Dr. Robert Bullard, Father of Environmental Justice, Born (1946)

The statement from the United Nations Environment Programme just about says it all.  Upon presenting Dr. Robert D. Bullard with the 2020 Champions of the Earth Lifetime Achievement Award, the UNEP noted “Robert Bullard has shown us how one person can mobilize others to build a movement for the planet and for social justice. His commitment to the idea that all people, regardless of background, have a right to clean air and clean water reflects a human-rights based approach to the environment, which is critical for global discourse. UNEP is honoured to recognize this pioneer with our highest possible award.”

Robert Doyle Bullard was born in Elba, Alabama on December 21, 1946.  He was a good student as a child, graduating second in his high school class.  He received a Bachelor’s degree from Alabama A&M University in 1968 and then served two years with the US Marine Corps.  He then studied sociology at Atlanta University (M.A., 1972) and Iowa State University (Ph.D., 1976). 

Dr. Robert Bullard in 2012 (photo by Dave Brenner)

He took a position as an assistant professor at Texas Southern University, a HBCU in Houston.  While there, his wife, attorney Linda McKeever Bullard, asked for his help developing data for a lawsuit challenging the siting of a landfill in an African-American neighborhood.  Driving around the city with maps and colored markers, he discovered that the vast majority of landfills in Houston were in African-American communities, although only 25% of the city’s population was Black.  “It was an awakening for for me,” he remembered.  “I decided I am not going to do dead white men sociology.  I am going to do kick-ass sociology.”

And the rest, we might say, is environmental justice history.  Bullard expanded his study nationwide, documenting in his first book (Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality, 1990) that the pollution landed disproportionately on minority communities.  That book, and his continuing work, established a new field of research and activism and earned Bullard the rightful title as “father of environmental justice.”

Bullard has labored for a lifetime to help the world understand that environmental degradation and racism are not two problems, but one.  “It took us almost 25 years until the two movements merged,” he said, “until folks on both sides woke up to the realization that what we were experiencing in low-income and communities of colour was a form of systemic racism with detrimental health impacts. Not only that, but that these environmental disparities were having detrimental effects on life expectancy, home ownership and transformative wealth creation.”

His work is an inspiration of passion and persistence.  He has written or co-written eighteen books that range broadly across environmental justice, encompassing sustainability, land use, housing, transportation, smart growth and many other issues.  He has received numerous awards for his work, frequently cited as among the most important African-American environmental voices in the nation.  He moved among several universities during his career, but returned to Texas Southern in 2011, where he began.  He served as dean of public affairs there until 2016, and is now Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy.

After more than forty years in the academic and activism trenches of environmental justice, he remains optimistic.  “On our side we have lots of committed troops on the ground and a growing movement of young people,” he said. “Because of the way race operates in this society, there are some people — poor white people, for example — who have been given blinders; they’re blinded by racism and have voted against their own best interests. When we take the blinders off and allow every single American to rise and reach his or her potential without these artificial barriers, then we could really become a great country.”

In accepting the UNEP Champions of the Earth Lifetime Achievement Award, Bullard expressed what I think we all need to realize:  “There is a long arc of justice, and we have to understand that this is not instant oatmeal. If we get you all to understand that these struggles are long term, we will reach that North Star: justice, fairness and equity for all.”

References:

Bullard, Robert.  Dr. Robert Bullard, Father of Environmental Justice (website).  Available at:  https://drrobertbullard.com/biography/.  Accessed January 28, 2021.

Dicum, Gregory.  2006.  Meet Robert Bullard, the father of environmental justice.  Grist, Mar 15, 2006.  Available at:  https://grist.org/article/dicum/.  Accessed January 28, 2021.

UN Environmental Programme.  2020.  Robert Bullard — Lifetime Achievement Award.  Available at:  https://www.unenvironment.org/championsofearth/laureates/2020/robert-bullard.  Accessed January 28, 2021.

This Month in Conservation

January 1
NEPA Enacted (1970)
January 2
Bob Marshall Born (1901)
January 3
Canaveral National Seashore Created (1975)
January 4
The Real James Bond Born (1900)
January 5
National Bird Day
January 6
Wild Kingdom First Airs (1963)
January 7
Gerald Durrell Born (1925)
January 8
Alfred Russel Wallace Born (1823)
January 9
Muir Woods National Monument Created (1908)
January 10
National Houseplant Appreciation Day
January 11
Aldo Leopold Born (1887)
January 12
National Trust of England Established (1895)
January 13
MaVynee Betsch, the Beach Lady, Born (1935)
January 14
Martin Holdgate Born (1931)
January 15
British Museum Opened (1795)
January 16
Dian Fossey Born (1932)
January 17
Benjamin Franklin, America’s First Environmentalist, Born (1706)
January 18
White Sands National Monument Created (1933)
January 19
Yul Choi, Korean Environmentalist, Born (1949)
January 19
Acadia National Park Established (1929)
January 20
Penguin Appreciation Day
January 21
The Wilderness Society Founded (1935)
January 22
Iraq Sabotages Kuwaiti Oil Fields (1991)
January 23
Sweden Bans CFCs in Aerosols (1978)
January 24
Baden-Powell Publishes “Scouting for Boys” (1908)
January 25
Badlands National Park Established (1939)
January 26
Benjamin Franklin Disses the Bald Eagle (1784)
January 27
National Geographic Society Incorporated (1888)
January 28
Bermuda Petrel, Thought Extinct for 300 Years, Re-discovered (1951)
January 29
Edward Abbey, author of “Desert Solitaire,” Born (1927)
January 30
England Claims Antarctica (1820)
January 31
Stewart Udall, Secretary of Interior, Born (1920)
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