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

Photo: Ian Turnell from Pexels

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

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