Climate conversation 

For a long time people thought an environmentalist was a white guy hiking through the woods hugging trees. There are still plenty of tree huggers out there, but the environmental movement has moved to the city.

It first arrived through the environmental justice movement, which focused on such things as urban pollution and lead paint. Now issues of climate change and the green economy have charged up the discussion. And it's going to get louder.

In September the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, an African-American think tank in Washington, D.C., received a $500,000 grant to launch a campaign to bring more African-Americans into the national debate over climate change. When the award was announced at a forum organized by Sen. Barack Obama, he said, "The assumption is that African-Americans have more important things to think about. ... Given the struggles we face ... environmental concerns are low on the list."

That's not the experience of Detroit's Kathryn Savoie, who works in the enviromental affairs office of the Arab-American Community Center for Economic and Social Services. She does presentations based on the content of Al Gore's movie An Inconvienent Truth throughout the area. She says the idea isn't a hard sell to African-Americans. "Everybody who hears about it thinks it's a problem."

That's if you actually hear about it. "There is not enough awareness in the community in general," says Savoie.

Let's recap what this climate change is about: Due to human activity, particularly driving cars and burning oil and coal, the Earth is getting hotter. If this continues it will become hellish, and there will be a great outcry and gnashing of teeth — particularly among the poor people of the world. That's right, the poor people will be catching it worse than others.

"African-Americans are already disproportionately burdened by the health effects of climate change, includingdeaths during heat waves and from worsened air pollution. Similarly, unemployment and economic hardship associated with climate change will fall most heavily on the African-American community," says a report from the Center for Policy Analysis and Research in Washington, D.C.

Have you noticed there seems to be a lot more asthma going around lately?

Of course it's not all bad. Winters around here don't seem as long or as cold as they used to be. I don't have to shovel nearly as much snow to keep my sidewalk clear. On the flip side, anyone from New Orleans can tell you the increasingly violent hurricanes can screw things up.

Unless you believe that this is the inevitable apocalypse, it seems like we need to do something about it. Some things are being done, but we've got to do a lot more and soon. Saving the planet from global warming and saving Detroit converge very nicely in my mind. If we are going to re-create the city and its economy we need to create a green, sustainable culture. That means everything from energy generation and use to the auto industry to food delivery and more. It means recycling and reusing materials. It means green buildings and homes.

That includes things like the pathway being developed in the Dequindre Cut, an abandoned railway running from the RiverWalk area to Eastern Market. It will include a bike path and room for possible future light rail. The 20,000 or so people who live along the cut will have a safe and pleasant alternative to local driving. Light rail and bicycling pollute much less than driving and the exercise you get will help reduce our fame as the obesity capital of America. And we already know that economic development around train stops is huge.

Being greener includes the urban farming efforts by several local groups. They're using some of the open spaces in the city to grow food and create jobs in farmers' markets. It sounds like a little splash in a big pond but every little bit helps.

"When you look at growing produce in California, putting it on a truck and driving it here, you can see how growing food locally makes a big difference in carbon emissions," says Savoie. She also champions energy generation from wind turbines, pointing out that they can be manufactured and utilized here. "Michigan is fourth in the nation in manufacturing capacity and 14th in the nation in wind capacity," she says. "Michigan spends $20 billion a year to import energy. If we invested that in our economy we could not only shrink our carbon footprint but build up our economic base."

That doesn't even include the amount of wind that blowhard newspaper columnists can generate.

The bottom line is that green is big business and it's getting bigger. Detroit should become a leader in what is pretty much the biggest growth industry next to war profiteering. Environmental cleanup, energy audits, retrofitting buildings, recycling services and manufacturing green products are just a beginning. And they don't depend on some big business coming from outside the community to make it happen.

Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice is a nonprofit organization with a program called Build Up Detroit that aims "to help provide the groundwork for a 'green' economic development paradigm that will provide safe and healthy housing, safe good paying jobs and the restoration of the environment through best practices in the use of land," according to information on the group's Web site.

It's all going to cost some money — what doesn't? — but that's how economies are grown.

"It's pay now or pay later," says Savoie, pointing out she's an ecologist not an economist. "Sir Nicholas Stern, a former World Bank economist, did a study and concluded that not taking action on climate change will shrink the world economy by 20 percent. ... Look at New Orleans, the pre-Katrina cost to fix the leevees was $12 to $14 million. After the hurricane, the cost to rebuild the city will be some $200 billion."

Sounds like an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Here in Detroit we are way past the prevention stage for all kinds of ills. It's going to take extraordinary measures by people in high and low places to save the patient. Detroit has been trying to sell itself as a cool city. Now it's time to cool down.

Speaking of saving people from hell
, the traveling exhibit Darfur-Darfur: A Photo Essay will be at the Main Branch Detroit Public Library through Nov. 19. Featuring striking landscapes and an exquisite mélange of cultures, these digitally projected images capture the beauty of the region in addition to the devastation of ongoing genocide. This is a great opportunity to see the people who are being destroyed in west Sudan and Chad — and to be moved to action on their behalf. For more information go to or call the library at 313-833-4042.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Send comments to

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