Any Colour, So Long As It’s Green: Race, Class, and the Environmental Movement

Originally published at this ain’t livin’.

The environmental movement has some serious housekeeping to do, and it’s always kind of amazing to me that it is, technically, a branch of the social justice movement, because, well, the environment is a social justice issue, but the environmental movement has a lot of work to do on its handling of social justice. The future of the environment has serious implications for us as a society and many of those implications are deeply tied with social justice issues, from the exploitation of immigrant labour to the communities that are mostly likely to suffer the immediate consequences of environmental damage.

There are so many -isms in the environmental movement, it’s kind of hard to know where to begin. Vicious fat hatred, for one thing. Ableism, with leading lights of the movement suggesting that people with disabilities are a waste of resources and we should just die, already, or not be born. Sexism, as members of the movement reinforce binary gender roles and attitudes about gender. Classism, and the closely entangled racism. Janani Balasubramanian wrote at Racialicious last year about the race and class issues entangled with the food movement, and these issues are still very much present, and still very much preventing the movement from making some important and meaningful changes.

This is a pretty classic example of why intersectionalism is important. It is not enough to say that the environment is broken because of our actions and we need to fix it. Both of these things are true and they are important, but the way we deal with it needs to take place in context. Some injustices involved in the current way we approach things like food production and environmental policy are explicitly social justice concerns; race and class injustice are closely tied with things like who is exploited to produce our cheap food, and who winds up in neighbourhoods used as dumps for our unwanted toxic waste.

In these cases, it’s not just the environment that matters. It is the tangled relationship between environment, race, and class. If we drop race and class out of the equation, and if we ignore the reasons race and class are so bound up with each other, we are not only failing to address these issues, we are not going to fix the fundamental problem. Thus, the environmental movement needs to be thinking about these issues if it wants to meet the stated goal of creating change.

Likewise, cultural contexts also need to be considered in the development and evaluation of plans for addressing environmental issues. For example, people who discuss food politics and want people to eat more fresh food need to find ways to make that food more accessible. That means addressing food deserts, addressing overwork that limits the time people have to prepare food, addressing cultural differences in the way people approach the preparation, handling, and sharing of food. It’s not as simple as announcing that everyone should eat more fresh food.

Very real barriers are simply ignored because they don’t fit in with the desired narrative. Class creates true situational barriers, making it impossible for people to do things, even if they think those things are the right thing to do, even if they want to do those things. The exchange of information is also all one way, with people being lectured by the environmental movement, but the environmental movement not really taking lessons from the people it is lecturing. Maybe if it did, it would learn about things that disadvantaged communities are doing to help the environment and it would do something other than figuring out how to monetise those things. How much cheap plastic crap is made to do things people in impoverished communities have already been doing themselves for decades?

The environmental movement acts surprised when people don’t universally embrace it, conveniently ignoring the history of embedded -isms, many of which are openly espoused by people prominent in the movement to this day. It’s kind of hard to take a movement seriously when it says rather bigoted things about people like you and fails to consider, at all, the context in which it is occurring. The environment is not a vacuum, and acting as though things like sexism and racism are ok in the environmental movement because it’s for a greater cause misses two fundamental truths.

1. No, they are not ok. They are not ok because they are unilaterally not ok, period. And because many people think they are not ok, including the victims of those -isms, tolerating these things in the movement and sometimes actively promoting them will result in alienating people. People will tune out and not be interested in following or engaging with the movement because they have been given no reason to think that the movement would welcome them.

2. Ignoring -isms in the movement also means that the movement is ignoring underlying intersectional -isms leading to environmental problems. Even if you have no problem alienating people by telling them they don’t matter and aren’t human beings, if your stated goal is addressing environmental problems, you need to actually address those problems. That includes looking at the ways that social attitudes contribute to environmental problems. Just for example, viewing people with brown skin as a source of disposable labour contributes to environmental degradation caused by the agriculture industry.

Can the environmental movement clean up its act? I certainly hope so, because I think the environment is important, and I think it’s telling that there are a number of splinter groups working outside the environmental movement on environmental issues because they don’t feel comfortable in the movement. When people feel strongly enough about your ‘movement’ that while they are working towards the same goal, they don’t want to be associated with you, I think you have a pretty serious problem.

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About s.e. smith
s.e. smith is a writer, editor, and agitator with a focus on social justice issues based in Northern California.

One Response to Any Colour, So Long As It’s Green: Race, Class, and the Environmental Movement

  1. erikloomis says:

    I write about these kind of things quite a bit. I don’t have time to explore the whole thing right now, but I’ll say that the environmental movement wasn’t always like this. At its most successful, in the 60s and 70s, it was precisely because humans were at the center of environmentalism. The movement focused on pollution as well as wilderness. It knew that pesticides were dangerous to humans and hawks. That faded by the 1980s for a couple of reasons–the rise of Reagan and the inability to create legislative change any longer, the dominance of increasingly wealthy Baby Boomers over the movement who wanted to play in the wilderness, the need to raise money to defend gains in the courts. But it has been very very damaging.

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