huge fines got to the point where one owner pulled out and another owner came in. 

I think, generally, when we talk about addressing issues of racial injustice or socioeconomic inequality, the environment isn't necessarily the first topic that comes to mind. So as an advocate for this issue, how do you describe the link between environmental issues or hazards, and issues affecting the prosperity of lower income groups or communities of color?

Well, you know, what we have to do is make sure that we are educating people to make sure they understand there's a link between clean air and asthma. There's a link between clean water and cognitive abilities. 

So, that's the biggest challenge. And one of the things that impacted me so much to even be into the environment was my seminary experience of Virginia Union University and the whole notion of  "creation care." 

I absolutely believe that if we can educate people to get this notion of being good environmental stewards through to the kitchen table ... I like to talk to about the kitchen table discussions, right? When you're at the kitchen table, you're talking to kids about homework. You're talking to your wife or your husband about how we're going to handle the bills this month. You're talking about a lot of issues that impact you on a daily basis. We've got to get environmental issues to that level, because they do in fact impact people on a daily basis. 

One of the ways we go about doing that is to preach it in our churches. So one of the things that Virginia Union has done, which I think is so wonderful, through the School of Theology is that they've got a green curriculum to start teaching preachers and pastors about the importance of "creation care," as they would refer to it. 

"We have to start telling Americans, and this includes people of color and African Americans, what's in it for them. And what can be in it for them is more, better-paying jobs. Because as we talk about infrastructure reform, we need to be talking about it from a green perspective."

If it's preached, then people start paying attention to it. The other thing that we have to do is we have to realize that spirituality, morality or whatever you want to call it, is only going to get you so far. And then we have to start telling Americans, and this includes people of color and African Americans, what's in it for them. And what can be in it for them is more, better-paying jobs.

Because as we talk about infrastructure reform, we need to be talking about it from a green perspective. We need to be talking about how we start to incentivize companies into reclamation, repairing the earth. I'm a huge advocate for wind and solar, and I love talking about those issues, but I think we also need to take the discussion to the reclamation level. 

Like, you're aware of what they're doing in the Pacific that's so cool, right? They've got these ships that scoop up all the plastics. That's just fascinating to me, but that's only one aspect of reclamation. You know, coming up with a few ways to incentivize tree farms and everything. I mean, we could just go on and on.

Illustration by  Hannah Salyer

Illustration by Hannah Salyer

Talk to me a little bit more about the education component, because whether you're talking about air pollution or soil pollution or climate change, the science is difficult to understand. It's hard to draw the line between the point of pollution and the specific public health, environmental or even economic problem. 

What's your strategy for explaining to a constituent how these issues affect them right here, right now? You mentioned using preachers and pastors as a venue to bring that conversation to the dinner table. Anything else?

It's going to be incumbent on elected leadership, social leadership, which means fraternities, sororities and different social organizations, to start grappling with this issue. We don't have to be as sophisticated as you and I might want to be when we're putting out a newspaper article; we need to Keep It Simple, Stupid, right? KISS.

A lot of African Americans live in urban areas. There's no way for the heat and the C02 to escape because of the concrete and all the stuff that we've got going on. To be able to break it down and explain how that affects asthma rates, to be able to keep it simple so that it's things that people can grasp ...

I don't care, I mean I do care from a philosophical standpoint, whether people buy into man-made climate change or whatever. But let's just make sure that people understand the importance of clean water and clean air, and the effect that has on your health. And there are some exciting things going on, especially in D.C. There are some physician groups that are really taking that challenge on and trying to educate their patients about that as well.

You've been working on these issues for some years. How would you describe the response from constituents when trying to push forward your agenda related to environmental justice? Do you generally find that these are issues, once you have been able to get the message through, that really resonate with people and drive them?

Once people understand that there's something that's affecting them, that will motivate them. So the answer is yes. We were successful in doing that.

How about motivating and engaging them politically?

Yeah, I do see people getting activated once the message sticks, as you say. And, of course, that is the ultimate challenge, making sure that we show them what's in it for them. 

Would you say there's still a lot of untapped ...

Room to grow?

Yes.

There's a whole bunch of room to grow, because we're not at the kitchen-table level yet, right? But I am encouraged; I see more happening today than when this started. 

If you continue to gain momentum within lower income groups and communities of color, could you see their influence tip the scales in favor of adopting a truly progressive environmental agenda at the federal level?

Absolutely, because you're talking about numbers, right? There are a whole lot of people who are not in the environmental movement that need to be in the environmental movement. [If] we get these folks energized, you're going to see a more robust, progressive environmental movement. 

"Let's just make sure that people understand the importance of clean water and clean air, and the effect that has on your health. "

Another group that's maybe not as involved in the environmental movement as we'd like to be  includes a majority of conservatives and Republicans. Now that you're working in the House of Representatives where it can be a bit more challenging to turn legislation into law, what do you think is the role of bipartisanship going forward in Congress concerning getting something like a carbon tax passed or reform of the Clean Air Act, or what have you?

