“Sometimes it doesn’t hit me until I walk by one of their rallies or attend a meeting. I wonder if sometimes they look around and ask ‘Why are we so white?'” – Sharmeen Khan from The Whiteness of Green
The environmental movement was essentially initiated by Rachel Carson’s epic book Silent Spring. In it, she exposed how herbicides and pesticides were destroying the environment and our health. She sparked a lot of controversy which eventually lead to the ban of DDT.
In 1971, Greenpeace initiated an environmental activism movement that involved the media, using the Quaker philosophy of “bearing witness” in order to make change.
The list goes on. It is amazing and inspiring that people have mobilized and dedicated their lives to making the world a better place. The world always needs more of this.
If anything is worth doing, it is worth doing well and that includes questioning ourselves. While great changes have been made thanks to the ideals and passions of people who consider themselves environmentalists, one aspect has remained largely unchecked. While subtle, it has the potential to create future negative repercussions for our movement.
As Khan implied in her essay, why is the environmental movement so … white? Is environmental activism a result of wealthy white people? Is this another less straight-forward dimension of environmental racism? Journalist, lawyer, environmental justice activist and founder of Green for All Van Jones thinks so.
“To change our laws and culture, the green movement must attract and include the majority of ALL people, not just the majority of affluent people. We must make it plain … that we envision a clean-energy future in which everyone has a place – and a stake … making sure that “green” incudes all colors,” said Jones in The Unbearable Whiteness of Green.
The environmental movement may be guilty of excluding cultural diversity in its strident gains for environmental protection. Development and aid work has also been criticized on the same grounds. Basically, how can we determine what is right for the majority of the world based solely on our localized principles of justice?
Referring to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a person requires several base layers of needs-fulfillment. At the base, we must ensure that our basic physiological requirements are met (food, shelter, clothes). At the top of this list is self-actualization, where we tackle the larger societal issues.
This is where the lines get blurred. We pine to help those less fortunate than ourselves. This can be noble and credible if you’re helping to create something sustainable and build the capacity of these people, otherwise you are risking a soft form of bigotry: the racism of lower expectations.
Peggy McIntosh addressed this in “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack.” Read McIntosh’s essay to open your eyes and see the big white elephant that has been standing in the room this whole time. No pun intended.