The Racist History Behind White Environmentalism

Why the “green space” needs more diversity.

Source: US Department of the Interior. Remix by editor.
Left: Glacier Point via Wikimedia Commons. Right: Yosemite Magazine via Archive.org. Remix by editor.

A Racist History

What does it say about the founders of the conservation movement (and subsequently environmentalism) if they believed they had a right to choose which forms of life survived?

Some scholars believe that we can trace environmentalism to colonialism. This means modern environmental movements are underpinned by the stealing of Indigenous lands and the largely white and human-centric idea of “owning” nature. The accepted founders of conservatism — Madison Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, and Gifford Pinchot — were Social Darwinists, an informal movement that suspiciously placed biological theory on not just humans but individuals races of people.

Madison Grant

Madison Grant was an American lawyer and zoologist from a powerful family. In his life, he attended Columbia Law school and built a reputation as a conservationist, zoologist, and ally to then-president Roosevelt. He played a key role in founding the Bronx Zoo and dedicated himself to preserving the California Redwoods.

Teddy Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt is regarded as one of the best American presidents, ranking within the top ten in terms of popularity. We often learn of him as a progressive conservationist, yet he was a white supremacist who believed it his right and duty to conquer “inferior races” and steal their land. When talking about self-governance in the Philippines he has been quoted as saying:

Gilford Pinchot

Gilford Pinchot built a reputation as a forester and politician. His progressive forest management played a key role in building the national forest system. In 1908 Roosevelt appointed him as chairman of the National Conservation Commission. Pinchot was also a member of the American Eugenics Society.

Photo via Archive.org.
Graphic courtesy of Ecofeminist Project.

What Can We Do?

Social issues are not separate from environmentalism, they are a significant part of it.

Listen

Many people fail to realize how interconnected race issues are to the environment. Policies that marginalize non-whites in terms of income, health, and education also predict how they will be affected by environmental hazards — a classic case of this is the lack of safe drinking water in Flint, Michigan. Similarly, evidence shows the pandemic is affecting racial minorities disproportionately. The problem is, we’re not being heard.

Remember the history

It’s hard to admit, but the founders of environmentalism were racist. This is not to negate that they had some good ideas — they did. But often they held equally awful politics and ideologies. Environmental institutions were created by and continue to be dominated by white men. There is a reason why non-white voices aren’t as prominent, and it’s not accidental.

Reframe environmental issues

Environmentalism isn’t just about preserving endangered species, saving the Arctic, and ditching straws. In fact, social issues are not separate from environmentalism, they are a significant part of it.

Advocate

Nowadays, there is a lot more talk of the problems with white environmentalism — but this is not enough. We need to be having more conversations about race at every level, from the classroom to the government. If we continue to avoid the topic because it is deemed as “too sensitive”, we fail to create inclusive spaces and widen the divide.

Artist, environmentalist and social economics student specialising in drinking too much bubble tea, getting no sleep, and crying in libraries. (She/Her)

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