I’m often disappointed by the narrow scope of the environmental movement’s rhetoric and, more importantly, the narrow scope of its constituency. It’s no secret that the mainstream environmental movement is largely an affluent, white effort.
As an “environmentalist” (I’ll explain the quotes in a bit), I don’t think this is particularly surprising—the struggle for class, gender, race, and other forms of justice are immediate and visceral fights to the people they affect most directly. A movement that has historically focused its attention on recycling programs, melting ice caps, and endangered species is not going to attract people who are at risk of losing their homes, lives, or civil rights.
But that is exactly what’s at stake.
Climate issues are class issues. They’re race issues. They’re probably gender issues, too. The insidious and unfortunate result of environmentalism’s historical focus on wilderness, conservation, and green capitalism is a movement that pays almost no attention to the fact that environmental resource decisions disproportionately affect poor, black, Latino, and Native communities. Where are toxic factories, oil refineries, and pipelines built? Who ends up drinking water laden with chemicals from hydrofracking?
Actually, the answer to that last question is, “All of us,” but the fact is that hydrofracking wells are installed on the lands of people who need money (i.e. people of lower socioeconomic status). Oil refineries and other polluting plants are built in black and Latino neighborhoods. Why? Because corporations understand that these are the communities that face real repercussions for putting up a fight—these are the people who cannot afford to lose their jobs, get arrested, or be deported. These are the people for whom activism is often a scary, dangerous choice and for whom a monetary incentive means quite a lot.
I’m not insinuating that these communities don’t fight for their rights to clean air and water. On the contrary, the bravery shown in frontline communities all across the world has been staggering and never fails to leave me overwhelmed with gratitude, solidarity, and purpose. The point I’m trying to make is that these struggles have been superseded by an environmental movement that is probably geared towards a more select audience: politicians and donors. As has been discussed ad infinitum on this blog, there’s a tangible social and political bias against the economic lower classes, and this bias has privileged polar bears over the poor. It is, apparently, easier to garner support for endangered species than for farmers in rural PA who are engaged in the fight against hydrofracking. I suppose a “fracking victims” calendar wouldn’t sell as well as the Sierra Club’s current offerings.
I’d like to shift focus away from pollution for a moment, though, and draw some connections between class, hunger, and climate for a moment. Last year, while spending some time on a small, organic farm in rural, upstate New York, I found myself confused and dismayed at how difficult it was to find healthy food in the grocery stores. I was living on a farm! In fact, most of the land around me was farmland, but crops were not being grown for the community—these were fields of corn and wheat, barns of cows and chickens, subsidized by the government and cultivated for big industry.
As the global temperature rises, our ability to maintain healthy and fertile soil gets much harder. Fields that could once have been used to grow healthy, plentiful food are left fallow, eroded, and nutritionally exhausted. If healthy, organic produce seems like a bourgeois privilege now, wait until there’s no more soil in which to grow it. When resource-heavy, soil-exhausting crops are grown instead of affordable, healthy food for a community, everybody loses.
And so we come back to my identity as an “environmentalist.” Yes—I often work towards ends that are ostensibly “environmentalist.” But for me, environmental justice is about intersections. It is about going beyond the evidence of climate change, desertification, and pollution to find out who is being affected and how. In doing so, we learn more about the structures of privilege and oppression that govern so much of our world, and perhaps we learn a little bit more about how to dismantle them.
Noah Bogdonoff is a senior at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY. He is currently living in Managua, Nicaragua on three month service-learning internship.