An environmental-justice advocate insists he’s not dead yet
“The Death of Environmentalism” should be called “The Death of Elite, White, American Environmentalism.” A critique of the environmental movement that draws on neither the perspectives nor achievements of the environmental-justice (EJ) movement is, at very best, incomplete. That the DOE interviews and recommendations only focused on white, American male-led environmentalism meant that the fatal flaws of that part of the environmental movement infected the critique itself. These omissions inspire me to paraphrase Sojourner Truth and ask, “Ain’t I an environmentalist?”
I was struck by how the piece echoed the National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summits of 1991 and 2003, both of which I attended. (A review of the list of attendees indicates that neither of the report’s authors, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, were present at either summit.) Their critique also repeated issues raised in letters that environmental-justice leaders have sent to leaders of white environmental groups since 1990. And yet, the authors have begun to attack the EJ movement, calling it fetishized NIMBY-ism during a panel presentation at Berkeley, while making the contradictory claim that environmental-health issues aren’t real concerns in communities of color.
Other aspects of the article were hauntingly right wing-esque. “It’s sad to see yet another analysis touting conservative work and ignoring people of color and their legacy of the kind of inclusive, big-picture organizing that the authors recommend,” says Makani Themba-Nixon, executive director of the Praxis Project and longtime media-justice advocate. “Perhaps it’s too hard to imagine a majority movement where those most affected lead. Instead, analyses like this push communications and mobilizing strategies that invest more resources into the powerful and further marginalize the affected.”
The authors offer no hope of life after death beyond their own Apollo Project. (Had people of color written such a critique without any recommendations for action, we would have been called angry black folks. Are Shellenberger and Nordhaus the “angry white men” Rush Limbaugh often talks about?) And despite the authors’ demands that the environmental movement broaden itself, they had little if any engagement with the U.S. EJ community or non-American environmentalists. For too long, the concerns and solutions proposed by those constituencies — and especially by indigenous communities around the world — have been ignored, scoffed at, and actively campaigned against by elite American environmentalists.
Great White Hopes
As an organizer for the past 15 years, I’ve seen the delusional nature of many privileged, white male advocates. They really seem to think that rather than expanding the group of thinkers and doers, all that’s required for social change is that they improve their own thinking. “One of the things I learned at Harvard is most people there assume they are the best and the brightest,” said Frances Kunreuther, director of the Building Movement Project, a New York-based organization dedicated to helping nonprofits create social changes through movement-building strategies. “They actually believe they got there by merit, so power and privilege are never in the equation.”
That goes some way toward explaining the support for Nordhaus and Shellenberger, as well as the other contemporary great white hope, George Lakoff. Likewise, there’s an adoration akin to worship of now-deceased community organizer Saul Alinsky, at least among predominately white community activists. Dartmouth College professor Michael Dorsey says, “Nordhaus and Shellenberger seem only interested in examining what they can do differently while maintaining their position of power rather than being open to options that require them to share power. Hence their complete silence on racism, sexism, or other realities that reinforce their power and privilege.”
For Nordhaus and Shellenberger, environmentalism seems to exist only in the U.S. Nothing could be further from the truth. While elite, white American environmentalism faltered, eco-justice movements in the global south retooled whole cities, like Curitiba, Brazil, and toppled the Bolivian government after it attempted to privatize water resources. Simultaneously, European environmentalists stopped the flow of genetically modified American foods into the European Union. These eco-victories occurred while Americans stood by buying expensive but not worker-friendly organic foods and wondering, “What Would Jesus Drive?”
The Shellenberger and Nordhaus team should have gone on a local-to-global fact-finding mission to learn what robust environmental movements, in communities of color domestically and around the world, can teach and share with elite, white Americans like themselves. They would have learned why the mantra of the World Social Forum is “Another World Is Possible.” Possibility exists not because elite, white American environmentalism is failing but because the rest of the world is moving far beyond the practice and even the dreams of those old, failed ways.
Finally, it is remarkable that more than 80 percent of the 25 “environmental leaders” interviewed for “Death of Environmentalism” were men. The report had no gendered critique of the environmental movement. Perhaps female leaders would have brought up the rampant “superhero syndrome” seen in male environmental leaders (amongst many other ills they recognize). By focusing on national leadership and not interviewing EJ or white local environmental leaders, the authors omitted the sectors of the movement where men don’t run the show. They should have known better.
It doesn’t have to be this way, as some white American male environmentalists have shown. “In contrast to the authors, white men allied with the environmental-justice movement — such as Luke Cole and Benjamin Goldman — have spoken and written about challenging the white privilege inherent in the environmental movement,” according to Max Weintraub, director of the Environmental Justice and Health Union.
