Racial Justice and the Environmental Movement, Are They in Sync?

Updated: Oct 14, 2020


Conservation and protection of the environment and wildlife habitats.
Clean Water, Clean Air, Environmental Protections

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Early Environmentalism


From its beginnings late in the 19th century and early in the 20th century, the environmental movement in the U.S. has a long history of seeking to preserve wilderness and wildlife species. The focus of the Sierra Club founded in 1892, the Audubon Society (1905), the Wilderness Society (1935) and the National Wildlife Federation founded in 1936, among others, was the conservation and protection of the environment and wildlife habitats for current and future generations.

As “quality of life” issues emerged from the drive to accumulate goods and strive for a better material life, more people sought outlets for recreation and wilderness experience, coalescing into a movement to cut National Parks out of undeveloped wilderness.

Even today, mention concern for the environment and what immediately comes to some peoples’ minds is: “save the whales,” and “spotted owls”, or “protect the polar bears.” What has come to be known as the Big Green, mainstream environmental organizations were founded by and largely directed for generations by white male game hunters and recreationists seeking to preserve their passions and privilege for future generations.

After the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 and the celebration of the first Earth Day in 1970, the mainstream environmental advocacy organizations grew massively in membership, budget size, and public influence. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Clean Air Act were enacted in 1970. The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973. (https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/a-fierce-green-fire-timeline-of-environmental-movement/2988/)

By the 1980s, mainstream environmental organizations had an agenda that did not focus on social and economic inequality or the distribution of environmental pain to poor communities or communities of color. Nor did they emphasize the chemical exposures of working people in their workplaces. Some saw these as anthropomorphic, not natural environments.

Environmental Justice Movement Beginnings

Human Generated Climate Change Calls for a Human Urgency to Act.
Climate Change Requires Us to Take Action

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The convergence of social justice and the environmental movement grew out of the civil rights movement by people of color and indigenous people seeking to address the inequitable distribution of environmental hazards, industrial waste and pollution in their own communities. These grassroots protests entered our national consciousness when, in 1982, an African-American community in North Carolina was chosen to be the site of a hazardous waste landfill for the dumping of PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) contaminated soil from illegal dumping of toxic waste along roadways. The NAACP and others staged a massive protest and more than 500 protestors were arrested. These protestors’ direct action, even though it eventually failed in its objective to prevent the placement of the disposal in their community, gave rise to the term “environmental racism” and provided a national start to the Environmental Justice Movement. (https://iep.utm.edu/enviro-j/#H2) (https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/environmental-justice-and-environmentalism)


This emerging Environmental Justice (EJ) movement grew to combine traditional environmentalism with the commitment that all people, irrespective of the color of their skin, have the right to live in a safe environment. EJ movement activism also precipitated an environmental shift of concern from wilderness to urban environments. Jedediah Britton Purdy argues that “joining environmentalism to movements for economic and racial justice wouldn’t be new.” See: (https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/12/how-the-environmental-movement-can-recover-its-soul/509831/)