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2009 News Releases

National environmental leader Jerome Ringo promotes change during Martin Luther King program

January 28, 2009

Environmental leader Jerome Ringo speaks on Martin Luther King Day 2008 Environmental leader Jerome Ringo proposed environmental change in his MLK Day speech

The United States must become energy independent and combat climate change and environmental practices that adversely affect disadvantaged communities, a national environmental leader recently told a Longwood University audience honoring the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"We all breathe in the same air and drink the same water, so we must all be involved," Jerome Ringo, president of the Apollo Alliance and immediate past chairman of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), said Jan. 22 in Jarman Auditorium. "This issue can bring Americans together like no other issue since the day of Dr. King. It can unite all generations and all economic levels, and it can be the glue that connects the dots. Change is necessary, and we’re on the threshold of that change."

The Apollo Alliance, which Ringo has headed since 2005, is a coalition of labor, environmental, business and community leaders working to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, create "green" jobs, and curb the impact of global warming. Ringo was NWF president in 2005-07 and was a delegate to the Global Warming Treaty negotiations in Kyoto, Japan, in 1998.

"Twenty years ago when Al Gore talked to Congress about climate change, people laughed at him," said Ringo, who appears in the film An Inconvenient Truth, based on Gore’s book of that name. "The hottest 10 years in recorded history have occurred since 1991, and 2005 was the hottest year in recorded history. Unfortunately, the United States is the only nation that has still not ratified the Kyoto Treaty. Despite being only five percent of the world’s population, we contribute 35 percent of the carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and use 25 percent of the world’s energy."

Hurricane Katrina, he said, "woke us up to the plight of global warming. People in 2005 wondered ‘Why are we getting Category 4 and 5 storms back to back to back? Is it really a cycle? At the same time we receive these intense storms in the Gulf of Mexico, why is it that, halfway around the globe, the icecaps of Mount Kilimanjaro have melted for the first time in 10,000 years? Why is it that, simultaneously, the permafrost in Alaska is disappearing? Why are we experiencing sea-level rise, and Louisiana is losing an acre of land every 42 minutes to erosion?’ We have lost enough land along the coast of Louisiana to equal the state of Delaware, and now they’re going to redraw the map of the state because Louisiana is no longer shaped like a boot."

Ringo also discussed America’s energy dependence. "We’re being held over an oil barrel by foreign governments. Seventy percent of our oil is imported, which has made us our economy and our environment vulnerable. We can no longer be held hostage by foreign governments. I often wonder about that day in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit the coast of Louisiana, and all of those oil rigs were shut down and two-thirds of the domestic supply was shut down, and you saw the result at the gas pump. What would have happened if President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, or the prime minister or royal family of Saudi Arabia, or African nations, or Russia, had said ‘Close the valve.’ America would have been brought to its knees. We’re one-dimensional with respect to our energy, and we have to change that."

Ringo became an environmental justice activist after working in the petrochemical industry of his native Louisiana for 20 years, during which he saw the harmful effects of industrial pollution on nearby residents, most of whom were poor. His first job was in a petrochemical plant that made products "not friendly to the environment," including rocket and jet fuels, gasolines, and chlorines.

"We employees were told that if we had to discharge chemicals into the air or a ditch, to do it after midnight since the environmental enforcement officer, from the State Police, went off duty at 11 p.m.," he said. "Workers were protected by special clothing, respirators and monitors on our lapels, but the people less than 50 feet away on the other side of the chain-link fence, who had a higher cancer rate and whose kids didn’t do as well in school, weren’t protected. I began to wonder why they weren’t protected, which began to bother me. For 20 years I worked for a polluting company that was part of the problem. That’s why I’ve spent the last 20 years washing blood off my hands."

While still working, he took the bold step of opposing his employer’s application for a permit. Two weeks before it was issued, in 1989, he was sent on a special assignment to Malaysia for what he was told would be six weeks. He didn’t return to the U.S. until 1994. "I returned with a renewed spirit, and I knew organizing (for environmental justice) was just something I had to do." The next year he was offered medical retirement, even though he wasn’t sick, and he accepted.

Also in 1995 he joined the Louisiana Wildlife Federation. "When I joined, it had 24,000 members, of which I was the only African-American. Membership has fallen to 19,000, and I’m still the only African-American member." Eager to find out why minorities were under-represented, especially since they are disproportionately impacted by poor environmental practices, he visited similar organizations in other states, including Virginia. "I saw that it was not necessarily an issue of race; it was more an issue of economics. And it was more than environmental racism; it was an environmental justice issue."

Ringo was distressed by what he saw during a visit to a sewage treatment plant in downtown Detroit, surrounded by low-income residents. "There was no treatment plant in the wealthy suburbs; they weren’t building plants near their homes. Raw sewage was pumped from the suburbs and would overflow because the plant couldn’t handle the capacity. The bypass valves would be open, and sewage would bypass them and be dumped into the Detroit River. After heavy rains, people would head to a nearby pier and fish because, as I learned, sewage goes into the river, the fish eat the sewage, and people eat the fish – all because wealthy people would not build treatment plans in their communities."

When Ringo became president of the National Wildlife Federation in 2005, he became the first African-American to head a major conservation organization. "That’s a wonderful thing, but it’s sad to me," said Ringo, who learned from Teddy Roosevelt IV that when the NWF was founded,
"conservationists were sportsmen – they fished to put fish on the wall – and poor people, who fished to put food on the table, didn’t join clubs. Poor people are more concerned with next month’s rent than depletion of the ozone. They’re more concerned with keeping their kid off crack than global warming or the meltdown of Mount Kilimanjaro. I believe it is part of my divine purpose on earth to make this movement look more like America. For the last 20 years, I have worked diligently to change the face of the movement."

When he joined the Apollo Alliance, it had four million members; now it has 17 million members. The organization has proposed $500 billion investment strategy over 10 years and $50 billion for the research and development of alternative energy.

Also as part of Longwood’s celebration of Dr. King’s birthday, some 22 students, faculty and staff volunteers took turns earlier that day reading the civil rights leader’s "Drum Major Instinct" speech, in which he stressed service, on the steps in front of Lankford. Another 10 members of the Longwood community assisted with that event, and Lacy Ward Jr., director of the Robert Russa Moton Museum, delivered the opening and concluding remarks. Last year volunteers read Dr. King’s "I Have a Dream" speech. Plans call for a Dr. King speech to be read every year.

About 70 students, faculty and staff participated in eight local service projects as part of the second annual MLK Service Challenge on Jan. 19. One participant was recently elected U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello, whose Fifth District includes Farmville, who spoke briefly to students and then helped paint a classroom at Stepping Stones Preschool in Farmville.

MLK Program and Service Challenge 2008

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