Bryan Parras, far left, with his father, second from right, at the Healthy Manchester Festival on July 19, 2013. (Courtesy of Flickr.)
In the current issue of The Nation, I profile two climate activists who engaged in a high-stakes direct action back in May, anchoring a lobster boat in the path of a coal freighter at the Brayton Point power plant in Somerset, Massachusetts, blocking the delivery of 40,000 tons of coal for a day. The piece, you could say, is about the challenge of coming to terms with the sort of truly stark choices humanity faces if we take the urgency and scale of the climate crisis—and the idea of climate justice—at all seriously. Choices like shutting down coal plants.
But last week, while on a reporting trip to Houston and East Texas for the magazine, I had a chance to sit down with Houston native and environmental-justice advocate Bryan Parras, co-founder (with his father, Juan Parras) of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, or TEJAS, and he offered a crucial counterpoint to my piece in the current issue. Not that the stark choices I wrote about there can simply be wished away. They can’t. It’s just that they look a bit different, and even more complicated, depending on where you stand and where you’re coming from—something climate activists, all of us, would do well to acknowledge.
One of the communities where Parras engages as an organizer is Houston’s Manchester neighborhood. Located just east of the 610 Loop along the Houston Shipping Channel, it’s literally hemmed in by oil refineries owned by Valero, Texas PetroChemical and LyondellBassel, as well as other heavily polluting industrial facilities including a chemical plant, a tire plant, a car-crushing facility, a train yard and a sewage treatment plant, not to mention two major highways. The residents of Manchester, poor and working-class and overwhelmingly Latino, already breathe some of the country’s most toxic air, including a number of known human carcinogens, as an eye-opening 2005 investigation by the Houston Chronicle revealed. And they have the health statistics to show for it. Not only rates of asthma and other respiratory problems, but as Kristin Moe noted in a strong article for Yes! magazine last April, a recent investigation by researchers at the University of Texas School of Public Health found that “for children living within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel, chances of contracting acute lymphocytic leukemia are 56 percent higher than for children only ten miles away.”
The Ship Channel, and those refineries, are also the destination for the vast majority of the tar sands crude, or diluted bitumen (a k a dilbit), that will flow from Alberta to the Gulf via the Keystone XL pipeline if it’s approved, only increasing the toxic emissions in the neighborhood. In the past year, Tar Sands Blockade, the group that has engaged in high-stakes direct action along the construction route of the pipeline’s southern leg, has begun to make Manchester a focal point of the Keystone fight.
I met up with Parras last Thursday at a coffee house on Westheimer Road in the Montrose neighborhood, worlds away from Manchester (though with construction going on across the street and diesel fumes wafting over the outdoor tables where we sat, the air wasn’t exactly pristine). The next day, Friday, I joined him and other local organizers in Manchester for the Healthy Manchester Festival, in the neighborhood’s Hartmann Park across the street from the massive Valero refinery. Sponsored by TEJAS and Better Future Project’s Ride For the Future, and staffed by volunteers from Tar Sands Blockade, it was a meeting of climate and environmental-justice organizers on terrain you could call “ground zero” of fossil-fuel impacts. And yet talking with Parras, I was reminded that the climate-justice movement has its work cut out if it wants to be relevant to the day-to-day lives of people in places like Houston’s east side.
The following excerpt from my conversation with Bryan Parras has been lightly edited for both length and clarity.
Wen Stephenson: Do you consider yourself an environmentalist?
Bryan Parras: I let folks call me that, and I’ll use that term if it’s the only way of describing myself to someone that makes sense. And that’s the problem: we need more words. We need more words.
What do you think about the words, or term, “climate justice”? What does that actually mean?
So tell me about that. Why do you say that?
I know what people have told me it means. For me, and for others, it’s about the disparities in who is impacted by climate change—the Global South, people of color, poor folks, fishing communities, subsistence farmers.
And it’s about future generations, too?
Yeah. So as you begin to hash that out, those are all indigenous concepts. Your duty to protect future generations, that’s an indigenous concept, and I think a very human concept, too. It’s a religious concept. All this stuff is, again, inherent in us.
