How Environmentalism Can Center Racial Justice in 2021
In its first weeks, the Biden administration has prioritized justice and equity in its plan to protect the environment and tackle the climate crisis. That's great, but now is not the time for the rest of us to get complacent.
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On his first day in office, President Joe Biden dropped a sweeping directive in the first paragraph of his executive order to protect the environment and tackle the climate crisis: the federal government “must advance environmental justice.” This week, Biden doubled down on that order with another executive action, one that will establish an interagency council on environmental justice in the White House and create offices dedicated to it across his Cabinet, from the Health and Human Services Department to the Justice Department.
Yes, please. That is all great. But what would it actually look like to realize environmental justice? And how can the outdoor world help achieve it?
In 2020, the protests in response to the killing of George Floyd and the long-burning buildup of police brutality highlighted the many ways that race delineates who is allowed to feel safe and welcome and where they’re able to, from corner stores to national parks. “Why would you want to go into the backcountry, if in your mind it’s associated with lynching?” sociologist Anthony Kwame Harrison, who writes about diversity in skiing, once asked me.
That reckoning rocked the environmental movement, too. In July, the Sierra Club, the oldest green group in the country, acknowledged its racist past and the way John Muir’s racism has shaped its conservation ethic since the organization’s founding. In the fall, the Audubon Society made a similar statement. The two groups are not alone in that problematic past: a history of white supremacy is woven into the fabric of the entire American environmental movement.
Environmental racism can be virulent and blatant, but it also shows up more subtly in assumptions about who is considered outdoorsy, who gets to make decisions about land use, and who gets to safely go birding and biking. Meanwhile those excluded from the environmental movement are often the same people who face the greatest threats from climate change and have the most to lose from environmental degradation. Along with carbon emissions, racism is one of the biggest environmental problems we collectively face.
But a recent Pew Research report found that support and energy around movements like Black Lives Matter has fallen off since the summer, especially among non-Black people. In the outdoor world, which skews heavily white, we need to keep the pressure on to make lasting change.
Confronting the reality of how interconnected these two issues are is the first step. “The only way we’re going to have success is if many people feel as sad as I do about environmental racism,” says Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, who until recently was the North American director of the international climate-action organization 350.org. She says it’s crucial to acknowledge how a flawed past has put us in the position we’re in now.
But there has to be more than an inward look if we want to ensure that the current moment isn’t simply symbolic. To build a sustainable, equitable future, and not propagate past mistakes, we have to change the practices of environmentalism. To do that, O’Laughlin says that environmental organizations need to allocate their power and money to attack the breadth of environmental harms, not only the ones that are convenient or top of mind. It’s not just a matter of preserving beautiful places, it’s the necessity of breathable air, clean water, and a livable temperature.
But those sorts of priorities often come from the top, and there’s a dearth of diversity in the leadership of conservation organizations, lobbying groups, and academic institutions. To expand the scope of what’s given attention, we need to put people of color in positions of power, listen to what’s happening at the grassroots level, and confront the lack of pathways and entry-level opportunities to get into environmentalism.
Thomas Rashad Easley, assistant dean of community and inclusion at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, knows how narrow the routes in can be. He fell into environmentalism when he was at Alabama A&M University through a Forest Service scholarship that was available to historically Black colleges and universities. But he realizes that his path as a Black person in forestry could easily have been different. Inclusion and feeling like you belong are crucial to being able to claim a movement as your own, he says, and that doesn’t come easy. “Regardless of who you are, you need a line in, and it’s particularly important if you historically haven’t been looked at,” Easley says. He’s advocating to recruit diverse applicants and create new roles that bring diversity into historically siloed environmental institutions, from the Ivy League to government agencies, which would show people who have not traditionally considered themselves environmentalists that they belong.
The voices of the people who have been most impacted need to be the loudest.
Easley’s preferred method of communication is hip-hop—when he’s not in academia he moonlights as an emcee—which he incorporates into the classes he teaches. He believes that to promote inclusion, we have to explicitly explain why environmental issues are connected to people’s lives, and why someone who doesn’t look like John Muir (or Bill McKibben or Greta Thunberg) is still part of the green movement. We need to actively recruit and show people that they’re welcome.
“When I’m talking about the environment with people of color, I make it about the impact it’s having,” he says. “I talk about the community. I talk about air quality and water pollution. If you’re Black from the ’hood or the country, you understand it.”
Changing the narrative to be more inclusive and personal is core to other, newer political advocacy groups, too, like the youth-led Sunrise Movement and the Hip Hop Caucus. Both groups were founded on the intertwined importance of environmental and social justice and on engaging nonwhite people in climate activism. They’re gaining ground in size and impact, but they still don’t get as much funding from foundations and donors or have as much political power as older groups like the Sierra Club. Their growth embodies what Easley and O’Laughlin are talking about: bringing people in, listening to them, supporting them, repeat. “There is hope in this moment that change can happen,” O’Laughlin says.
The green movement’s effort to take down past iconography and poke holes in the legacy of towering figures like Muir is important, but it’s only symbolic until power, money, and representation are diversified. The new presidential administration appears to be taking that seriously—this week’s executive order included a goal to direct 40 percent of federal investment in sustainable infrastructure toward disadvantaged communities, which is a great start—and organizations like the Sierra Club have pledged to do the same.
But the voices of the people who have been most impacted need to be the loudest. And to do that, the onus of change is on those who have had it easy, who have not had to think about whether they might be able to get a job at a green nonprofit or if their government will support them when their community faces a natural disaster or environmental harm. Anyone who wants to protect the planet has to be actively antiracist, because it’s impossible to pull apart the past threads of exclusion and violence and land use and race. We can’t untangle environmental policy from systemic racism, so we have to tackle them together, from the top of the government on down.