Reflections on Houston in a Time of Contradiction

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Op-Ed Was Originally Published October 2, 2017 in Earth Island Journal.  

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.

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.

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