As a university student, I fill my free time (and resume) with volunteering. When I’m not studying, writing, or at work, I can be found walking the university gardens, attending Vegan Club, or exploring environmental workshops. I always feel a little uneasy entering these spaces, because— in my experience — they are almost exclusively white.
From the beginning, I thought this was an oddity. The people that attend these sessions are buzzing with discussions of climate change, global warming, and intersectionality. Data show that people of colour report higher rates of environmental concern than whites, so how could it be that non-white youth who fight so ardently for social issues are so often missing from the conversation?
In many ways, it’s not exactly surprising. After all, when you think of environmentalists, who do you imagine? David Attenborough, Greta Thunberg, and Teddy Roosevelt likely come to mind. White people. It follows that we have to question why none of us think of people like Xiye Bastida, a Mexican-Chilean climate activist who presented a speech on Indigenous Cosmology at the United Nations before even turning eighteen.
The issue isn’t just in our heads. There is plenty of evidence that shows how people of colour are severely underrepresented in major environmental organizations and agencies. In the US, research suggests that approximately 88 percent of staff and 95 percent of boards of environmental non-government organizations are white. What’s up here?
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 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.
Unfortunately, Grant was also a scientific racist.
In 1909, Grant wrote that his generation now had “…the responsibility of saying what forms of life shall be preserved.” This sentiment was echoed in his later pseudo-scientific book The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History, in which he warns of the decline of the Nordic Peoples. His work reached such status amongst white supremacists that Hitler wrote him a letter, calling it his “Bible.” You read that right — Hitler.
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:
“What has taken us thirty generations to achieve, we cannot expect to see another race accomplish out of hand, especially when large portions of that race start very far behind the point which our ancestors had reached even thirty generations ago…”
When Grant wrote The Passing of the Great Race, Roosevelt wrote him a letter in praise. This would go on to be featured on the blurb. Roosevelt also coined the term “race suicide”, a phrase referring to white women who chose not to bear children. Crazy, right?
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.
Some may excuse these men’s actions in the context of the racist culture of the time. Whilst I agree that it might be an explanation, it is not an excuse. 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?
It is further worth noting that even the motives behind Grant’s, Roosevelt’s, and Pinchot’s ideology were corrupted. Indeed, for them, nature was crucially interlinked with the aristocracy. They enjoyed hunting, and often spoke about the elk and buffalo they helped preserve in order to later kill, yet little care was paid to smaller but equally as important organisms.
Another reason why we cannot rule out these attitudes as a thing of the past is that they did not end with Roosevelt. As environmentalism evolved, discussions around new topics began to emerge. The big one: overpopulation.
The conversation around overpopulation came to a peak in the environmental movement with biologist Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. The book, which was an instant best-seller, painted a dire image of the future filled with poverty, desperation, and violence. His views resonated with a lot of people — racial minorities were met with hate and violence as they were perceived to take up valuable resources and space. You could argue that his book was not intended to incite such violence, but it did supply already racist people with new “science.”
Even today the trend continues. In 2019, Patrick Crusius murdered twenty-two people and injured dozens more in El Paso, Texas. He claimed he was trying to stop a “Hispanic invasion”, but there was another motive to his crime. Crusius left behind a manifesto titled “The Inconvenient Truth” in which he argued killing a significant proportion of the population was the only way to prevent the decimation of the environment for future generations.
What Can We Do?
Social issues are not separate from environmentalism, they are a significant part of it.
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.
To illustrate, take the example of bike lanes. These sound great in theory, but they fail to account for the fact that they are often placed in communities with already limited parking space and a substandard transportation network.
If we want to truly make a difference, people of colour should have a voice in the conversation regarding possible environmental solutions.
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.
It is important we acknowledge this before we try to make amends.
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.
Fighting against air polluting pesticides or industrial sites is not enough — we must also fight for the immigrant farmworkers that risk their lives for pennies and the communities that develop chronic health issues at the hands of big corporations.
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.
In short, by ostracising 25-30 percent of the population from our movement, we’re depriving ourselves of important discussions that must be had to solve climate-related problems. It is imperative that we make people of colour part of the conversation surrounding the climate crisis — after all, they’re the ones suffering the effects the most.
Lastly, organizations must do better to gather diversity data, interact with non-white communities, and recruit multicultural talent.
It won’t happen overnight, but we can all do our part to make the green space more diverse.