Reflections on Houston in a Time of Contradiction

From city strangled by fossil fuels, a call to fight for a more equitable future

Last October I visited Houston for the first time. I grew up in the Midwest and have spent half my life in New York City — perhaps the least Texan person possible — but aside from a few cultural differences involving cowboy boots and biscuit-heavy restaurant menus, my background turned out to be good preparation. I was neither cowed by Houston’s skyscrapers nor confused by the hospitality of a Southern city’s people, familiar as the unsolicited smiles Midwesterners give complete strangers.

oil development in HoustonPhoto by Louis Vest Neighborhoods bordering the Houston Ship Canal have some of the worst air pollution in the country.

Because of this, perhaps, I found Houston comfortable, utterly pleasant, welcoming, warm, easy, and yet … the downtown streets at night were deserted, wide, silent. And the ten days or so I spent there transpired strangely, feeling at times much longer than ten days, flipping dramatically between blasting air conditioning and sopping gulps of hot humidity, women and men in slick suits with shiny shoes, women and men in drab clothing covered in dust, or seen from afar framed by open flames on pits of scrap metal.

In New York City it’s easy to feel resilient to the woes of the planet; even in the throes of Hurricane Sandy, many of us continued to eat well and sleep well above 42nd Street. But in Houston, the relentlessness of the heat, the stark discrepancy of bright cleanliness with belches of pollution down the road … in Houston, perhaps, I saw in sharper focus the inevitability of a future many are already living. A deepening divide between “insiders” and “outsiders,” the last gasps of an industry that suckles while it strangles. And today, of course, as the shock of Hurricane Harvey transforms into an increasingly familiar monotony of government bureaucracy, plodding clean-up, and despair of lives lost and put on hold, today it is up to all of us — victims and witnesses alike — to name these contradictions and fight for a more equitable future for all.

But I knew none of this when I arrived in Houston last October, to attend a series of meetings led by the Building Equity and Alignment for Impact (BEA) initiative and hosted by local group Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS). The meeting brought together grassroots, national “green groups,” and philanthropy with the goal of building alignment around the then developing Clean Power Plan (CPP), that late Obama era rule that would have put limits on a sector of power plant emissions, but still fell short of addressing the kinds of site-specific reductions and long-term health implications important to communities living on the frontlines of dirty industry.

A year ago, the CPP seemed wholly insufficient. Of course none of us had any idea just how bad things were about to get, just how blatant and unapologetic the following administration would be about abandoning frontline communities to maintain industry’s favor. These communities, represented last year in Houston by environmental justice groups, were and are overwhelmingly immigrant, low income, and communities of color, stuck living and working in the backyards of power plants, landfills, incinerators. In short, polar opposites of the sequestered cabal of dour billionaires who, overwhelmingly white and male, control the dirty actions and green-washed messaging behind the industries responsible for poisoning them.

The meeting attendees hashed out the CPP in downtown Houston, sitting inside the conference rooms of a sparkling-clean, air-conditioned hotel with flowers and bowls of mints on the tables. Each shining tile and lobby armchair seemed designed to shield guests from the knowledge that this oasis was both dependent upon and deep within the belly of the fossil fuel beast. Just a few steps out the door were mazes of skyscrapers bearing names of extractive industry companies from all over the world. And just a short drive from the hotel were the Houston Ship Channel and Manchester neighborhood, thick with contaminated schoolyards, residential windows permanently shut against stinking air, mountains of scrap metal leeching smoke and particulate matter.

The CPP meeting convened at the same time the Standing Rock camp in North Dakota was at its height, bringing together native tribes and allies from across the country to block the Dakota Access Pipeline from plowing through native prairie lands, farmland, a sacred burial site, and community water supplies. While we strategized ways to strengthen climate policy against emissions already poisoning the atmosphere, friends 1,000 miles away were hunkering down for what would soon become a life-threatening fight against government-sanctioned violence and corporate surveillance; a struggle to stop destruction before it happened rather than waiting passively for the contamination that the pipeline would inevitably spill into their community.

Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the monolith behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, had headquarters in Houston just minutes away from the hotel where the CPP meeting was taking place. One day we all took a break to protest, walking the long blocks in the beating sun holding posters that said “No DAPL” and “Water is Life.” When we reached the ETP building, it was like all the others — rectangular, catapulting, impenetrable, the only way to differentiate it from other companies’ was the name carved in the granite sign on the small, manicured lawn outside.

“Shame!” we shouted, when we reached a stopping place across the street. “SHAME!” We screamed at the building and pointed accusatory fingers at the windows, even though the mirrored treatments reflected our own images back to us. We had no way of knowing if anyone inside saw us, or heard us, or even stopped to glance at our posters. An immutable security guard stood out front, dark glasses covering his eyes. Eventually we turned around and walked back to the hotel.

