Earth Day, a day in which people come together to recognize the environmental injustices across the world and send a message to policy makers that they want change. This environmental movement, which began in 1970, was inspired by an oil spill in California, soon turned into a nationwide demonstration with rallies protesting the misuse of resources. Since then a new form of environmentalism has been formed called environmental justice and has even been categorized as a grand challenge in social work. Environmental justice focuses on the unequal distribution of resources and exploitation of groups of people across the world.
When I hear about environmental issues such as natural disasters, inflating gas prices and the oil market, or urbanization, the news only reports the devastation of land, how much it is going to cost us to fill up the tank, and how many people have died or are still missing due to the disaster. The underlying stories of human rights, environmental racism, and overall disadvantages of those living in affected areas are not talked about.
Climate change is now considered one of the most urgent challenges we face and requires creative, innovative, and assertive minds if we want to successfully change the current situation. That is where social workers can come in. As a social worker, I value dignity and worth of a person, which is a foundation principle behind environmental justice. While Earth Day is a wonderful cause that promotes environmental sustainability, increases awareness and educates people on climate change, it is just the tip of the iceberg.
For me, trying to change the world on a macro level is a daunting thought but working on a smaller, local scale is just as important. For example, an article in the Denver Post on April 20 stated that Denver currently ranks 8th in the country among U.S. cities for ozone pollution due to constant emissions from cars and industries. This is not good because last year Denver ranked 13th. Twelve counties in Colorado failed the annual assessment by the American Lung Association. This is very troublesome because there are a lot of people who suffer health consequences due to this pollution, a majority are already vulnerable populations. Experts say that population growth, the oil and gas industry, vehicle emissions, and coal fired power plants are reasons for elevated ozone levels but the good news is that all other counties meet all air quality standards. The fact that people view Colorado as a place to vacation and get away from the “city life” is ironic when you see this statistic.
So as we celebrate Earth Day, are we looking at ways to change how we use natural resources or do we redirect our resources to advocate for environmental justice?
 Kemp, S. P. and Palinkas, L. A. (with Wong, M., Wagner, K., Reyes Mason, L., Chi, I., … Rechkemmerm A. (2015). Strengthening the social response to the human impacts of environmental change. (Grand Challenges for Social Work Initiative Working Paper No. 5). Cleveland, OH: American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare.
 Parris, C. L., Hegtvedt, K. A., Watson, L. A., and Johnson, C. (2014). Justice for all? Factors affecting perceptions of environmental and ecological injustice. Social Justice Research 27, 67-98.
 Miller, S. E. and Hayward, A. (2014). Social work education’s role in addressing people and a planet at risk. Social Work Education 33(3), 280-295.
Earth photo credit: http://www.bostonchildrensmuseum.org