Dramatizing the “death” of environmentalism doesn’t help urban people of color, or anyone else
“Death” is such a harsh term — can’t we say “transition to a happier place”?
Photo: Sophia Wallace.
Or, how else can I put this … You don’t have to fall out of the tree. Just climb down and join us on the ground. Let’s talk.
If you work on environmental issues, chances are you don’t know me. I represent the other other side. The one outside the greenhouse. I’m young, I’m colored, I’m female, I’m urban — and environmentalism isn’t reaching me like it needs to.
So I want to add a few thoughts to the “Death of Environmentalism” discussion: first, an argument for why environmentalism cannot die; second, a snapshot of who the environmental movement is missing; and finally, a few of the practical shifts I see as necessary for making this a worthwhile transition instead of a death whose dramatizing serves no one.
We live in the most frightening of times, the most fearless of times. Our president, the leader of the most profligate world power in recent history, opposes environmental regulations at home and multilateralism abroad. The majority of our country’s citizens have been successfully lulled into thinking that the environment will somehow sustain itself. We don’t have good examples of sustainable culture; instead of taking care of our own waste, we dump it on the rest of the world. Rather than encouraging careful resource use, pushing for more innovative and effective products and technologies, and promoting renewable energy, our government goes to war to hoard the natural resources of other sovereign nations.
We see it. The people you aren’t reaching are not blind, we aren’t unmoved. More and more young people are realizing every day that the whole world is paying the price for the way we live, and we are waking up to that reality with shame and with a desire to change it. But we often don’t connect that desire, or the work we do in our own lives, with the environmental movement.
And with good reason. Come with me on a little journey called: I’m young, I’m colored, and I need a job. I need an education to get that job, and then I need that job to pay off the student loans. I gotta figure out some way to get to and from school or work as gas prices go up and public transportation costs go up. I have to hustle all day long, have to hope I don’t get arrested while working for being Arab or black or Latino or Pakistani, have to go home and eat some packaged non-food and then turn and try to love someone when neither of us has access to the condoms and sex education we need to be really safe and empowered in our interactions. If I’m lucky, I’ll get to take a minute and dull my mind with some substance and watch a couple of hours of television where humans cut open their skin and try to put someone else’s face on, or compete to eat bugs for a million dollars. And at some point I get to sleep in my tiny home with a window that looks into someone else’s window.
At the end of that day, I may not separate the glass from the paper, the plastic from the cans. I may not carry my own water bottle everywhere I go. For a lot of young people right now, the environment is an issue for the privileged or the issueless. People who feel they are becoming extinct care less about the extinction of owls and oak trees. We sit on buses that pump nasty black smoke into our air, dreaming of owning SUVs. Many of us don’t see real, unfenced trees anymore. We don’t see stars — the blue of our skies is unreal. The natural world is becoming a place to visit or dream of, a privilege for those who can find work outside cities, or a trap for those in the migrant worker population who lack fair wages and work situations.
Overall, too many young people see the struggles of humans as separate from the struggles for a healthy environment. It isn’t because we have bad intentions — it’s because a generation that does not care about the impact of its lifestyle on the environment can be easily manipulated for corporate greed. We are getting played out. And unfortunately, the environmental movement has actually helped enforce that disconnect by seeming to draw divisions between the natural world and its human inhabitants — and by seeming to worry more about the former than the latter.
That is the context for the next stage of environmentalism. You have an oppressed, depressed, furious mass waiting to be mobilized. And sure, some of us eat at McDonald’s and wear leather shoes — but we feel it is possible to demand better from our government and from ourselves for our environment. We feel it is imperative to connect the different survival struggles we are engaged in if we truly hope to sustain a viable movement for change. You will not die if you try to link hands with us in this struggle, if you try to meet us halfway.
We are in a unique organizing space right now, fresh off the election, understanding that it is imperative to combine electoral organizing with community organizing with issue organizing, in new and unique ways. Environmentalists have done groundbreaking work in this arena, getting citizens informed and involved around policies and petitions. But the movement has failed to reach the urban masses, and it has fallen prey to the marketing of the right, which casts caring about the planet as goofy liberalism instead of instinctual self-preservation.
So I offer three transition steps for the leadership of the environmental movement:
- Change your framework. You have to frame environmental issues in a way that makes sense for us and relates to the issues we care about. But you will have to get closer to us and to the work we’re doing in order to make that happen. We’re talking about racism — meet us there. I know the research shows one thing, the statistics make your case; but they also make a case that the most pressing issues in my life should be stopping the prison industrial complex, stopping the HIV that’s ravaging my community, stopping the president from cutting Upward Bound funding. There’s a place for you in each of those battles, just as there’s a place for those activists in the battle for the environment. It is not either/or. The loss of your borders won’t mean a dilution of your vision, it will simply mean a larger, greater, more inclusive vision.
- Be easy and appealing. You need to turn up the heat and the appeal for environmentally friendly products and practices, while putting time and energy into bringing down the price. It’s not written anywhere that everything recycled has to look used and cost twice as much. Lose that sage color scheme and price your wares to Target. If you aren’t willing to be a little savvy for the survival of the world, then how committed are you? Take five minutes and catch up to what appeals to the greatest number. The environmental movement needs to make its home in this real world of ours.
- Stop the environmental evangelism. I say this as a loving criticism of the people who are at the forefront of this work: you often get so caught up in the sky-is-falling mentality of environmental work that you can only see the urgency of your own issue. That’s not how to approach folks. Fiscally conservative people of color vote in their economic interest, not because someone approaches them on the street apoplectic about mercury in the water. Mercury in the water is a completely relevant topic for black folks, but not if we can’t see our faces on and in that movement, and see our interests as clearly part of the platform. You’ve got to talk to folks about the things that will move them — which means you’ve got to identify how your work relates to the issues that matter to other people.
As a young woman of color who doesn’t do environmental work for a living, I believe environmentalism needs to become something that the masses can integrate into how we live our lives. It’s nothing personal. Every issue-based movement needs to think in terms of solidarity and collaboration right now.
How this discussion can move forward into worthwhile proposals and actions — that is the question. Stepping back and thinking about a vision for a movement is absolutely necessary. Dramatizing its slow and agonizing death borders on indulgent. Too often, people rush to say something is dying when it’s merely in a period of transition. Be less presumptuous. Shedding an old skin is not death but renewal, and those who follow the life of the planet should grasp that better than anyone else.
More stories in this series:
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This piece is adapted from a speech given before the Alliance for Global Sustainability last month at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. The full speech — “Reflections on Sustainability and Universities and Whether Environmentalism Has Died” — …
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