That night of the protest, bothered, dissatisfied, I ventured out alone to get another look at those glass-faced skyscrapers. Even without the Texas sun the hot air blanketed my nose and mouth, and I was quickly covered in a layer of slow-moving sweat. I walked with the hotel to my back and took a right turn at the light, as I remembered we’d done earlier in the day. But I quickly lost my way, gazing down one silent street and then another, walking faster and then doubling back. The streets were empty, and I began to feel threatened in a way I’ve never felt in New York. The homogeneity of the buildings’ facades and the underlying lull of their nighttime hum made it hard for me to discern how far I’d walked from the bright hotel lobby, with only the names of energy companies on the signs outside to illuminate the boulevards. Red lights blinked remotely from security cameras recording the empty foyers of the buildings, the legs of my journey differentiated only by the shifting colors of this ghostly pallor.

By the time I took that solitary night-time walk in the streets of Houston, I’d learned a little more about the scope and ubiquity of the contamination in low-income neighborhoods of the city. Earlier in the week, TEJAS led a small group of out-of-towners on one of their “Toxic Tours,” a multi-stop drive through some of the parks, schools, and neighborhoods flanked on all sides by refineries, chemical plants, and Superfund sites, less than an hour to the east of downtown. Perhaps more sobering than the lists of contaminants, recited at each stop with practiced detail by the TEJAS tour guide, was the short distance between stops.

In the beginning, the group gasped, “How is this possible?” We narrowed our eyes in disgust and piled back in the van, only to climb back out almost immediately. After the third or fourth stop we were quiet; we stopped exchanging looks. The sites of massive contamination were so close together, creating such a concentrated soup of toxicity, the unyielding tenacity of TEJAS and other environmental justice groups living at industrial ground-zeros came into sharper focus. This was an uphill battle and a non-negotiable one; this was a fight over life and death.

A couple of hours in, the van pulled off into the parking lot of an elementary school so a few of us could use the restroom. It was a weekend and the school was empty, but our tour guide knew someone working inside. She opened the door for us and led us through the gymnasium, past a cork-board on the gym wall that had been converted into a kind of shrine to a young student — a girl who looked to be about six years old. The board was completely filled with photographs. In one, the girl held a stuffed doll, in another she giggled as she got her toenails painted. In another, she sat in a hospital bed with an IV in her arm. Even in this one, she smiled. Well-wishes and messages of hope surrounded the photos on the cork-board. The employee informed us that the school used this board to honor students and neighborhood kids who had died.

In that moment, in the eyes of the little girl and ghosts of friends who had preceded her, statistics of elevated rates of rare childhood cancers in the direct paths of the petrochemical industry became more than numbers on a page. Our group returned to the hotel with a new lens; everything was sparkling clean, and everything was toxic. Everyone friendly, and yet going about their days as communities down the road suffocated.

But I don’t blame Houstonians. To be American, no matter where you live and work, is in one way or another to be a hypocrite. As we recognize the pestilence the fossil fuel industry is perpetrating on communities, through climate change, toxics and environmental racism, we all continue to participate. In fact, many of us have no choice, or feel we must unplug 100 percent or not at all, because anything less than 100 percent would be living contradiction, dismantling the system with one hand while continuing to support it with the other. Unable to drop out completely and live off the grid, aside from the few skilled enough, or brave enough, or safety-netted enough, we are all complicit in some way. We have little choice but to participate.

Initiations often involve some act of violence or humiliation for this same reason — to prove that you are no better than us. And once that’s been proved, the ability to complain, to protest, to suggest a better way, has effectively been removed. Environmentalists are often discredited because they still fly in airplanes, they use computers, they have cars and central heating. All this is true, and feeds the contradiction many activists feel.

However, a concept called “Just Transition,” originating from labor movements and joined more recently by environmental and social justice groups, takes this contradiction into account, ensuring that while we stop the bad, we build an ever more detailed and realistic “new,” to support communities in a transition off of fossil fuels. The 30-plus member organizations of Climate Justice Alliance, in their analysis behind newly-released Just Transition Principles, call for us to “decolonize our imaginations” and “divorce ourselves from the comforts of empire.” The “comforts of empire” they acknowledge name the contradiction that’s become a defining factor of modern life, and the call for “divorce” commits to a new vision for society and planet.

And, as we move toward a fossil fuel transition that will either be by planned design or panicked necessity, we are now witnessing a final backlash of corporate greed beyond all reason, manifesting itself in the highest levels of government with a climate denier appointed head of the Environmental Protection Agency and a former CEO of EXXON the Secretary of State. Our very own President denies climate change and has proposed cuts to FEMA, the agency many victims of Harvey are already hesitant to call upon for fear of deportation.

But instead of despairing at this lock-down on fossil fuel “business as usual” and the unending footage of people on rooftops, in mass shelters, digging through soggy remains of homes, instead of despairing, I think about that day in the streets of Houston, shouting “Shame” at Energy Transfer Partners. Last year, the windowed walls seemed to loom over us, projecting a feeling of authority, impenetrability, of secure systems and secrets behind. But if we weren’t certain before, today we know those buildings are just as flooded, just as deserted and confused as lights flicker and automatic locks shut off.

Perhaps one gift the Trump administration has given us is the final lifting of this veil — just in case there was any lingering faith that authority still meant something and could be depended on. Now we no longer need suspect. Benefit of the doubt is over — it’s all a façade, a sham, a bully’s blow-horn silencing a people’s wisdom. So now we know. What we do with this knowledge holds the key to the future.

This piece was submitted in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, with support from The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation.

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