A Guest Post
“Harry Samuels is a student at UNC Asheville majoring in Environmental Management & Policy. He’s also very much obsessed with this Jesus guy – his politics, religious sensibilities, and the implications his teachings have for existential reality. Having been born in sunny Charleston , SC and raised in verdant Richmond, VA, he has spent his life in the American South- where many less-than-flattering portrayals and ideas of Jesus seem to prevail. Still, though, he has managed to “hold on to what is good” and seeks to explore , find, and maximize the intersection that lies between following Christ, sustainability of this gem of a planet, and environmental ethics.”
One of the issues I have had to confront since the time I developed a passion for the environment is simply the lack of other minorities- mainly blacks – in the field/movement. As a teen in high school, I was a member of the ecology club my junior and senior year (and even served as president my senior year), but I was the sole black environmentalist in amongst a white environmental crowd. Although my school was majority white, black students still composed about a quarter of the school’s size ( about 2500 students!) I remember in my environmental science course reading all of these books by environmental greats – Rachel Carson, Jane Goodall, Al Gore ( well…), etc. – and though it was great to read about women who were leading the way in this arena, I still wondered where the black environmental heroes were. Surely there had to be some. Don’t we even care? Was I missing something?
There are many competing theories I have heard through the years to explain this apparent chasm in black involvement in environmental /sustainability issues. One of them being that blacks simply don’t have time to care. When you’re faced with institutionalized forms of racism and disadvantages, making ends meet and taking care of children- simply struggling to remain from being smothered by oppression, how could you possibly have any time to even be aware of environmental issues? A second competing theory I have heard as to the lack of black’s involvement in environmental activism is simply the fact that historically, blacks never “screwed around” with it, the way imperialist whites have. The cycle of the environment having been raped and pillaged by greed and empire is a cycle blacks did not ( were not permitted to) participate in…so why should they be held accountable for our environmental woes which are largely a product of a system they did not invent?
Consider the following from Dr. Kimberly K. Smith in African American Environmental Thought: “ Early twentieth century environmentalism had significant ideological and political connections to white supremacy: it is not purely coincidental that early preservationists included proponents of scientific racism such as Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn. That legacy has been hard to shake. Contemporary debates about population and immigration control among preservationists still rehearse Madison Grant’s fears about the nation’s landscape being submerged in a rising tide of color. In addition, the environmental movement has drawn criticism for distracting attention from antipoverty and other social justice causes, as well as for its failure to put people of color in leadership positions. Environmentalists, for their part, have complained that blacks aren’t interested in environmental politics, a claim resting on early studies of environmental attitudes suggesting that blacks have less concern for the environment than do whites.”
The lack of black’s involvement in environmental issues, then, seems to be a bit of a mix of the two theories I mentioned. Of course, as the above quote illustrates, it’s more complex than many realize. However, it strikes an interesting point – do blacks really NOT care? Or are the issues that they DO fight for (antipoverty , equality, etc.) qualify as other ecological issues? I know, I know…what am I talking about? Antipoverty an environmental issue? Well, I’d submit yes! It’s an environmental issue in that it recognizes the malaises of human ecology. The issue is that the “environmentalism” in that we have traditionally thought of the concept, seeks ecology in the midst of humanity, as opposed to the ecology OF humanity. We musn’t forget that human beings are, on a very basic level, animals. We are members of this biosphere just as much the birds and the trees. This division of human ecology from ecosystem ecology is one that I believe to be an unfortunate carryover from modern-era scientism. In the attempt to master and possess nature through math and science, they have found it valuable to leave humanity- unpredictable, uncertain humanity, out of the equation. What Dr. Smith (and many others are progressively realizing!) is that environmental issues and social justice issues are really two sides of the same coin. So by challenging social and economic injustices ..they really are a sort of environmental activists because they’re challenging the systems that are responsible for causing the environmental degradation – even if they aren’t addressing the specific issues. If it is human nature that is the ultimate root of our environmental woes, then it makes sense that challenging those parts of human nature that are ill and savage is a step in the right direction!
Dr. Smith further states ,
“To be sure, that activism looks different from the conservation and wilderness preservation campaigns of that era: it was generally local in focus and aimed at such issues as access to urban parks and other green spaces, combating urban pollution, and protecting public health. Moreover, black activists usually framed their concerns as civil rights issues. But they are civil rights issues based on the assumption that environmental amenities and freedom from environmental harms are critical to the good life and should be available to all – an assumption that informs the contemporary environmental justice movement as well. Indeed, its sudden emergence and rapid growth in the 1980s suggests that the environmental justice movement has deep roots in black politics and black political thought, reflecting long-standing concerns for civil rights activists”
So do blacks really care?…YES!!