Montclair Climate Action

“Your comfort comes from our discomfort”: reflections on a climate walk and environmental justice

In June, MCA’s group coordinator, David Korfhage, participated in the 2021 Walk for our Grandchildren and Mother Earth. Below are his reflections on the walk, climate action, and environmental justice.

Recently, I joined about a dozen other climate activists, mostly grandparents in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, on a walk from Scranton to Wilmington (though we only walked some of that – much of it we drove, since we had to cover 141 miles in just nine days). The overarching goal was to put pressure on President Biden to adopt more aggressive policies on climate change – thus the two endpoints, Biden’s birthplace and his current home. We also used it as an opportunity to put pressure on Chase Bank, the largest financial backer of fossil fuel projects in the world, to stop funding climate destruction, with a protest in Philadelphia, and non-violent civil disobedience in Wilmington.

The 2021 Walk for our Grandchildren and Mother Earth walks through Delaware County, PA

I myself went on the walk for a couple of reasons. I have been concerned about climate change for years, and recently I have been increasingly concerned. The situation is getting urgent and dire, and yet policymakers and many voters seem not to care – at least, they don’t care enough. So I hoped that by walking I could draw attention to the problem and increase awareness and urgency a little bit. And beyond that, on a personal level, I felt I had to walk. If you’re a climate activist, and someone says, would you like to walk to express opposition to climate change, how can you say no? It would be like admitting that you don’t care. So I walked because it was an expression of my concern, independent of any results that might come of it.

But I got much more out of the walk than I expected. To understand why, you first must understand that the walk wasn’t just a walk. Along the way we stopped at localities being directly hit by the impacts of the energy infrastructure that makes our lives possible. At first, I didn’t see the connections. We visited a landfill in Scranton that was expanding, over community opposition, to take in more fracking waste. We heard from pipeline opponents in Easton, Pennsylvania. We heard from a farmer in Bucks County whose family farm, going back generations, was about to be disrupted by a different pipeline. All different projects, many miles from each other. But eventually I began to see the big picture. I began to see them all as one larger problem.

Back in the early 20th century, the journalist Frank Norris called his novel about the abuses of monopolistic railroads The Octopus, because he said the railroad monopoly was like a creature with its tentacles stretching, often in hidden ways, throughout the political, economic, and social systems of America. Hearing from the people along our walk – a mayor trying to block a landfill, a farmer trying to save her land from a pipeline, a county commissioner trying to save her community from a different pipeline – it became clearer to me that even though the old railroad monopolies are gone, and our fossil fuel infrastructure is now developed by a number of different companies, the fossil fuel industry is still an octopus, extending its tentacles into communities, and statehouses, across the country. What looked like many different struggles were actually different aspects of one big struggle.

But that was only my first realization. The second realization, that gave me a sense of personal implication in all this, came later.

It stared on day five, when we visited southwestern Philadelphia, when were met some communities members, including children, in a park which sat right on a major highway and across from a former oil refinery that closed only two years ago, and even then only after part of it exploded. You could stand at the jungle gym, smell the exhaust, and see the refinery towers in the distance. It made vivid what it means to be an “overburdened community.”

The former oil refinery is visible right across the street from this Philadelphia playground

Then, the next day, we walked through poor communities in Delaware county, just south of Philly. Delaware County itself is not poor, but it contains a number of poor communities, all along the riverfront. We started our walk in Essington, across the Delaware River from a proposed Liquified Natural Gas Terminal, then walked, along the aptly-named Industrial Highway #1, through Eddystone and into Chester, stopping at the Covanta incinerator in Chester, before finally ending up at a riverside park in Marcus Hook, sandwiched between two enormous energy depots, where ships were filled full with ethane, which was to be shipped across the Atlantic and turned into single-use plastic bottles. All of those towns are poor. Chester, which is heavily Black and where more than one-third of the population lives in poverty, is one of the poorest cities in Pennsylvania.

You have to understand that I was walking with seasoned activists. Many of them had been engaged in environmental activism for years. They had probably been arrested more than 100 times between them at protests. And yet, as we walked along Industrial Highway and into Chester, everyone became more and more somber. The industrial landscape, along a scrubby road lined with polluting factories and power plants, transitioned into the run-down housing of Chester, and the whole walk culminated as we walked up to the Covanta Incinerator which towered over the houses that stood directly outside its gate. The sights, and the smells, were sickening. Quite literally, in this case, as asthma rates, for example, are through the roof in Chester.

