Racial Justice and the Environmental Movement, Are They in Sync?
Updated: Oct 14
Photo: Ian Turnell from Pexels
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
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/)
Founding Conference and Environmental Justice Principles
Another significant event was the formation of the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held in Washington, D.C. in 1991. Grassroots representatives from across the country came together to define a national problem—the targeting of minority communities for hazardous disposal and storage facilities. Hundreds of delegates from different regions with sometimes competing interests got together to draft a consensus document called the Principles of Environmental Justice. (http://www.ejnet.org/ej/principles.html)
As the EJ movement started to grow and show influential results within the communities of color in which it operated, its critique of the “mainstream” environmental groups was sharpened as well. Leaders from the EJ movement consistently accused the larger “Big Green” organizations of racism, classism and limited activism.
What was dubbed the “Group of Ten*” large, mainstream environmental organizations mode of operation was characterized as public awareness and education, letter writing and traditional liberal lobbying in Washington, D.C. as well as the filing of lawsuits for environmental habitat and species protection. Big Green did not initiate direct action in communities of color to mitigate suffering and bring relief to those most affected by the lack of environmental protections.
*Defenders of Wildlife, Environmental Defense Fund, Greenpeace, the National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society and World Wildlife Fund.
Compared to the Environmental Justice Movement’s diversity and focus on self-determination, mainstream environmental organizations were founded by whites and even today their staff, members and affiliates remain mostly white. They have been accused of elitism, racism and valuing wilderness more than people.
The Fight for Environmental Justice Today
Fast forward through the lead poisoning of the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, the coronavirus pandemic, the growing consequences of climate change and the inequitable vulnerabilities of communities of color. All across the globe, people who contributed least to the human-generated carbon crisis, are those worse affected and least capable of adapting to its impacts.
Photo: Patrick Behn from Pixabay
This summer, highlighting the unequal application of justice in communities of color, the Black Lives Matter movement has brought back the issue of environmental justice into sharp focus. Just as the Black Lives Matter movement is not only about police brutality, it is not just the U.S. where climate and racial injustices take hold. The connection between racial and climate justice can be seen around the world. (https://climateanalytics.org/blog/2020/black-lives-matter-the-link-between-climate-change-and-racial-justice/)
The social inequalities embedded within our institutions, which continue discriminatory practices based on race, class and/or sexual preference must be eliminated if we are to solve the climate crisis and achieve environmental justice. As marine biologist Ayanna Elizabeth Johnson has said, “I need you to understand that our racial inequality crisis is intertwined with our climate crisis. If we don’t work on both, we will succeed at neither.” (https://medium.com/climate-conscious/environmental-justice-the-intersection-of-social-equality-and-environmentalism-d296beb673a0)
Making Amends and Moves Toward Unity
Late in the year 2020, as Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike unite to defeat the Trump administration, whose policies has caused more environmental damage than any administration in decades, we too, should reconsider and work to unite the rift in the environmental movement.
The Audubon Society
This summer the National Audubon Society has finally looked inward and started to unravel the myth of its namesake, John James Audubon. The influential artist and naturalist enslaved Black people during the first two decades of the 1800s. He also held white supremacist views. Audubon President David Yarnold condemned these views for the first time. “Audubon’s founding stories center on the groups of women who came together to end the slaughter of birds for their feathers (mostly fancy hats), but we have glossed over the actions of the American icon whose name we bear, as well as the racist aspects of our organization’s history.”
Danielle Belleny, a wildlife biologist, one of the organizers of Black Birder Week this summer says that she “feels betrayed that she was taught to hold such flawed figures on a pedestal.” “I do appreciate that people are now coming forward with this history, even if it is a bit late.” She, among others are calling for elevating the contributions of non-white naturalists whose stories have been kept hidden.
Yarnold has committed Audubon to more deeply examine its history and prioritize equity, diversity and inclusion in its hiring, training and mission. (“A Historic Moment,” by Jessica Leber, Audubon, Fall, 2020)
The national movement to examine racism past and present following the Black Lives Matter uprising after the police killing of George Floyd have brought changes that include the toppling of statues honoring Confederate Civil War leaders, renaming university buildings, pancake and rice brands, sports teams and mascots.
The Sierra Club
The Sierra Club, our nation’s oldest conservation organization, has also started to publicly confront the dark side of its legend, John Muir. In a statement released to the press on July 22, the 128-year-old organization said “as defenders of Black life pull down Confederate monuments across the country, it’s time to take down some of our own monuments, starting with some truth-telling about Sierra Club’s early history.”
Michael Brune, the Sierra Club Executive Director, wrote how the “beloved” and “iconic” Muir “was not immune to racism peddled by many in the early conservation movement. He (Muir) made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes.”
For example, Muir called African Americans lazy “Sambos” and referred to Native Americans as “dirty.”
Other Sierra Club leaders, for example, David Starr Jordan and Joseph LeConte, were vocal advocates for white supremacy and its pseudo-scientific arm, eugenics, the statement said. Jordan pushed for forced sterilization laws that deprived tens of thousands of women of their right to bear children. Those were mostly Black, Latina, Indigenous poor women, and those with disabilities and mental illness.
Muir’s words and actions still carry an especially heavy weight, as they “continue to hurt and alienate Indigenous people and people of color who come into contact with the Sierra Club,” Brune wrote.
“Such willful ignorance is what allows some people to shut their eyes to the reality that the wild places we love are also the ancestral homelands of Native peoples, forced off their lands in the decades or centuries before they became national parks.”
“For all the harms the Sierra Club has caused, and continues to cause, to Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color, I am deeply sorry,” Brune wrote. For Michael Brune’s full statement on Sierra Club history see: (https://www.sierraclub.org/michael-brune/2020/07/john-muir-early-history-sierra-club)
Brune further promised to overhaul executive leadership, reallocate $5 million to reduce pay inequities, and devote greater attention the the communities suffering most from “environmental racism” and “structural injustice.’ The Sierra Club also established a new program. (https://www.sierraclub.org/environmental-justice)
Now It Is Our Time. What Can We Do?
Photo: Life Matters from Pexels
As environmentalists we must first understand that we humans do not stand apart from the natural world to protect it, but we, too, are a significant part of it. Given the history and character of the society we have built, racism has been with us since our nation's founding and continues today. We have an obligation to unify our efforts at social justice and environmental justice to mitigate the inequitable consequences of climate change for those who are most vulnerable. A good, first step is to be anti-racist in our activities and the organizations we build--to work toward unifying the environmental and the environmental justice movements.
For additional practical ways to learn more and contribute yourself, see “How Environmental Justice and Intersectional Environmentalism Are Changing the World,” by Hope Kudo. (https://brightly.eco/how-environmental-justice-and-intersectional-environmentalism-are-changing-the-world/)
How can we support Environmental Justice? See https://greendreamer.com/journal/what-is-environmental-justice-nonprofits