Those are going to be challenging to get done on a bipartisan basis, but that's because we're talking about the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. But interestingly enough, Creation Care is one place where the religious right and the religious left can meet.

Now, we haven't done a very good job executing that plan, right? There's a book called, “Green Like God.” I can't recall the author's name, but he's actually a very conservative person. He's an evangelical. I assume he probably voted for Trump, but he's writing about green issues and how to approach those issues. 

So I think if we can get to a point where the rhetoric starts to dissipate a little bit and get those two wings working together, we can make some progress.

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That's a good point. It's interesting when you look at polling on questions like, “Should the federal government regulate greenhouse gas emissions?” I wouldn't call it overwhelming support, but pretty consistently you see a majority of Americans support federal legislative action on these environmental topics. 

But that message isn't necessarily reflected in the policy preferences of Congress, where it tends to be a 50-50 split or worse. What do you think could be behind that? Why aren't Republicans more aligned with public opinion?

It's almost the same analogy if you talk about gun safety, right? A lot of people believe in it, but they're not necessarily going to make that the issue they're voting on, right? 

So I think part of the challenge is that people want us to regulate greenhouse emissions, but there are issues on top of it that they care more about that really influence their vote. And those who are opposed to us know that, so they know they can sort of pat them on the head. "But look, I gave you this tax cut, or I put this judge on the court who's going to be pro-life, so you don't have to worry." You can't get me on everything, that type of attitude.

I'd like to talk for a second about the role of individual action versus corporate or government action. 

We speak to people from all sides of this movement, and we've certainly noticed a trend toward action at the individual level, because of a perceived lack of progress with policy.

But of course, as someone who represents the interests of your constituents, including those who have been underrepresented, when you think about some pro-environmental behaviors, many of them come with higher costs. As a simple example, purchasing a green cleaning product often costs more than the alternative. 

So where do you see, if any, the role of taking responsibility for your own environmental footprint? And if you do see a role there, how do you communicate that? If not, why then do you feel the onus should be more on businesses and governments?

Yes, to everything. Yes, there's a role for the individual. One of the things we need to think about from a public policy point of view is this: Let's just admit to ourselves that at one time we thought the very best science we had, everything that we were taught and learned, everything said, fossil fuels and this world that we've developed so far, was the way to go. We thought that was the right thing to do. 

Now we understand that it's not the right thing to do, and we need to be prepared to sort of pay to fix it, right? And one of the ways we pay to fix this is to provide subsidies, tax breaks, whatever you want to call them, to folks who are willing to do the right thing. 

"There are a whole lot of people who are not in the environmental movement that need to be in the environmental movement. [If] we get these folks energized, you're going to see a more robust, progressive environmental movement."

And so to your point of the expensive green products, depending on what the green product is, we should either be providing people a tax break for it or a subsidy for it. Or understand, like in the case of wind and solar when the State Corporation Commission wants to say that nuclear or fossil fuels are cheaper than wind and solar, that they're not adding up all the costs. 

They're not adding up the externalities. They’re not adding up the health costs.
They just use a dollar and cents, you know basic arithmetic, but they're not factoring in the cost of health. The fact that young children have to be carted off to the hospital to get their asthma taken care of, that there's lead in the water because of some of our actions. 

They're not calculating that, so we need to make sure that ... I call it externalities. A lot of people have different words for it, but that the externalities are factored in.

Part of the reason I asked that question is because the environmental movement has certainly been criticized for being too elitist or exclusive, white, and at some points out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans. Would you say that's the case?

I think people act in their self-interest. That's why I get back to the point that part of our challenge is to show people what's in it for them. You know, when you're a landowner, you’ve worked hard all your life and you've got this beautiful piece of property, and then all of a sudden Dominion wants to put transmission lines across it, your interest has been affected, right? 

So now you've turned into an environmentalist, and that's fine. It's the job of all of us to make sure that everybody understands how their interests are impac-ted by the environment. 

Most of my constituents may not have hundred-acre plots, but all of them have to breathe air. All of them have to drink water. So making sure they understand the importance of clean air and clean water hopefully will get them to be more integrated into the movement.

Photo from Melany Rochester

Photo from Melany Rochester

One of the policy solutions that has taken off in the last couple years, at the state and local level, has been to introduce bans or taxes on plastic foam products or single-use plastics, bags, straws and so on. What are your thoughts on those agendas?

I think that's a good approach, because the only thing that the government can do really is to give you economic incentives to behave one way or another. So doing our best to get rid of plastics, or as you say single-use … 

Single-use plastics.

Single-use plastics. I like that phrase. I hadn't heard it before. Single-use plastics is an appropriate thing.

Yeah. They call it the linear production model, where it’s take a resource, make a product, throw it away. We work with a lot of companies who are trying to transition materials toward a circular model, or back into the life cycle to get reused again. No landfill. No virgin materials extracted. 

Anyway, looking forward, what are you most excited about when it comes to environmental progress?

