|(PHOTO: Angela Waye)|
At the root of American environmentalism are the values of a white, aristocratic class that extolled eugenics, elevated Nordic culture and feared the dilution of that culture, according to Jedehiah Purdy in a New Yorker article, “Environmentalism’s Racist History.”
The creation of America’s national parks and forests by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot were guided by a vision to preserve in the wild nature’s aristocratic qualities, “the moose, the mountain goat, and the redwood tree,” writes Purdy. Roosevelt also engaged John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, “who felt fraternity with four-legged ‘animal people’ and even plants, [but] was at best ambivalent about human brotherhood.”
Purdy: “For each of these environmentalist icons, the meaning of nature and wilderness was constrained, even produced, by an idea of civilization. Muir’s nature was a pristine refuge from the city. Madison Grant’s nature [ a Roosevelt fellow traveler better known for his views on eugenics ] was the last redoubt of nobility in a leveling and hybridizing democracy. They went to the woods to escape aspects of humanity. They created and preserved versions of the wild that promised to exclude the human qualities they despised.”
Recognize anybody you might know? Most likely not. But put another way, how many environmentalists would agree that their environmental values of protecting the wild in the wilderness is in some sense better than those in cultures that clear rain forests, hunt whales, and kill animals for their fins, ivory or gall bladders? If those perpetrators’ skin color is different from yours, some might call you — loosely speaking-- a racist. (racism: a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular group is inferior to others.)
I say “loosely” because the term these days gets thrown around in heated arguments and polemics. If you spend time saving the whales and ignoring immigration reform, will you be called a racist? If you say, saving African elephants is my issue, not voting rights, will you be called a racist? What happens when a Black Lives Matter activist takes the microphone away from Denis Hayes ala Bernie Sanders when he wants to talk about climate change?
Have environmentalists been racists? I’ve listened to a card-carrying green complain about the people who don’t speak English coming down to the shore at low tide and stripping it bare of the sea weed and limpets. There are California Sierra Club members who have had a hard time dealing with immigration. Good friends deride Canadians for clogging up the local Trader Joes and Costco. The subtext here isn’t hard to figure out (Southeast Asians, Mexicans, Pakistanis, Indians, Chinese) but I’m not sure the speakers felt superior as much as beleagued by a foreign “otherness” that seemed beyond their control.
I’m also not sure how exclusive our cultural value of protecting wild creatures in the wilderness is but much of this country’s wildernesses, parks and environmental laws are the result of environmentalists who are white, educated and not poor. The membership and leadership of environmental organizations are almost exclusively white. The causes, however, are not about protecting wildlife and wild places from other races but from businesses that threaten their destruction. To prevail in those causes like climate change and Arctic drilling and species protection and recovery, the environmental movement needs to expand its constituent base.
To do that requires more than trying to diversify the complexion of their boards and staffs and printing more brochures in other languages. It will required understanding why a phrase like “people of color” rings hollow (the redoubtable Hazel Wolf said, I’m white, that’s all the colors) and why asking the families of Mexican farm workers to take part in a weeding and planting restoration day makes no sense. Show some respect: People who don’t have the economic luxury of being able to save the polar bears don’t need to be educated about polar bears and climate change. And, it’s important to remember when working in a community on environmental justice issues that the organizers get to go home; the community living with the toxic crap is at home.
The strength of the environmental movement is based on the values of protecting wild things in the wilderness and those are the values of its white, educated and not poor members. OK, that’s not necessarily the values of most of the world or non-white cultures in this country. Saving the whales or the polar bear or ancient forests isn’t the environment for the people environmentalists want to reach. The environment for these folks is health and safety: safe water, safe food, safe streets, safe parks.
Are you ready to write the new environmental manifesto that clearly expresses how we protect the wild and the wilderness by protecting and restoring the health and safety of our communities?
The need to do that if the environmental movement is to grow and move forward has been recognized by folks like Scott Miller of Resource Media: “Many organizations, like Resource Media, with their roots firmly in environmental advocacy, now understand that a greener world is part of something much bigger. We have long contended people have a right to clean air, clean water and places to experience nature. Now we are intentional about saying that list includes rights to adequate health care, safety, equity, economic well being and... human dignity.“
Take a moment to read Jedehiah Purdy’s article, and let me know what you think.