The Covanta incinerator in Chester, right next to houses

I had read a lot about overburdened communities over the years – poor communities who have been forced to take more than their fair share of polluting factories. I’ve even driven through them. But to really understand what “overburdened community” means, you have to walk through, to see it with your eyes, smell it with your nose, feel it under your feet. That walk through Chester made visceral what environmental injustice is – and my own part in it.

Because the factories and power plants that line Industrial Highway produce the kinds of products I (and many others) use on a regular basis: electricity, for starters, but also plastics, airplanes, paper, and more. And even if I haven’t used products from those specific power plants or those specific factories in Delaware County, I have used products from factories very much like them, which probably are located in towns and cities very much like Chester and Marcus Hook. My, and your, comfort comes from their discomfort.

But the problem is much larger than those riverfront communities. Remember the octopus? Chester and Marcus Hook represent just one tentacle of the octopus – in other words, just one end of the supply chain that keeps us in comfort. Those power plants – where did they get their natural gas from? That paper plant – where did it get its waste coal fuel from? That export terminal in Marcus Hook – where did it gets its ethane from? All of that comes from the fracked gas fields and coal mines of Pennsylvania. On the walk with us was a man, Michael, who lives in one of the most heavily fracked counties in Pennsylvania. His air and water were being polluted to feed those industrial facilities in Chester and Marcus Hook – and they in turn would spew out more pollution into the surrounding communities.

The natural gas liquids export station in Marcus Hook, where ethane is shipped around the world to make single-use plastics. It is right next to a public park.

And then it all ends at the far end, in trash. For the Covanta incinerator in Chester, the largest incinerator in the country, vacuums up trash from surrounding towns and states and burns it, pouring pollution into the air of nearby houses and neighborhoods in Chester.

So all along the supply chain, from extraction to production to disposal, communities are burdened by the goods we consume and the waste we produce. Those were the connections the walk helped me to see. And yet those harms are so carefully hidden, so far away from us, that we hardly notice. We are hardly even aware. Perhaps we are completely unaware.

And that, more than anything else, is what the walk did for me. It made clear to me how much of my comfort comes at the cost of others’ discomfort. I took those words from Zulene Mayfield, a Chester resident who has been fighting the incinerator for 30 years. At one point, someone on our walk asked her about the alternatives to incineration. It was a good faith question – the woman asking wanted to close the incinerator and was asking what we should do instead – but I’m sure Zulene had heard that question so many times as a way to close off debate. “We can’t close the incinerator – what are the alternatives?” (There are alternatives, by the way: landfills, first of all, but more important waste reduction – throwing away less stuff, so there is less to dispose of).

So Zulene launched into her speech. Why is it on us, the poor community, to develop alternatives? It’s the rich communities’ garbage; why don’t they figure out what to do with it. And then she continued:

“The rich folks don’t want to see it. They want to put their garbage out on the curb and not see it again, or think about it again. If it doesn’t get picked up, they complain, but they don’t think about where it goes. Their comfort comes from our discomfort.”

That was the line that stayed with me after the walk was over: your comfort comes from our discomfort. One of the walkers had a bumper sticker on her car that said, “When you throw something away, where is away?” That is an important thing to always remember. We live in a complex economy where the costs and burdens that our consumption imposes on others are often unclear, hidden or far away. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. You can’t really throw anything away, just like you can’t conjure goods from nothing. Production and disposal happen in the real world, and they impose real costs on real people. It is our moral responsibility to be aware of that – and do something about it.

The great writer Ursula Le Guin wrote a short story called, “The Ones Who Walk Way from Omelas.” I will summarize it here, but I can’t do it justice; you should really go read it yourself. In the story, she imagines a perfect community – a beautiful city, filled with happy people – but the happiness of that community depends on the abusive mistreatment of a small child, kept starving, beaten, and locked in a tiny cage in the basement of one of the houses of the city. It really is an (almost) perfect society – if they let the child out, many people will suffer and die as their society collapses, poverty spreads, inequality grows, and culture withers. Is that a trade-off worth making?

I won’t answer that question here. I just want to note that Omelas is more than a thought experiment. We all live in a version of Omelas. The energy that heats our houses, the gas that powers our cars, that plastic that packages the goods we buy, the paper we write on, the electronics that we use – all of those things have costs, and it is incumbent on us, at the very least, to be aware of that. Where you go from there is up to you, but you have to start by asking yourself that question from the bumper sticker: when I throw something away, where is away?