Migrate or Adapt In Place: a False Choice for Racialized Communities

  • Earthea Nance Associate Professor
    Department of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy
    Department of Political Science
    Texas Southern University

The increasing migration of populations at risk of catastrophic impacts from climate-induced disasters has prompted an urgent conversation. What is the meaning of “just resilience” under these conditions? Should people migrate or should they have the right to stay? Researchers are seeking alternative framings of concepts like “managed retreat” and “community relocation,” Maldonado, J.,Marino, E., and Iaukea, L. (2020), Reframing the language of retreat, Eos, 101 (2020), https://doi.org/10.1029/2020EO150527 alternative strategies for conducting equitable climate-based research, Miyuki Hino and Earthea Nance, “Five Ways to Ensure Flood-Risk Research Helps the Most Vulnerable,” Nature 595 (2021): 27-29, https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-01750-0 and nuanced understandings of adapting in place. Isabelle Anguelovski, “From Toxic Sites to Parks as (Green) LULUs? New Challenges of Inequity, Privilege, Gentrification, and Exclusion for Urban Environmental Justice,” Journal of Planning Literature 31 (2016): 23-36, https://doi.org/10.1177/0885412215610491 Anguelovski, Isabelle, James JT Connolly, Melissa Garcia-Lamarca, Helen Cole, and Hamil Pearsall, “New Scholarly Pathways on Green Gentrification: What Does the Urban ‘Green Turn’ Mean and Where is it Going?,” Progress in Human Geography 43 (2019): 1064-1086, https://doi.org/10.1177/0309132518803799 Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, immigrant, and low-income communities are often located in places with climate hazards and environmental violence—places where people are already both migrating and adapting for survival.

Economic disinvestment and predatory land use decisions have systematically isolated vulnerable communities on the most polluted, most at-risk, and least desirable lands, which then become targets for resource extraction and further industrial pollution. Paul Mohai, David Pellow, and J. Timmons Roberts, “Environmental Justice,” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 34 (2009): 405-430, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-environ-082508-094348 Marginalized communities face real risk of continued environmental injustice and climate-related impacts whether they move or stay in place. The federal system of disaster funding disproportionately denies the assistance that vulnerable applicants would need to adapt in place. The same system also leaves them with less wealth than before. Junia Howell and James R. Elliott, “Damages Done: The Longitudinal Impacts of Natural Hazards on Wealth Inequality in the United States,” Social Problems 66 (2019): 448-467, https://doi.org/10.1093/socpro/spy016 Even more, the cumulative hazards in marginalized communities conspire to keep property values low, leaving people with no choice but to resist and adapt to inequitable environmental harms. In the Gulf Coast, these harms include climate risks and industrial hazards.

They could have stayed but they left

Since the 1990s, the majority-Black community of Mossville, Louisiana has organized several times to fight for relocation away from the industrial dangers and public health injuries they collectively experience because of a confluence of polluting industries at their doorstep. Their latest fight, in the 2000’s, pitted the community against the transnational company Sasol, which was dumping massive pollution─including dioxin, a deadly toxin─on their neighborhood day in and day out while proposing the largest plant expansion in state history. Beverly Wright, Earthea Nance, Denae King, and Joy Semien, “A Question of Human Rights: Transnational Targeting of Environmental Justice Communities,” Humanity & Society (2021), https://doi.org/10.1177/01605976211013284 After years of lawsuits, news coverage, demonstrations, health testing, partnering with environmental groups and researchers, and a stint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the community eventually amassed enough political pressure to “win.” In 2013, Sasol finally agreed to buy them out at reasonable prices. The documented pollution and health problems had made their homes unsellable, so most (but not all) of the community was thrilled about the hard-fought opportunity to relocate. They moved and their former homes were cleared. Sasol constructed its new plant on top of what was once the Mossville community and continued to pollute those who had stayed behind. Mossville is what “victory” looks like: an established community of color suffers permanent health impacts, its property is made worthless, community members receive no compensation after years resisting, and eventually the community is destroyed for the benefit of industrial development or green space. Mossville’s outcome was unique, however. Most environmental justice communities cannot build up the political pressure needed to buy their way out, so they continue adapting in place.

In the U.S., there is no right to a clean, green, or safe environment; rarely are penalties issued for environmental crimes or environmental risk; and there is no upper limit on how much pollution can be emitted from any source. Katherine Sayre, “Closing Costs: As a chemical plant expands, Mossville, Louisiana, vanishes,” NOLA, November 15, 20917, https://www.nola.com/news/business/article_f478381c-ff36-57b3-adc2-2116c35982d9.html There is no legal remedy. These conditions are accompanied by growth machine incentives such as government subsidies, tax breaks, lax regulation, and industrial conglomeration. For Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, immigrants, and low-income populations, these forces disseminate violence that mediates the possibilities for adapting in place or relocating. Most environmental justice communities are still in place, held back by the injustices they fight against. Mossville was a rare exception.

They could have left but they stayed

Indigenous peoples, descendants of enslaved Africans, and others who are bound to the land due to ancestry and subsistence lifestyles, are often empowered by the idea of staying in place. This idea has nothing to do with modern economic ways of thinking. What are they staying for? In the words of the president of the First People’s Conservation Council in Grand Bayou, Louisiana: “We are not leaving, this is our home, we will die in place”. Rosina Philippe, President of the First People’s Conservation Council of Louisiana, https://fpcclouisiana.org And in the words of RISE St. James community members in the Mississippi River Chemical Corridor: “We want reparations from the air to the ground, from the graves to the trees, from the land to our descendant communities”. Forensic Architecture, “Environmental Racism in Death Alley, Louisiana,” (2021), https://forensic-architecture.org/investigation/environmental-racism-in-death-alley-louisiana

In both cases, these communities have something to live and die for. Their ancestors are buried on their land, and the place their people have occupied for centuries is their identity. Even if given opportunities to leave, these are the people who stay, win or lose. They stay in place to defend their cultural values and to fight injustice. To fight is to adapt. The RISE St. James organization successfully stopped construction of a proposed Formosa Complex in 2019 and prevented the destruction of several enslaved African burial sites. In 2021, its founder Sharon Lavigne was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize to recognize her leadership and success in protecting her community. Sharon Lavigne, Founder and Director of RISE St. James, https://www.facebook.com/risestjames/ and recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, https://www.goldmanprize.org/recipient/sharon-lavigne/ Having successfully mitigated against flooding after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Tribes of the First People’s Conservation Council are currently mitigating their properties against wind after experiencing Hurricane Ida in 2021.

African Americans, Tribal and Indigenous peoples, and other populations have experienced continuous attempts to inhibit or strip away their access to wealth, health, identity, and freedom. These actions may be rooted in land ownership, home ownership, cultural heritage, ancestry, environmental health, or way of life. Whether these communities ultimately stay or leave, those who are marginalized face struggle, but they also find empowerment and respect in that struggle. Those who live and adapt and die in place will be remembered as part of that place and that community. Those who move on will celebrate even as they may face new injustice somewhere else. Wherever vulnerable, low-income, immigrants, Indigenous, Black, and other marginalized people have gone, their communities have been harmed, neglected, or under attack. No matter whether they choose to adapt in place or migrate, the focus should be on stopping the systems of violence that follow them.