Momentum Issue #120

April 19, 2023

A Note From Our Chair

Monali Shah
Board of Directors Chair

When I was growing up, I visited India every year or so to spend time with my family there. Life in India was vibrant and packed in every way. The house was bustling with multiple generations living under one roof. The streets were packed with people, cars, rickshaws, mopeds, bicycles and cows. Grit and beauty could hit me on any street corner. I don’t know if it was the contrast to my suburban Chicago life of order and structure or the connection to my roots, but I found comfort in this chaos. 

Amidst the density of humanity, I found a sense of independence. I could move about on my own…walking to the tiny shack that was the comic book library to get some more Archie comic books, getting a rickshaw to the market to get my purple fruit cocktail from the corner stand, taking the train to the city in the women’s compartment wondering if I would be able to push my way through the bodies in saris to exit at my stop.  In contrast, back in the US suburbs, anywhere I wanted to go required me to request and plan a ride from my parents. 

My grandmother gave me a handkerchief to carry with me throughout my day. I used it to cover my nose when the kerosene fumes were particularly strong on the rickshaw ride. I wiped the soot from my face as I got close to my destination. Even with my protective handkerchief, at the end of the day when I would wash my face and nose, I would witness the water turn dark brown from my day’s travels.

The pollution was so bad that I would get a cough on every trip.  I could not shake the cough until I returned to my suburban Chicago life for 2-3 weeks.  I was able to “detox” my system by being in clean air and green space. But what about the people who live in this every day and do not have a place to go detox? This was my first exposure to environmental justice without knowing the name for it.

In my college years as I studied environmental engineering, I got involved in local environmental projects. I remember visiting a neighborhood in Detroit with a community leader to do some data gathering.  I got out of the car and felt my nostrils and throat start to burn.  The stench of naphthalene overwhelmed the air in this residential area located near a factory.  I would leave after a few hours to go back to Ann Arbor but the families that lived in this neighborhood experienced the daily discomfort and the long-term health consequences of this exposure.  

These experiences I had were decades ago.  There has been progress.  New fuels, technologies and infrastructure investments have definitely improved the state of things but not enough progress has been made.

2021 study published in the journal Science Advances, found that BIPOC communities accounted for 75% of total exposure to pollutants from sources such as construction, power plants, industry, cars and trucks, and agriculture.  The consequences are higher rates of respiratory illnesses, asthma, neurological disorders. 

For generations, decisions have been made, intentionally or unintentionally, that have harmed specific communities. We find time after time that women, especially BIPOC women have borne the brunt of this burden.

Basics such as access to clear air, clean water, green space, transportation, housing are surprisingly still issues today across the US, despite being one of the wealthiest nations in the world.  I am not pessimistic though. I know that through intention, investment and innovation we can get to better outcomes.

One practical vehicle for such intentional investment today is the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).  This is a great spark to address some of the complex challenges of connecting communities in more effective, safe and equitable ways. We must continue to build on that spark through innovation that propels us to faster and more impactful solutions. 

Innovation and technology are transforming every industry and all aspects of our lives today. The World Economic Forum says “20% of the cut in GHG emissions that the world needs can come from digital technologies in support of broader industry transitions”. These digital technologies include sensors, cloud computing and artificial intelligence which help us discern and interpret our environment and its changing dynamics. Access to digital tools and applications also enables organizations to quickly turn all of the data into useful insights for decision making, prioritization, and investment.  

The Hawaii Department of Transportation is leaning into innovation to address pressing climate risks impacting the built environment and communities who inhabit them. Their focus has been on making it easier for everyone – experts, planners, the public – to access relevant information. Aligning and enhancing their data sources in a transparent and easy to use interface is allowing them to accelerate understanding of the issues and gain insight on where to focus. Hawaii DOT solving for transportation and climate resilience

The pace of technology innovation is moving super-fast. However, our ability to adapt as people, processes and organizations tends to move much slower. We need more effort in bridging these gaps, because when people have access to clear and credible information, we can accelerate learning cycles, reduce costs, and make better decisions. If done right, we can also bring in voices and perspectives that have been traditionally left behind.

The ability to breathe, move, learn, earn, fuel our bodies and souls should not be based on zip code or country code.  Today, we have the unique opportunity to solve many of these problems through intention, investment and innovation. Let this Earth Week be a time to recommit ourselves to leveraging all the amazing tools and technologies available to create a cleaner, more just and sustainable world for all.