Are Funders DOE’s “Sacred Cow”?
I don’t know how environmental funders are reexamining their own practices in the wake of “Death.” However, the paper was notable for its lack of focus on the funder-driven limitations imposed on environmental (and other social-justice) nonprofits. A 2001 study by professors Daniel Faber and Deborah McCarthy found that less than 5 percent of environmental grant-making supported environmental justice. Furthermore, competition for such funding was stiff, as community-based EJ groups were at a grant-writing disadvantage relative to larger environmental organizations with full-time development staff.
My experience is that environmental funders are already more hands-on than funders in other sectors. As more foundations become operating institutions that carry out programmatic activities rather than fund them, problematic framing, issue choice, and coalition development will be even more concentrated in the hands, and minds, of a few elite, white American men. If funders can only respond to conversations they initiate, then they’ve set up a closed loop with no feedback — one that is doomed to fail. In fact, it was interesting that the paper itself wasn’t given at a series of town hall meetings, or at an environmental summit, but rather at a funders’ meeting. Are funders not only the constituency of the environmental movement but those who seek to criticize it as well?
Reconceptualizing the Environmental Movement
If the boundaries of the environmental movement, as understood by white environmentalists, white funders, and other would-be white allies, are as confined as this piece suggests, then it is indeed time to eulogize the movement, because it won’t ever be effective. If these stakeholders won’t take serious steps to address the racism that restricts their vision, no other strategic discussions are worth having with them. However, environmental justice leaders are likely to be willing to share strategic restructuring as a secondary aspect to defeating the racial myopia within the movement and its critics.
When I helped create the Northeast Environmental Justice Network, the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, and several smaller neighborhood groups, I often said that one of the biggest environmental-justice issues was the inordinate influence of rich people’s money on politics, and the ongoing nature of structural political, social, and economic disenfranchisement. I remain impressed by the successful efforts of the New York Public Interest Research Group’s Straphangers Campaign, which worked together with unions to fight fare increases, rebuild New York’s subway system, and make the system safer. These allies included not only transit worker unions, but health-care and other unions for whom increased subway costs would eat away any wage gains they might win.
The entire sustainability movement in the U.S. and abroad has been expanding the scope of environmentalism for over two decades. Redefining Progress, headed by longtime EJ activist Michel Gelobter, has been pioneering crossover policies that serve constituencies far beyond environmentalists. Redefining Progress provided the intellectual underpinning for the Blue-Green Alliance, which, in 1998, united parts of the AFL-CIO and the big environmental groups for a pro-worker approach to clean energy and climate protection. The organization hosts the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative. It works with the Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses developing just policies for protecting the planet and raising the incomes of low-income communities. More recently, Redefining Progress and its partners are at the heart of the fight to preserve health care and education in over a dozen states by closing corporate loopholes that allow U.S. energy suppliers to rob states of critical financial resources and jobs.
Funders should have known they’d get a limited view from those two authors. Nonetheless, progressives can use “Death” to address longstanding problems with the lackluster elite, white American environmental movement, its stakeholders, and foundation supporters.
“The fervor that’s been built up around this article is an opportunity for those of us struggling for a safe and healthy environment, fighting for a world in which we all have what we need, and organizing for justice to have a conversation about connecting our different movements,” said Swati Prakash, environmental-health director at West Harlem Environmental Action.
Hopefully, the authors and the funding community they sought to address are open to a discussion and decision-making process beyond the typical white-American-guys-in-a-room scenario. As an ethical and practical next step, the funders of the “Death” piece should fund a companion report done by EJ activists, along with media experts like Makani Themba-Nixon from the Praxis Project, who understand the role of racism in public policy. The next report should be funded at the same level as the “Death” report, and should be sufficiently resourced to examine a range of issues, at least including how other movements in the U.S. are faring using a values, messenger, and context-based analysis; looking at the lessons that the EJ movement has already offered the white environmental movement and their funders; and spotlighting lessons from abroad, both in the global south as well as Europe, Japan, and other industrialized countries — all places where environmentalism is far from “dead.” And they should be willing to have the report presented at an Environmental Grantmakers Association conference.
However, if this deathly analysis gets colonized, the whole movement — environmental and environmental justice — loses a precious opportunity to work together from a place of mutual respect and recognition. Clearly, we all agree that there should be a broader movement. And we did not, as Nordhaus and Shellenberger write, have to go to the conservatives to learn it. We already have a movement positioned to build a multiracial progressive agenda that democratically represents the environmental interests of communities. That’s the environmental-justice movement, built by the work of organizers of color.