April 21, 2011

High school students consider concepts of "environmental racism" and "environmental (in)justice" and view and discuss an online clip about the dumping of electronics. Homework assignments suggest further study of this issue and the Gulf Spill anniversary.

To the Teacher

In the classroom lesson below (timed to coincide with Earth Month in April), students will develop what author and psychologist Daniel Goleman calls their "green intelligence" by viewing an online clip and considering concepts of "environmental racism" and "environmental (in)justice."
Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and keynote speaker at Morningside Center's 2010 Courageous Schools conference, believes that environmental awareness and action are the next frontier in the field of social and emotional learning. See his article on the Yale Environment 360 website at:
Students will:
  • discuss their favorite electronic device
  • explore ideas of "environmental racism" and "environmental (in)justice"
  • consider the true cost of electronics
Social and Emotional Skills:
  • environmental awareness
  • active listening
  • making informed decisions
Materials needed:
today's agenda on chart paper or on the board
internet access to The Story of Electronics clip at


(5 minutes)

Ask students in pairs to talk about their favorite electronic device. Ask them to explain why this is their favorite. Also ask them to talk about how often they use the device, for what purpose, and how often they replace it, for what reason.


Check Agenda and Goals

(15 minutes)

Mention that April is Earth Month and April 22 is Earth Day. Ask a few volunteers to share what they know about Earth Day. Elicit and explain that Earth Day is a day to learn about our planet and the environment. It is a day also to mobilize people to take action to address the environmental crisis around the world.
Explain that in today's lesson you'll be looking at a concept known as environmental justice. Ask students what they think environmental justice means. Have they heard the term "environmental racism"? If so, what do they think that term means? How do they think the two are connected?
The National Council of Churches' Racial Justice Working Group describes racism as follows: "Racism is the intentional or unintentional use of power to isolate, separate and exploit others... Racism is more than just a personal attitude; it is the institutionalized form of the attitude."
Ask students their thoughts about this definition of racism.
Dr. Robert Bullard, a scholar and activist who helped found the environmental justice movement, says: "Now all of the issues of environmental racism and environmental justice don't just deal with people of color. We are just as much concerned with inequities in Appalachia, for example, where the whites are basically dumped on because of lack of economic and political clout and lack of having a voice to say 'no' — and that's environmental injustice."
Ask students their thoughts about what Dr. Robert Bullard says about environmental racism and environmental (in)justice.
What does Dr. Bullard say is the reason for communities being "dumped on?"
What does Dr. Bullard say is lacking in the communities being "dumped on?" 
What is another word for "clout"?

The Story of Electronics:

Why 'Designed for the Dump' is Toxic for People and the Planet 

(15 minutes)
Show the clip The Story of Electronics at for about 7 minutes. Then ask students some or all of the following questions:
What are their thoughts about this clip?
What did the clip tell us about the cost of electronics (beyond monetary costs)?
Who is paying the price in the US? Who is paying the price beyond the US?
Why aren't the CEOs or companies producing the electronics paying the price of pollution?
What is "extended producer responsibility"? 
What do students think about "take back" laws?
How would "take back" laws contribute to environmental justice?
Environmental (In)Justice (10 minutes)
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): "Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies."
Consider using some or all of the following questions to further explore this definition:
What environmental injustice is highlighted in the clip we just watched?
Which communities in the clip are negatively affected by the production of electronics?
How much clout (power) do you think these communities have in the global economy?
How do you think we could ensure that US "environmental laws, regulations, and policies" are fair to people regardless of color or national origin? How could we ensure that they are fair to people around the globe?

Closing (5 minutes)

At the start of the clip Annie tells us that "this is the story of a world obsessed with stuff, it's a story of a system in crisis, we're trashing the planet, we're trashing each other and we're not even having fun. The good thing is when we start to understand the system, we start to see lots of places to step in and turn these problems into solutions."
Ask some or all of the following questions as you close today's lesson:
What is something you have learned today? 
What is something you may do differently as a result of today's lesson?
What is something you might want to learn more about as a result of today's lesson?

Homework Assignments

Assignment 1: What's all this toxic stuff?

According to the World Bank, "Today's consumption is undermining the environmental resource base. It is exacerbating inequalities. And the dynamics of the consumption-poverty-inequality-environment nexus are accelerating. If the trends continue without change - not redistributing from high-income to low-income consumers, not shifting from polluting to cleaner goods and production technologies, not promoting goods that empower poor producers, not shifting priority from consumption for conspicuous display to meeting basic needs - today's problems of consumption and human development will worsen.... The real issue is not consumption itself but its patterns and effects."
The World Bank points out that 20% of the world's people - those in the highest-income countries - account for 86% of total private consumption spending. But the poorest 20% of the world's people consume a minuscule 1.3%. Specifically, the richest fifth of the world's people:
Consume 45% of all meat and fish. The poorest fifth consume 5%.
Consume 58% of total energy. The poorest fifth consume less than 4%.
Have 74% of all telephone lines. The poorest fifth have 1.5%.
Consume 84% of all paper. The poorest fifth consume 1.1%.
Own 87% of the world's vehicles. The poorest fifth own less than 1%.
Ask students to go to the Story of Stuff website and research the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) associated with the "Story of Electronics" clip at Ask students to watch the clip once more. As they watch they'll see the FAQs pop up below the clip:
What's all this toxic stuff in my laptop and cell phone?
It can't be legal to export e-waste, right?
My e-stuff ends up half way across the globe?
What's extended producer responsibility?
Which companies are making progress?
What can I do?
How can I be sure my old stuff isn't being exported?
Assign small groups to research each question and to prepare a five-minute report to present in your next class.

Assignment 2: Gulf Spill Anniversary

It's one-year anniversary of the oil spill off the Gulf coast. Ask your students to read up on what communities were most affected by the spill and what is being done about it. (For background information, you might see TeachableMoment's lesson, Gulf Catastrophe.
One of the main companies behind the oil spill, British Petroleum (BP), reported a profit of $4.4 billion for the last quarter of 2010. Although BP's loss for the whole year was $3.7 billion due to expenses associated with the spill, in the end the company has bounced back and is even paying some dividends (profits) to its shareholders. Many gulf communities, on the other hand, have not bounced back, especially the poorer ones, as the articles below will illustrate.
Some articles to consider:
Environmental Justice in the BP Oil Spill... History Repeating Itself
by Caty Borum Chattoo for the Huffington Post on September 13, 2010
BP's Dumping Oil-Spill Waste in Communities of Color, Study Finds
by Michelle Chen for Color Lines on August 3, 2010
Oil Spill Puts People of Color on Slippery Slope
by Monique Harden for Advocated for Environmental Human Rights
BP, Putting Oil Spill Behind It, Reports 4th Quarter Profit: But Is That The End of the Story?
By RP Siegel for Triple Pundit on February 4, 2011
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment by Marieke van Woerkom, a trainer and global facilitator who works as a staff developer for Morningside Center.
We welcome your comments. Please email them to Marieke at:,or to Morningside Center at: