White culture within the environmental movement
There is a systemic issue that we’re not addressing within the environmental movement. Why are we still talking about the Western science of climate change when 97% of scientists agreed a decade ago that the planet was certifiably heating up. When are we really going to start talking about culture.
You have probably seen a local activist wearing a culture before coal t-shirt; merch to fund the Wangan and Jagalingou people with their fight against the Adani Carmichael Mine. (If not, you can purchase one here: www.culturebeforecoal.com). Without homogenizing First Nations Peoples; protecting land and water is an enveloping characteristic of many First Nations’ cultures. However, it is very rare for environmentalists to come together and critically analyse that term. Yes, we’ve come to realise that individual actions no longer amount to anything other than good feels; we’ve learnt (although are still learning) that First Nations peoples need to be given the mic at rallies to voice their opinions; but us white folk still don’t really want to talk about being white. We don’t look inwards but look outwards at other cultures. Most people view environmentalism through a eurocentric lens and don’t even realize it. I think that more purported environmentalists need to question what culture their environmental group is creating and critically evaluate how inclusive that culture is.
Whilst we love trees, rivers, birds and bees it is exceptionally difficult for white people to perceive such physical constructs as one of us. In sociology the term “othering” is used to describe racial divides. Dominant cultures are very used to othering. The residual traits of our ancestors are difficult to shake when it permeates our everyday language, the media and social norms. Despite dealing with right-wing media monopolies and greedy politicians it is no excuse to continue this “othering” of the environment and most importantly the “othering” of people within the environment.
I fear that that the environmental movement hasn’t truly grasped that global warming first and foremost stemmed from colonization. If the movement was as progressive as the papers make it out to be than indigenous knowledge would not be continuing to be erased by epistemological violence. On a large scale it is being done through the dismissal of indigenous food knowledge, evidenced by the rise of GMO technology; it’s seen in supermarkets with organic branding and it’s seen in the preservation of National Parks — we can’t just have communal land, it needs to be cordoned off and protected.
A topic that has personally antagonized me for the past year is the “vegan movement”. Climate change is a ravaging beast pumped with the milk of cows, fossil fuel lobbyists and overseas imports. I’m not against individuals becoming vegan but it’s become a movement championed by white dudes who can somehow AFFORD to stay #ripped and #bulked whilst maintaining a vegan diet. Rainforests and small scale economies are suffering due to the over-production of soy products in modern society. Yes, reducing meat consumption in inner cities does reduce the amount of methane that is thrust into the atmosphere but we cannot continue to blindly disregard the eco-systems and economies that we as white people are continuing to destroy because we can afford to look away. (For more information on soy industry: https://theconversation.com/brazils-thriving-soy-industry-threatens-its-forests-and-global-climate-targets-56973).
My parents have started growing their own lettuce, kale and beets and my wholehearted but busy housemates grow an array of herbs and chilies on our back deck. Now these are all great acts of self-sufficiency but unless we evaluate our own privilege we will never understand that by and large the groups of people that are able to partake in these acts of self-sufficiency have privilege. They have access to time, money, resources and knowledge of settler-colonial Australia. This lack of self-evaluation contributes to the ongoing and underlying racial divides between community members in the environmental activist sphere. In Australia white people still control which which trees line footpaths, what fruit and vege is supplied in mainstream supermarkets and the social etiquette around how food is consumed.
So, how do we go about breaking down these social divides? Us white people need to start identifying with a culture that doesn’t erase, assimilate or appropriate other peoples cultures. Maybe one of the best examples I have seen has been in Buderim— where people are growing their own fruit and vegetables on their kerbsides (Here is an article: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-04-22/food-street-feeding-off-the-kerbside-creates-close-community/7343456). People are reclaiming council owned land, food is free and community members are skill sharing. This is one step towards a community becoming food sovereign. However, this is also my eurocentric perception of what is occurring — we would have to ask marginalised people in that community whether they feel welcome to take food from the strip of community garden and we would have to ask First Nations mob how they feel about the project. Don’t get me wrong this is definitely a movement led by retired white people but this sort of idea has the ability to promote a positive culture. The next step would be to make sure that community members are not restricted access to that food because of time, money, resources and knowledge.
I think most people in the environmental movement still forget they’re privileged. Yes, you dedicate a lot of time to creating social change, but let’s not forget that it’s because you can afford to and that the time, money and resources you are dedicating should be geared towards creating a more inclusive community. Yes, there are heaps of community gardens in Brisbane, but who is really profiting from them? I want to know how many community gardens are in Inala or Ipswich in comparison to the metropolitan areas like Northey St and Graceville. Furthermore, is all of the produce from these gardens being used? Are there cooking groups that use this fruit and veg to feed the community for free? Who are the types of people that are planting the seeds? Do people actually have a cultural attachment to what they’re planting? How many native seeds are actually planted in that garden?
I hope that the Buderim community of gardeners are also thinking about how the food system interacts on a large scale within their community. If you work full time, it becomes tiring to cook every night, let alone go and connect with your neighbours. Being able to cook cheap and wholesome meals is a skill that is very underated in today’s 24/7 society and I hope that the Buderim community is hosting lots of potlucks and festivals which extend beyond the boundaries of white picket fences.
On a more localised note, lots of environmental groups in Brisbane make a really big deal about being inclusive but if you’re not looking at the spaces in which you have meetings, you’re not looking at gender imbalances and you’re not addressing systemic racism — marginalised peoples are not going to want to be a part of your group because you’re not actively trying to break down the barriers that affect them on a daily basis. You’re viewing the environment as a completely isolated discourse.
Now, I don’t think it’s a great idea for everyone to run away and start getting involved in every social justice issue they can think of, but I think it’s important for everyone to really analyse how their daily actions prohibit an inclusive community. Whether your Food Co-op only meets on campus; or whether your vegan club promotes a vegan lifestyle but don’t talk about globalization and food sovereignty; or whether your climate action group is wholly consistent of white people; talk about it. Talk about the culture that your group represents. It’s important that we talk about the culture that us as white people are taking part in and it’s going to feel uncomfortable because we’re so used to unconsciously othering people and the environment but unless environmental groups do this, then we’re still going to be pushing our own agendas. It’s time the environment movement talked about being a tub of 97% Fat Free Coconut Yoghurt — it’s time to dissect white culture.