Whiter shade of pale
Yes, even this headline is vanilla
Face it, the environmental movement is white. And classist. Just as you’d expect from a movement built around lifestyle choices and consumerism and, why not say it, a degree of self-righteousness. Caring about climate change is a luxury concern. Doing something about it, a privilege.
This realization was shoved in my white face last month when hundreds of enviros convened in Eugene, Ore., for the 26th annual Public Interest Environmental Law Conference. On the university campus where the event was held, I sat watching a group of hippie kids climb on benches, handrails, shoulders and pretty much anything else suitable for scaling. PIELC organizers touted the event as the premier environmental conference, but it looked about as diverse as an REI catalog come to life.
“This represents the modern environmental movement?” I thought. No, it can’t be.
But here’s the thing: Being green requires money, resources and leisure time. How to be eco-friendly? Spare yourself from nature-deficit disorder by camping out by a lake, thus developing an appreciation for flora and fauna. Don’t forget to wear pricy eco-friendly clothing woven of undyed organic wool, proclaim your refusal to buy an energy-zapping plasma television set and casually mention in conversation how you ride the bus out of choice. And you absolutely must have read Silent Spring. Twice.
Van Jones, founder of Green for All, wrote, “The celebrated ‘lifestyles’ sector is probably the most racially segregated part of the U.S. economy; at present, it is almost exclusively the province of affluent white people.”
Green building, a submovement of mainstream environmentalism, demonstrates the division. Sustainable building leads to more healthful indoor environments, savings on electric bills and a self-congratulatory feeling. But green building is not affordable housing. Poor people and renters don’t benefit.
Back at the PIELC conference, a woman desperately asked a panel, “What about apathetic people?” How do we make them care about saving the planet?! She incorrectly assumed that someone who doesn’t share her green concerns is “apathetic.” What a college-educated, middle-class, white thing to say.
Tell me, is it reasonable to grab the elbow of a passerby in the middle of Detroit and say, “Yes, I know you might get shot on the walk home from your low-paying job, and you’re worried about not having health insurance or how your kids can’t seem to get a decent education; and no, you’re not really concerned about buying certified-organic produce for a vegan dinner because your mind’s on the high incarceration rate of black men and you’re angry about impoverished mothers raising their children alone; but come on, are you really trying to tell me you don’t break down in tears at the mere thought of polar bears floating on tiny scraps of ice as their habitat melts away? What’s wrong with you?!”
People aren’t apathetic. It’s just that our priorities differ.
Minorities have a lot at stake in the greening of America, as they suffer most from the ill effects of industrial society. Want to find gross, polluting, unsightly stuff? Look to poor neighborhoods and that’s where it’ll be: power plants, solid-waste facilities, sewage plants—the end results of unjust land-use decisions and racist zoning requirements. Coincidentally, these are also the neighborhoods where you’re more likely to find residents suffering from asthma and obesity. Actually, it’s no coincidence.
Does it matter that the environmental movement is white and classist? You bet. To successfully curb global warming, we need as many people on board as possible. In a Yes! magazine article, environmental poster boy Bill McKibben wrote, “Most of all, we need a movement. We need a political swell larger than the civil rights movement—as passionate and as willing to sacrifice.” But how do we encourage a greater involvement of minority groups? And poor people? And, for that matter, old, rich, bitter, white conservative men?
To make a real difference, the movement needs to engage minority groups who can both benefit and contribute to an emerging green economy.
Greenies need the wisdom of indigenous cultures with long traditions of sustainable living. The movement needs trained laborers to do jobs that cannot be outsourced, such as install solar panels or build wind farms. It needs to support people of color to become attorneys, politicians and leaders, who will galvanize diverse communities into action. Only then will environmentalism reach its full potential.
Enviro-justice activist Majora Carter, a black woman, has the right idea. She calls it “greening the ghetto.” Carter led a grassroots project to create a waterfront park in her South Bronx neighborhood. An Internet video shows her recounting a conversation with former Vice President Al Gore. She told Gore of the project’s success at urban renewal and asked how enviro-justice activists would be included in the current eco-conversation. Gore responded by offering financial assistance. But Carter clarified that she wasn’t asking for help; she was making him an offer.