Too White to Solve the Climate Crisis?

Environmental groups have a diversity problem. Here are some ways we can fix it.

Jesse Firempong
Feb 26 · 7 min read
Our Time activists participating in Vancouver’s Climate March on September 27, 2019 (Photo by Desiree Wallace)

There’s a moment from my first international environmental meeting three years ago that’s stayed with me. The keynote speaker, the founder of a successful car-sharing company, was painting a picture of the future: zero-emission, driverless, on-demand, networked public transit.

Mine was not the only Black face in the room, though there were fewer than I’d hoped. During the Q&A, one of my colleagues asked what would happen to the obsolete gas-powered cars.

“Oh, I don’t know. To be honest, they’d probably be shipped to developing countries to be used as kitchens or something,” the founder said.

Another colleague challenged her answer before I’d finished blinking back my disbelief. But nothing bursts the bubble of futurist daydreaming like the idea that neo-imperialism will still be alive and kicking.

Assumptions that the Global South will accept wealthy countries’ waste or hand over resources in the name of progress elsewhere is living history. For years, Canada has shipped plastic waste to Asia. Meanwhile, companies extracting minerals for use in electric cars and wind turbines have been accused of human rights abuses — including child labour, water pollution, and land rights violations — in Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other countries.

This all points toward something bigger: the green movement’s equity problem, both across borders and within them. The communities least responsible for environmental problems are most likely to bear the impacts — they also have a limited influence on mainstream environmental groups’ agendas.

These racial blind spots made it difficult for me to see myself, and the issues I care about, in environmentalism.

Then, after university, I volunteered with an Oxfam campaign that highlights inequities in the global food system. I learned the majority of the hundreds of millions who go hungry annually are women and girls, and that many of them are small-scale farmers. With increasing droughts, floods and altered growing seasons fueled by climate change, women will be on the front lines. I realized that human rights and environmental issues were inseparable. When a job opened up at Greenpeace, I applied, excited about the organization’s growing focus on climate justice.

Five years later, I love Greenpeace’s work. Still, the lack of diversity within the movement can be challenging. Curious to know how others felt, I asked my racialized peers for their thoughts.

“There’s a broad consensus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” observed Christopher Wilson, a vice president of the Ontario-based Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), which works to put racism higher on labour organizers’ agendas. “The question is how do you do that in a way that’s actually transforming our economy and not reproducing the same systems of exclusion?”

The CBTU’s Green is Not White project educates people about environmental racism — that is, discriminatory environmental policies or the unequal applications of environmental protections based on race — and advocates for the inclusion of Black workers in the transition to a zero-carbon economy.

The Green New Deals could power up a more intersectional movement. Could.

While not a panacea, the GNDs could power up a more intersectional movement.

Could.

Because the GNDs also reflect the mainstream environmental movement’s blind spots.

Wilson at the CBTU, for instance, questions assumptions that green jobs will benefit Black and Indigenous workers, when they remain underrepresented in relevant sectors.

Indigenous rights defenders have raised problems with tokenism and the “lip service” paid to decolonization by advocates of the deals on both sides of the colonial border. Indigenous rights and climate activist Eriel Deranger notes in an essay with the Yellowhead Institute that, in Canada, “the GND is still being created in silos of elitism.”

Environmental organizations are overwhelmingly White. Green 2.0, a US group tracking green groups’ diversity, found 20% of staff at the largest 40 US-based environmental non-governmental organizations identified as people of colour in 2018, even though racialized people make up about 40% of the American population. It’s tough to say how Canada fares; I couldn’t find comparable statistics. But people I spoke with talked about green groups’ overwhelming Whiteness.

“Often, I’m sitting around tables and I’m the only young, non-White person,” a campaigner in his early thirties who works on chemical pollution and toxic substances in Canada told me over the phone. He requested to remain anonymous so he could speak freely about his experiences.

20% of staff at the largest environmental organizations identified as people of colour, even though racialized people make up about 40% of the American population.

“People are scared to talk about race,” says Kenyan-born Wanjiro Ndungu, who works in fundraising at Greenpeace Canada’s Toronto office. She’s also our organization’s diversity manager. “I think what makes change happen is being able to deal with that uncomfortable experience,” she adds.

Greenpeace has created more diverse hiring panels and a new staff equity committee. But Ndungu would like to see Greenpeace do more outreach to racialized communities about their environmental concerns, in addition to tracking staff diversity, building more diverse leadership, and facilitating more conversations between staff and management about the issue. She points to Greenpeace’s campaigning in solidarity with Indigenous communities resisting oil projects threatening their lands and waters as moves in the right direction.

Clayton Thomas-Müller, a senior campaign specialist with 350.org, a climate action group advocating to end the use of fossil fuels, turns the issue of inclusion on its head.

“Brown and Black communities, and Indigenous communities, are exhausted from mainstream groups asking them to join their spaces,” warns Thomas-Müller, who hails from the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation in northern Manitoba.

Instead, environmental groups should take a “rights-based approach to campaigning,” and support communities and other social movements tackling racial inequities without expecting anything in return, he says. For example, 350.org has endorsed the Black Lives Matter movement and supported justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Younger organizers are also making solidarity a priority. Our Time, a diverse, youth-led campaign that supports the GND and was started by 350.org, makes a point of amplifying messages from other social movements, including ones focused on migrant justice and anti-racism.

Brown and Black communities, and Indigenous communities, are exhausted from mainstream groups asking them to join their spaces.

Jimenez struggled to find a place in Vancouver’s very White environmental movement until she joined Our Time. “It felt like something I could have benefited from five years ago,” she says. Now, she supports other young activists of colour.

The personal experiences of my peers of colour resonate deeply with my own, and I’m excited to find ways to act on them in my day-to-day life. Hopefully, green groups see the critiques and challenges offered here not as a burden, but an opportunity to build a more united movement, keeping racial justice squarely on their agendas — and out of their blind spots.

A version of this article appears in the Winter/Spring 2020 print edition of Asparagus Magazine, under the headline “Green, Yes, But Not White.” Subscribe today, or pick up a copy at one of our fine stockists.

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Asparagus Magazine

Asparagus tells the large and small stories of how we can…

Jesse Firempong

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Energy comms for an awesome enviro w/ fearless, tenacious AF colleagues. “If the apocalypse comes, beep me.”🙅🏾 Views are my own, blah blah

Asparagus Magazine

Asparagus tells the large and small stories of how we can live sustainably, from an environmental, social, and cultural perspective.

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