Do Black Folks Care About The Environmental Movement?

April 18, 2011  |  

This Friday marks the annual celebration when environmentalists remind us of how we should be thanking Mother Earth for letting us inhabit her and siphon off her resources.

Which reminds me of a story I’d like to share: some years back, I was home from college on summer break and I was broke.  So naturally, I needed to find work. After scouring through the classified ads, I responded to a listing from a conservation group, which was looking for fundraisers to help with its many “save the [insert endangered animal here]” fundraising. I loved the idea of advocating while earning, so I applied for the position.

On my first day of work, I participated in a one hour training session the conservation group held about why animals were particularly important to our eco-system. I was given a map for a designated suburban neighborhood and a bus token. My task was to go door-to-door canvassing for money. I was out there for hours trying to meet the daily quota the group required. However, naturally, a black kid from Philly asking for donations in a mostly white neighborhood didn’t exactly spell successful fundraising.

On my third day, my young boss, who looked no older than I was, pulled me into the office and while terribly apologetic, fired me. I remember breaking out into tears, partly because after three long days of canvassing on foot, I was exhausted. I also felt disappointed that somehow, I had failed the environmental movement as a whole.  Only years and deep analysis later did I realize what the truth really was.

A long held belief, mostly perpetuated through the media, is that people of color have been mute on the modern day environmental movement. But that’s not entirely true. The reality is that people of color have a long history of concern for the environment. A lot of what the green movement stands for (including minimalism, conservation and being consciences of what we eat) is basically common sense to a people whose ancestors knew the value of living harmoniously with nature.

However, during the period of colonization and imperialism, when British, Spanish and French expansion meant pillaging raw materials, tropical forests in South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, India and the East Indies were cut down. Mining and deep-sea oil rigging was done at massive scales in many of these colonized territories. Commercial crops such as cotton, Cacao and sugarcane replaced food and other life-sustainable crops. This served as not only the root causes of poverty and economic instability in most of third world nations, but it also had tremendous environmental impacts, much of which those nations are still dealing with today.

In hopes of rectifying an environmental wrong, today, conservation and environmental groups have started campaigns to create national parks and other conservation institutions in many of these third world nations. Ironically, these agendas have meant additional disenfranchisement and displacement of local, mostly indigenous populations in these nations.  Moreover, other so-called solutions—such as the growing of genetically modified crops—have failed to address, if not exacerbate , the more fundamental problems of environmental degradation by countries of the first world.

Here in the states, many of these same organizations have begun to devote a great deal of money and effort to engage minority groups in initiatives such as solar energy, endangered animals and climate change. Nothing wrong with that, except often times, these efforts exclude attention on the toxic pollutants in communities of poor and brown-skinned people.

It’s not so much that whites have more of a greener sensibility than nonwhites, but rather when it comes to environmental issues, we’re not speaking the same language. Recycling, investing in solar energy, saving the polar bears and driving a Prius, while all commendable, does not carry the same urgency if your house is located near a Brownfield or nuclear reactors. Moreover, much of the agenda of the modern day green movement, which has placed the well being of the environment over the well being of humans, has amounted to nothing more than a form of eco-imperialism. This is why many minority environmentalists have declined to join large environmental organizations and are instead fighting on the grassroots level for environmental justice.

Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.

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