by Meghan Feeks
When you think of ‘environmentalism’, what types of images come to mind?
Are you thinking about leafy trees, open fields, blue skies and clear, babbling streams? I know I am. After all, such images have adorned every Earth Day poster I’ve seen since I was a kid. Google image search ‘environment’ or ‘Earth Day’, and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into an enchanted, fairytale forest.
You might also recognize these images from your own communities and feel a personal connection to the trees, rivers and fields that have come to symbolize the environmental movement. Having grown up in a pretty, rural town in New York’s Hudson Valley, I know I do.
Here’s the thing, though: if your hometown looks like an Earth Day poster, chances are, you’re white. With non-Hispanic whites accounting for 78% of rural populations (my hometown is 92% white) — and blacks and Hispanics still far more likely to live in urban and metropolitan areas — the idyllic landscapes on the Earth Day posters look nothing like the communities of most Americans of color.
As a result, these images tell many Americans that environmentalism isn’t for them: not for them, in the sense of wanting to include them. And not “for” them, in the sense of promoting their interests. And this ought to concern anyone who cares about the planet, for the very communities that environmentalism tends to exclude, are the ones that are in greatest need of its support.
A darker shade of green
The imagery of environmentalism is just one example of the white bias that has historically been baked into the green movement. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the conservation movement sought to protect America’s lands, wildlife and natural resources, giving rise to the National Parks Service and many national parks and monuments still treasured to this day.
But lurking behind conservationism’s noble aims are some disturbing truths: many parks and monuments were established by seizing land from Native Americans and black sharecroppers. Funding for these efforts often came at the expense of cities, where black and immigrant populations were growing. And though many conservationists were undoubtedly sincere in their aims, several of the most prominent were also sincerely racist: John Muir, Madison Grant and Frederick Jackson Turner — all grandfathers of environmentalism — also espoused beliefs that more or less explicitly put the interests of white Americans above those of immigrants and people of color.
Some 50 years later, the first Earth Day in 1970 helped galvanize the modern environmental movement, but its core remained as white as ever. Although the movement’s emphasis on pollution and overpopulation struck a chord with people of color — who were especially vulnerable to the effects of these problems — they worried, with reason, that the growing focus on environmental issues would divert attention and resources from their struggle for civil rights. More troubling still, people of color (particularly in poor, urban areas) were often baselessly blamed for causing environmental problems and being culturally indifferent to them.
Flash forward another half century to the present, and the mainstream environmental movement still has a diversity problem. Although there is a clear link between race and exposure to environmental risks, such as pollution and natural disasters, a 2017 survey of 40 of the nation’s largest environmental NGOs found people of color on average made up only 27% of full-time staff, and just 14% of senior staff. With so few people of color in a position to define the nation’s environmental agenda, is it any surprise that the imagery of “green” is still so overwhelmingly white?
More work to do
Fortunately, things are starting to change. In recent years, the Sierra Club — one of the nation’s oldest and largest conservation groups — has rewritten its mission statement to focus on environmental justice, an approach that emphasizes the fair treatment and involvement of all people in environmental decision-making. In addition, the NGO has adopted more inclusive hiring policies and become a vocal supporter of immigrant rights and Black Lives Matter.
Also encouraging, at last year’s People’s Climate March in Washington, DC, the usual (white) faces of environmentalism, including Al Gore and Leonardo di Caprio, took a backseat to the Standing Rock Sioux, who had resisted the Dakota access pipeline the year before. Black and Latino residents of Louisiana and Florida, whose communities face direct threats from rising sea levels, were also front and center.
These developments should be applauded. But especially as the Trump administration rolls back decades of environmental regulations that will disproportionately affect people of color, there is still much work to do to ensure all voices are heard. As Jennifer Allen of the League of Conservation Voters has noted, “Communities of color are among the strongest supporters and champions of environmental policies, yet they are the most excluded from the environmental movement.”
For green-leaning individuals, groups and politicians, the need to represent communities that are most vulnerable to environmental problems is nothing less than a moral imperative. But it also represents an opportunity: an opportunity to engage those who are most committed to finding environmental solutions. And an opportunity to build a more just and inclusive environmentalism that looks as much like Flint, Michigan as it does like the glittering shores of Lake Michigan.
After all, a favorite slogan of environmentalists is “there’s no planet B.” We’re all in this together, and it’s time the environmental movement reflected this.
Want to help make the green movement is fairer for all Earthlings? Check out these environmental justice groups that need your support!
Meghan Feeks is living in London and loving it, but always a New Yorker at heart. Communicator by day, writer by night, tango dancer by midnight.