This year marks the 40th anniversary of a key battle in the early environmental-justice movement: the 1982 resistance to a proposed PCB landfill in Warren County, North Carolina. Carved out of a soybean field in a predominantly Black community, the landfill would store soil tainted with carcinogen-laced oil that a trucker had illegally sprayed along 200 miles of state roads. The resulting protests, and more than 500 arrests, didn’t stop the project. But they helped spark a national movement—and a family legacy.
Among the organizers was an educator and minister named William J. Barber Sr., who had moved to North Carolina from Indiana to help desegregate the schools. His son, the Rev. William J. Barber II, began preaching in Martinsville, Virginia, where he helped residents protest the clandestine storage of toxic waste in a Black neighborhood. Barber II went on to become a prominent civil-rights leader, founding North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement in 2013 and later re-launching the national Poor People’s Campaign.
Now the grandson, 30-year-old William J. Barber III, is continuing the tradition. Based in Durham, North Carolina, Barber III has been advocating for a green-economy transition that benefits not just the environment, but also those who have not shared in America’s prosperity. His company, the Rural Beacon Initiative, helps leverage financing for clean-energy projects in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods. And this month he joined the nonprofit Coalition for Green Capital as its chief consultant of environmental justice and equity. This conversation with him was edited for length and clarity.
I want to start by acknowledging that we are speaking in the birthplace of the environmental-justice movement.
It is. The situation in Warren County was directly connected to a flagship moment in the larger environmental movement. The exposure of largely white, middle-income communities at Love Canal to PCBs and other chemicals led to the legislation mandating specific ways in which they were disposed. And the issue in Warren County was the result of a company not wanting to comply with that new legislation and dumping this toxic material along North Carolina highways. That narrative illustrates why I’m so passionate about this work: If we’re not careful, even progress in the larger environmental movement leads to additional harm for frontline communities.
That ties to a recurring theme in your work: Moving toward a reduction in carbon emissions—slowing or reversing global warming—is not enough if that work is done on the backs of vulnerable communities.
One of the most egregious examples has been the carbon cap-and-trade program, which across the country was critiqued because of an issue called hotspotting. Because of incentives to lower GHG emissions, certain plants in more affluent areas were shut down, while other plants in the portfolio were then set to produce more to make up for that production loss. These plants were often in poor communities. That’s a clear example of something that on its face appeared to be a win for the global climate, but was just another burden on communities that were already impacted.
There’s also the lens of who will benefit from green jobs. You’ve talked about how these jobs are not equitably distributed.
The level of resources, the level of collective expertise that is being directed towards transitioning us to a clean-energy economy represents an unprecedented opportunity. We can’t be presented that opportunity and still return to a business-as-usual scenario. For me, that means we can’t have the same players who—because of access to capital, access to influence—have dominated the energy industry up to this point. We can’t have them be the ones who dictate the parameters or benefit the most from this transition
It’s critical, then, that we think holistically about what a just energy transition looks like: to address climate, yes, through GHG emissions reductions, but also to address poverty through clean, sustainable, living-wage jobs. To address racial equity by ensuring that portions of the clean-energy workforce, and also the owners in a clean-energy economy, come from communities of color. That we address gender equity, recognizing that climate impacts women and children worst.
We have metrics for the tons of GHG emissions we want to reduce by a certain time. We have to have other clear metrics: What percentage of people of color do we want to see in our clean-energy economy? Women? Disadvantaged communities?
We are seeing industries in North Carolina that are being touted as environmentally friendly, but which disproportionately impact low-income communities. The most obvious example is wood pellets, which the European Union classifies as renewable energy.
These are our forests, American forests, that oftentimes are being shipped overseas to meet European energy demand. These forests are in rural areas that are often already economically disadvantaged. They’re in areas that depend on that landscape for sustenance. You’re talking about people who fish, who hunt, who plant for their food. The processing plants are often placed in communities of color—communities that have already been inundated by polluting industry before.
Another industry that is being promoted as a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels is biogas. You were involved in the effort to seek an EPA investigation of racial discrimination in how the state permits biogas facilities at swine farms.
What we’re seeing with this narrative of biogas being a bridgeway fuel to a clean economy is really a Goliath of collaboration between big ag and big energy. The factory farms that feed these biogas facilities are inherently polluting entities. Already, they poison adjacent rural communities of color with toxic chemicals that are detrimental to public health, that lead to economic disruption, that lead to generational trauma because communities are locked into these downward spirals.
There are studies that have been shown that, disproportionately, CAFOs are located in low- income and non-white areas, or near low-income and non-white schools. These facilities are hazardous. They often leak in the face of extreme weather, heavy rainstorm, or even hurricanes. We’ve experienced that right here in North Carolina.
The biogas projects themselves have a direct negative impact on frontline communities because the build-out leads to more pipelines, more digesters, more housing entities, more noise disruptions, more trucks coming in and out. This does not need to be a part of the conversation when we talk about North Carolina’s transition to a clean-energy economy. There are much more efficient places that we can invest, like solar, wind energy, geothermal.
With so many disasters unfolding at any given moment, what gives you hope and keeps you on track?
When I think about those crises, they are of such a scale that no individual sector of society can solve them on its own. Just can’t. Grassroots movement can’t solve it by itself. Community organizing can’t solve it by itself. Science and policy cannot solve it by itself. Government action can’t solve it by itself. Private investment can’t solve it by itself.
And while at first that may appear daunting, I also believe that creates a window of opportunity. We’re forced to break down society’s silos. And we’re forced to think creatively about how we collaborate with other individuals of like conscience, of different backgrounds and perspectives, but with a common goal.
I’m also deeply encouraged by the activism of emerging movements. Young people are coming together in an intergenerational and interracial way, and demanding that we prioritize the voices of Black, Indigenous, brown, poor. It really inspires me. And it gives me faith that imperfectly— stumbling, clawing, fighting, in all the ways that make us beautifully and humanly imperfect—we can make progress on this.