Thursday, August 20, 2015

Are You An Environmental Racist?

(PHOTO: Angela Waye)
Think about it: The disappearance of the wild and its wildlife is often attributed to too many people. Who do you think “those people” are? Do they look like you, talk like you, share your values? If they don’t, who are “those people?”

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.

--Mike Sato


  1. Mike, I think that the debating whether the environmental movement is racist is a trap. Their are so many issues to deal with in the world today, racism, environmental destruction, Immigration, on and on. The issue of saving the planet often appears to get relegated to the white community of environmentalists because people who are struggling to make ends meet, or are constantly hassled to death by police, often don't have the time or money to tackle more. That they end up giving what time they have to movements such as the immigration (Latinos) or police violence on minority communities, doesn't preclude them from doing other things or supporting other issues. And most environmentalists I have met are very much supportive of those other goals, it's just that we end up having to make choices based on our available time too. And many of the most important enviros in the Pacific NW are the tribes, doing and achieving huge amounts locally in some cases. So I just don't buy the argument.

    The Right or the press likes to paint us as racist, because we sometimes compromise jobs for the environment. But that's usually because the anti environmental corporate people (and not all corporate people are anti-environmental) want to do that to stonewall change that costs them money, or puts their business at risk. So again, we want to protect the environment and jobs too! And protecting the environment can create jobs, as the burgeoning solar installation industry shows.

    My take is that everything is local. I don't live in the inner city anymore, so to me, the first line of attack has to be local people there driving the agenda. I've already been in the fight where I was the "outsider" trying to change things I really didn't understand. I will take my queue from those that own it locally.

    As to the Black Lives Matter twosome that interrupted Bernie, they were out of line. A couple of ego maniacal people who feel that their one issue trumps all. What good is that? We all believe that Black Lives matter, so what's next? What do they really want to see happen? Bernie is talking about it and a lot of other issues. And as Hillary stated, "go change the politicians and the policies" (or words to that affect). The President doesn't just go around focusing on one issue all the time. And I don't see a ton of experienced black leaders cheering them on. It's just a media attention grabber. It doesn't get anything actually accomplished.

    It will make no difference if we lose our environment. No water? No jobs. Bad air? No jobs. No environment? No lives will matter.

  2. In the '70s I spoke with Julian Bond after a talk he gave and he told me that "... black people don't care about the environment," or something like that. At that time I believe that he was thinking about the cultural elitism that underlay the US environmental movement, for sure. However, subsequently it has become clear that environmentalism and social justice are closely entwined. It is the poor and marginalized who suffer the most from environmental degradation, and who are feeling the initial effects of global warming the worst right now. My guess is that Bond probably changed his opinion about the relationship between African Americans and environmentalism soon after I spoke with him.

  3. Tony Angell writes: "he piece regarding environmentalists and racism is a very important consideration and I think "Alf" responded with insight. In my many years of engaging kids in Nature there was little difference in the energetic and engaged response to what kids of all races felt and discovered there. It's in our genes to do so as it's in our destiny as humans to sustain a healthy environment. As much as I admire Julian Bond, God rest his incredible soul, I don't agree that black people don't care about the environment. What we all care about is getting a fair and respectable opportunity to get on with our lives and understanding what it takes to live healthy and balanced lives is part of that. This issue is a very important place to have interactive dialogue."

  4. I suppose if Purdy had included some of the works of people like John Wesley Powell and Frederick Law Olmstead, he could see that not all those folks back in the 2nd half of the 19th century wanted to save wilderness just for the elite.

    There are many, many small and fairly local organizations and groups with a sense of preserving/improving/protecting the environment in their missions. I think that this is the place where the diversity of the community can be better understood and engaged toward those ends - rather than on grand scales. There is certainly the case for improvement, but the case for optimism as well.

  5. I was having a conversation about this issue recently with an old college friend who's a muckety-muck at The Nature Conservancy. I have always thought of TNC as one of the whitest, richest, most elite of the green groups, although I have also respected a lot of its work.
    I was pleased to learn that it is devoting some significant resources to work in urban areas. It's a new effort, so let's wait and see how long TNC sticks with it and how well it works. Still, the effort is encouraging. For more info see

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful comments; glad to have gotten your juices flowing. I'm still grappling with the cultural value that the wild and the wilderness should be preserved and protected-- and where that value comes from, why some have it and some don't. And are we working to protect the wild and the wilderness for everyone or for those who share our cultural values? Clean air, clean water, safe streets, safe parks for everyone is a lot clearer to me and calling them community concerns rather than environmental seems to broaden our common purposes. But we need to help draw the connection between the plight of the orca/polar bear and the plight of the Black/Hispanic young man racially profiled by cops.

  7. Juicy, thought-provoking! But Mike, your statement "And are we working to protect the wild and the wilderness for everyone or for those who share our cultural values?" gave me pause. It points to environmentalism primarily for the benefit of humanity, which of course it is, but I don't necessarily see it that way. First and foremost, I'm working to protect the wild and wilderness for the benefit of the wild and wilderness, and the overall physical health of our planet.I recognize that we want to enjoy these places, and that there has been racial and economic disparity in that ability to enjoy, and these are excellent things to ponder. But I'll leave it to others to write the new manifesto for now and work on my small, local patch of the world.

  8. Jedediah Purdy’s article is timely and important. Thank you Mike Sato for giving this topic air for discussion.

    The reason we need to be reminded of the link between eugenics and environmentalism is because racism and imperialism continues to influence conservation today.

    Here’s an article I wrote on a similar theme:

    Survival International is campaigning for a better conservation. Those who are interested can find out more here:


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