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Solving the climate crisis will help both ‘sacrifice zones’ and ‘cute’ puffins

A pair of puffins at the Gulf of Maine

When I tell bird-loving audiences what puffins mean to me, I start with the expected.

I show my photos of them either with fish in their orange, yellow, and blue-black beaks, gathered in kaleidoscopic multitude, or nuzzling in affection. I always get oohs, ahhs, and a choral, “sooooo cute.”Then I show images that are not so cute.

They are of mothers and children of southeast Chicago, with toxic industries at the end of their block. They live in what environmental justice advocates decry as “sacrifice zones.” In the last decade alone, this primarily brown and Black community has suffered choking clouds of dust from oil refining byproducts, lead in lawns, and neurotoxic manganese dust in the air. Just last month, the Department of Housing and Urban Development blasted an attempt to relocate here a scrap metal recycling facility ousted from the predominately white north side. HUD said it was an example of “shifting polluting activities from white neighborhoods to Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

I then give the audience a glimpse of the shift that should be happening. I show images from my coverage of offshore wind farms and facilities in Europe. I show them families of color from San Diego to Washington, D.C., who enjoy rooftop solar power through various programs. I show them Black and brown workers in the green economy, installing solar panels on roofs.

I then return to puffins. I say if you really care about the threats to them and whether they’ll be around for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, then you must care about those families in southeast Chicago. Like thousands of birdwatchers, my journey with puffins began with simple admiration of a beautiful bird. Today, I see that their destiny is directly bonded to dumped-on families. They are bonded to the speed we curb the fossil emissions that scorch the planet and sear the lungs. 09-09-22

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