This piece is excerpted from the essay “The Soul of Environmentalism: Rediscovering Transformational Politics in the 21st Century.” The full essay can be found here.

Elvis was a hero to most,
but he never meant shit to me …

— Public Enemy, 1989

Activists of color may
not want to stand on
John Muir’s shoulders.

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Environmentalism in the United States has always been as diverse as our country itself. In the 19th century, for example, African-American abolitionists fought slavery as well as the use of arsenic in tobacco fields. Later, Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. were only two of thousands of people of color whose movements for justice set the template for Earth Day. These leaders are part of our soul as environmentalists. The rebirth of the movement depends on being clear about that lineage.

The authors of “The Death of Environmentalism” begin by invoking their ancestors. “Those of us who are children of the environmental movement must never forget that we are standing on the shoulders of all those who came before us,” they write. They cite John Muir and David Brower — and Martin Luther King Jr., too. They quote from interviews they did with 25 senior executives at mainstream environmental groups. History seems duly respected. But we need to stop the music here and make two big points before we leave the subject of ancestry.

First, many environmentalists would rather not stand on the shoulders of certain early conservation heroes. Muir developed his conservation ethic during the Civil War and the expropriation of Native American lands, the two great racial struggles of the 19th century. He pretty much ignored both of them, according to Carl Anthony, a historian and urban planner. After dodging the Civil War draft by going to Canada, Muir walked the occupied lands of the West and the South and saw nothing more sinister than “forest walls vine-draped and flowery as Eden.” Before we sanctify Muir, we need to understand how his racial attitudes affected his commitments to conservation. If the environmental movement is ever going to revive, it must first confront the many ways in which the U.S. has reserved open space for the exclusive use of whites.

John Muir’s racism is about more than just history. It’s about building a new frame for a bigger environmental movement. There are better shoulders for us to stand on. In 1849, Henry Thoreau explained that he was refusing to pay taxes to a government “which buys and sells men, women, and children like cattle at the door of its senate-house.” In 1914, Louis Marshall made the critical argument that saved the Adirondack wilderness, despite the fact that he was a Jew and many of his neighbors in the North Country were rabid anti-Semites. In the 1930s, Marshall’s son Robert founded the modern wilderness protection movement. Around the same time, Zora Neale Hurston documented multiethnic America in her many books about people and nature. In the 1960s, Henry Dumas wrote of the healing role of nature in even the most viciously segregated rural areas of the South.

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“The Death of Environmentalism” refers often to America’s “core values” and cites surveys that show how those values have changed in the last decade. But when people talk about their core values, their words don’t always match their meaning. For much of American history, the values of “freedom” and “progress” have been code words for a system that profits by oppressing the poor and communities of color. U.S. rhetoric is taking this charade to new heights globally while masking an agenda that actually celebrates authoritarian control and the decay of civic life.

Denying the racial content of the “values” debate in the U.S. today only deepens the predicament of environmentalism. The work of Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson explores how the idea of freedom has been intertwined with the practice of slavery. From ancient Greece to the United States of 1776, he says, cultures that have theorized and celebrated “freedom” have simultaneously excluded huge swaths of their populations from any shred of it. At the same time, nations through history that profess to love “freedom” have been relentless in promoting heartless geopolitical agendas outside their borders.

Freedom is an important value, and its meaning is an important debate. Denying the links between “freedom” and oppression makes it harder for progressives to articulate a broader vision. The death of this denial is liberating because it links us more fully to our rough and glorious pasts. It also points the way to new choices and a more hopeful future.

Giving a nod to your ancestors when you start talking is a good oratorical trick. It establishes that your ancestors are dead, so you’re in charge now. But the authors of “The Death of Environmentalism” completely ignore a second set of ancestors who need to be included in our deliberations. We’re talking about the people who brought you the civil-rights movement.

Modern environmentalism was, after all, the Elvis of ’60s activism. It was a radical and innovative departure from the conservation movement that preceded it. And in almost every way, the politics and innovations of the early environmental movement derived directly from the same era’s fight for black power and racial justice.

Norm Collins, the Ford Foundation program officer who first funded the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense, and others, wrote in his decision memos that what was needed was “an NAACP for the environment.” National legislative victories for the environment depended heavily on a rejiggering of states’ rights. This strategy copied one that had already been used successfully by the civil-rights movement. A critical factor in the passage of the Clean Air Act, for example, was to unify and to supersede the patchwork of existing air-quality standards that states had promulgated on their own. And mass mobilizations for the environment depend heavily on nonviolent civil disobedience as popularized by African-American advocates in the 1960s.

Just as the courts were fertile ground for black liberation, environmental organizations sought standing for nature and human health in ways that deeply challenged business as usual. As historian Roderick Nash pointed out in The Rights of Nature, environmental activists attempted to extend the 1960s legal focus on the rights of oppressed individuals to nature and to people facing environmental risks. Boycotts, consumer campaigns, and labor-environment alliances — where would these be without the models established by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers?

The environmental-justice movement emerged in the 1980s as a way to revitalize the grassroots activism started by the civil-rights movement. It also offered a home for activists who weren’t comfortable separating their concern over the state of the planet from their concerns about social justice. Twenty years later, the mainstream environmental movement has been unable to racially integrate its senior staff, not because of overt discrimination but because of differences in vision. Many environmentalists of color admire the mainstream movement’s goals, but they also know firsthand that social justice is routinely ignored in the mainstream movement’s decision making.

Despite its limitations, environmentalism as we know it today wasn’t just the marriage of liberalism and conservation. It was committed activists, engaged in struggle and riffing on every tool they could see around them. Like Elvis, the environmental movement had soul — and soul is one thing you can’t kill.

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