There's a lot I'm excited about, man. I want to really get into infrastructure. Making sure as we talk about it that we have a green infrastructure program going forward, especially with businesses that reclaim the earth. I really think we need to do some better work on how we dispose of our nuclear rods. I know we need to do better when it comes to coal ash. Those are just some of the things. 

"They're not adding up the externalities. They’re not adding up the health costs. They just use dollars and cents, you know basic arithmetic, but they're not factoring in the cost of health."

There's nothing about the environmental issue basket that doesn't excite me. You know, it's just a matter of whether I thought about it to tell you about it, but the whole panorama excites me. 

I've said this on the campaign trail, I'll say it on the record here. It is the most important issue of the 21st century. It's the issue that we have to get right. It's the issue that impacts everything, and every policy judgment needs to be made with the environment in mind.

The environment being, as you mentioned, the most important issue of the 21st century. Is that, again, something that your voters are on board with? Do they agree with that?

They are very generous in allowing me to be able to take that attitude. There are obviously issues that they would put higher than the environment, because they're thinking about health care ... But, nonetheless, it's incumbent upon me as a leader to sometimes try to take chances. I'm not suggesting this is a profile on courage, because there's nothing dangerous in the 4th congressional district about being an environmentalist. 

But being willing to talk about these issues, to try to have a dialogue with your constituency. That's one of the things I like about town halls, right? They come to me. They tell me stuff, "Oh, well, I didn't know that. That's kind of an interesting thing. Let's see if we can work on it." 

And I tell them stuff, and they usually have a positive reaction to the environment. Does that mean that's going to move it all the way up, so it's past health care? Not all the time. But if we keep doing it, and if we keep doing it, and if I keep doing it and others join me in doing it, we'll finally make the connection between the environment and your quality of life.

Given the current makeup of Congress and the executive branch, what are some of your policy priorities related to the environment going into these next two years?

You know, politics as they are, I don't know that there's anything possible with Donald Trump. But, at least in theory, he's for infrastructure. So if we can work together on infrastructure, and making sure that as we do that, that we have a green component in it, there may be some room for compromise.

When you look at some of the biggest environmental movements over the past couple of decades — whether it's Keystone or the Dakota Access Pipeline or the failure to push through Cap and Trade Legislation in the Bush Administration, withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and the demise of the Clean Power Plan with the Trump Administration — it can be depressing to be involved on a political level with the environmental movement. 

Looking back at those fights, what lessons can we learn from them? And is there a better approach that activists can take in order to achieve their intended goals than what's been done in the past?

I think by the time it gets to the newspaper it's too late. That's number one. 

Can you tell me what you mean by that?

I don't think people understand the power of relationship. I will confess to you that in 2005-2006 and the years preceding that, I was probably agnostic about the environment, but here's what happened.

I was running for state Senate in 2007, and there was this woman who had absolutely had it, fed up with her state senator and his environmental positions. And so she just joined my campaign. You know, a campaign is not that many people when you get right down to it, the people that actually show up day in and day out. 

Photo from Ishan via Unsplash

Photo from Ishan via Unsplash

She walked with me to get petitions signed. She was out there in the sun and the rain. She took the time to make sure she knew who my wife was and my children are, and we formed a relationship, right? She's a buddy of mine. And because of that, she started talking to me about her passion, which is the James River and the environmental issues that she saw impacting that. 

And so, she's my friend now, right? So you care about it, I care about it. I think that's what people don't really understand, and that's what I mean by the time it's in the newspaper it's too late. Because we haven’t, as activists, formed those relationships to stop the bad stuff from happening in the first instance.

But you've got a perfect example. Look what Jeff Flake did yesterday after he encountered those women in the elevator. But that's the bad end of it, right, where you're being browbeaten? But there's the good way, like I was faced with, somebody who just wanted to work with me. And fortunately for me in the environmental movement, I've met a lot of people who just want to work with me and help me run up the learning curve.

What about for folks that wouldn't come to a canvas launch like this or aren't too invested in what's happening in their communities, but they know a little bit and want to get involved? 

Maybe not so much as actively volunteering for a campaign or going out to meet their representative. What's the simplest or most effective approach they can take to initiate the change that they're hoping to see?

Well, if they're not willing to get involved in the political process, then they just have to do the stuff that they can do on their own to reduce their own carbon footprint. But I reject the notion ... My real answer is to tell them to get off the sofa and get involved, right? 

"I've said this on the campaign trail, I'll say it on the record here. It is the most important issue of the 21st century. It's the issue that we have to get right. It's the issue that impacts everything, and every policy judgment needs to be made with the environment in mind."

I mean, that's how our system's designed. Our system is not designed for lazy citizens. Our system is designed for people who are going to be active and for people who are going to have an encounter with their legislatures. If you're not willing to do that, then you don't really care about the issue that you're talking about. But there is a role for somebody who doesn't want to do anything and that is to do those things in their house and in their daily living that reduce their carbon footprint.

Last question for you is just to finish this sentence for me. Envision a world where ... 

Envision a world where we have reclaimed the earth.

Period?

Period.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.