So, why do you say climate justice doesn’t mean anything—where you live, and in the work that you’re doing?
It’s too big. No one has done a good job of painting a picture of what it could look like. Or should look like. And the human mind doesn’t operate that way. It’s sort of an ideology that has to be instilled in you. That’s why I think there are very, very big cultural differences in how we look at something like [climate justice].
And the sad thing is, there’s a button in a large percentage of the American population that we just need to activate. We just need to push it and activate it. And part of the problem is, you know, we’re so dependent on jobs—I have to work, I have to a have a job, I just need to make a living, I have to put food on the table. I have kids, you know, they need clothes. Until we can really answer that for people, there’s no reason to care about what’s impending on us all, the climate disaster.
On a human level, on a justice level, or if we want to talk about building a more unified progressive movement that addresses both climate and environmental justice at the local level, it makes sense to say that we should be paying a lot more attention to what you’re trying to do in Manchester, and East Houston and many other places—
Many other Manchesters.
Right. Manchester is a pretty tiny community, but it makes for a kind of jaw-dropping symbol—and not just a symbol, but a very powerful example of how this industry affects people’s lives. So, how do you see the work of climate activists, organizers like Tar Sands Blockade, intersecting with what you’re doing with TEJAS?
With any organizers who come in with an interest in working in an environmental justice community, it’s important to understand that it’s a dynamic situation, for the people there. And a lot of the injustices are not only environmental-related, in the sense that most people think of the environment. So, chemicals, yes. But police brutality? No. Drugs—you know, other kinds of chemicals? No. Lack of education opportunities? No, people don’t think of those things. So it’s a dynamic situation that allows these communities to exist in the first place, and then on top of that you have these environmental, toxic exposures that make it even more difficult to get out.
You could take away the toxics and you’d still have those other problems. You’ll just have cleaner air?
So, ideally, how can climate activists help you do your work with TEJAS?
Honestly, I think it’s more important for us to help them. That’s how I see my role. We all need to help each other. And if we’re going to be in that mindset of living in a world that is not destroying itself, we need to start with the individual. We have to start with the self.
The reason these communities like Manchester exist is because there are deficits in other communities that are not paying attention to these neighborhoods and these people. And so I’ve always felt like we’re doing more work to change other people, and to help other people, than they are to help us.
A lot of people, myself included, argue that the Keystone pipeline fight is a good focus for the climate movement on multiple levels—for climate reasons, and because it’s going to pollute local environments and increase toxic emissions in places like Manchester.
But what happens if you stop it?
Well, you have less toxic pollution in these communities. But, of course, just stopping the pipeline will bring only a marginal improvement in people’s lives in Manchester.
And I would say, from experience, I see a lot of folks in environmental justice communities, people of color, saying, “OK, we can stop KXL, but they’ll build PXL, or TXL…” If they want to do it, it’s going to happen.
Do you feel a tension between the urgency of climate action—that we only have so much time to make an actual, meaningful difference—and the slower, more patient, committed work of community organizing, on the ground, whether it’s in Manchester or anywhere else?
We all come to that with different baggage and different histories. Just looking at people of color, their experience has not been that the system works for them. Even when it does, they know, “I was lucky.” There are a lot of other folks, many more, who worked their ass off and are still on the margins.
I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that often, when you have these larger, global concepts [like climate action], they tend to work to favor certain communities over others. While everyone benefits, that’s true, they do tend to leave the same folks, that are already in bad situations, in bad situations. And so there’s no incentive for them to get involved. It’s like, why would I work my ass off, put myself on the line, for this very small, incremental change in what my life will look like afterwards? For a certain population, who have experienced that the system doesn’t work, they’re not going to go out of their way to put themselves on the line, when the results and the benefits are going to favor one community over everyone.
If there were an honest concern about something as big as climate change, where the whole world will be impacted, then we would be having discussions about more than just how much carbon particulates are in the atmosphere. That’s the sort of paradigm that has to change.
So we’d be talking about economic justice more broadly?
A lot of the old-school environmental justice folks say there is no environmental justice if there is no economic justice.
The Teamsters are starting to organize the port trucking industry, but how do you organize a group of workers who aren’t officially employees of anyone?