The Environmental Movement Needs to Reckon with Its Racist History
September 23, 2019 10:45 AM   Subscribe

Because racism in environmentalism hasn’t gone away, and it’s holding the movement back.

The founding fathers of environmentalism ranged from garden variety racists to eugenicists. Henry David Thoreau, the naturalist and abolitionist whose writings inspired Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., among others, held troubling but typical views about the inevitable demise of Native Americans. In his influential 1862 Atlantic essay “Walking,” he wrote: “I think that the farmer displaces the Indian even because he redeems the meadow, and so makes himself stronger and in some respects more natural.”

posted by poffin boffin (30 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
 
From the end of the article


But an inconvenient truth remains: climate change does not answer to racism, politics, or even justice—at least not directly. Its only principles are chemistry and physics. And this might be its greatest cruelty. Power is grazing the fingertips of people of color for the first time. But as we finally start to grasp it and change an environmental movement rooted in a racist past, science may have other designs.


In the power and essential truth of the ending of this article as quoted above, the use of the word "science" troubles me. Given the likely audience who distrust "science" as "science-as-practiced-by-dominant-groups"- it's now clear to me why.

While the use of the word "science" has a lyrical ring to it, I would have used "reality" or "the unavoidable rules of the physical world that we, no matter our intentions, culture or background, cannot escape".
posted by lalochezia at 10:59 AM on September 23, 2019 [4 favorites]


Relatedly: "There is a danger of “apocalypticism,”
In 'Bees, not refugees': the environmentalist roots of anti-immigrant bigotry (Guardian), Susie Cagle explores "‘eco-xenophobia’ – part of a tradition that dates to America’s first conservationists," noting:

[Betsy Hartmann, Hampshire College professor emerita of development studies and author of The America Syndrome: Apocalypse, War and Our Call to Greatness] warns that proclamations of looming dystopia in the form of a mass climate-caused global refugee crisis put well-intentioned environmentalists on some shared ground with fear-mongering nativists, even as they’re attempting to convey a useful urgency about the future of the planet and the disproportionate impacts of climate crisis on the developing world.
posted by katra at 11:03 AM on September 23, 2019 [5 favorites]


Dr. Sarah Taber has been providing a lot of important, free education to me, and here's a very very relevant thread touching on ecofascism, including a quote by Nils Gilman: "Look, rich white folks are used to solving their problems through theft, invasion, & mass murder. The Left needs to be proactive & not assume climate change will be any different."
posted by tclark at 11:10 AM on September 23, 2019 [33 favorites]


My reading is that science is actually very appropriate there, in a way that "reality" wouldn't be.

I read that as being about the dangers or a climate movement that is focused on the "hard science" of climate change without recognising the political factors.

That says "science" demands we can't eat meat anymore, instead of recognising that people were eating meat sustainably for thousands of years, and so we see people being targeted for exercising hunting rights and the like, instead of industrial agriculture.

Or that says the "science" has tipped, now we must no longer try and save everyone, and it's time for the arks, which we all know will be filled equitably.
posted by Acid Communist at 11:13 AM on September 23, 2019 [7 favorites]


There is definitely a strong element of white supremacy in the accelerationist camp of climate doomers. Yet another reason why the Right reflexively have tried to shut down the Green New Deal: Because of the centrality of social and economic justice embedded in it. (btw, the fantastic Rhiana Gunn-Wright, one of the key policy wonks of the GND, is very much on twitter.)
posted by gwint at 11:47 AM on September 23, 2019 [12 favorites]


The global human population has passed 7.8 billion, and this is largely due to the pesticides, fertilizers, and transportation made possible by fossil fuels.
It really isn't possible to save everyone, despite what well meaning people want to believe.
The real issue is: how do we convince people to reduce human population through equitable birth control, rather than through mass starvation and/or genocide.
There is no justice, right, or wrong in nature, only cause and effect. If we allow present trends to continue, nature will wipe people out in an extremely inequitable way, because non-white and disadvantaged people are far more vulnerable.
The privileged of the world need to radically reduce their consumption and continue to reduce their birth rates. The disadvantaged of the world need to reduce their birth rates. I realize this is not palatable to many people. Nature doesn't care.
posted by Joan Rivers of Babylon at 11:59 AM on September 23, 2019 [8 favorites]


Up here in Canada, some candidates left the NDP for the Green Party because they were worried about the "electability" of the NDP's turban-wearing Sikh leader. We can try to pin all this on the Right, but there's enough to go around and reflect about on the Left, too.

Plausible deniability for your own racism is always a vague other person's racism: "It's not that I wouldn't vote for him, but some other people probably won't..."

Of course there are always the organic apple farmer Nazis of eastern Germany...
posted by clawsoon at 12:00 PM on September 23, 2019 [3 favorites]


It is possible that people who report being concerned about environmental effects of climate change are in fact concerned about environmental effects of climate change. It is entirely appropriate to work solely on behalf of species, habitat, ecology, or other non-anthropocentric causes. If some other people want to focus on some other more "human" topics -- cultural, social, racial -- they certainly may.

Unfortunately, the goal of the article appears to be to prevent any sort of progress unless it is sufficiently "intersectional" to include every concern of Homo sapiens. If we're asked to add a focus on people we've never met, cultures we've never experienced, and histories we've never known to our already overwhelming task, many of us will choose to continue in defense of the ecosystem.
posted by unblinking at 12:30 PM on September 23, 2019 [8 favorites]


I don't even understand the last paragraph in the article. Why would science work unfavorably for people of color?
I know that every time we start talking about climate change, here or anywhere else in the world, someone will try to change the subject from fossil fuels and bad agriculture to population and there is often a racist undertone to that. But that has very little to do with science. Science is smart. Science can find ways for us all to be here without killing our habitat. 80% of the knowledge and technology we need for change to happen is already here.
Fair wages and access to sustainable produce are both good for the climate and for people of color.
Education for everyone is good for everyone, and for the climate. Access to healthcare is good for everyone and for the climate. And both of these things combined will eventually lead to the end of the population explosion we have seen during the last 200-something years.
The only thing we need to do is to find the funding for change, and the way we do that is to tax the rich. It has been done before, successfully.
posted by mumimor at 12:37 PM on September 23, 2019 [1 favorite]


mumimor: Why would science work unfavorably for people of color?

There's a long history of science being done on people of color in which they are treated with all the dignity of lab rats. There's also a long history of science being used to justify doing horrible things to people of color because science "proved" that they deserved it.

In the abstract, science is perfectly fair to everyone. Many scientists, probably most scientists, are trying very hard to help science live up to its abstract potential, and they're making it better than it was. Science is a very powerful cultural tool, though, and it's not surprising that when it does bulldoze people, on purpose or accidentally, it usually bulldozes people who aren't well-represented among scientists.
posted by clawsoon at 12:46 PM on September 23, 2019 [19 favorites]




There's a long history of science being done on people of color in which they are treated with all the dignity of lab rats.


Is that what the end quote is about?

or does it conflate "science as practiced by dominant groups" with "scientific understanding of the world"?
posted by lalochezia at 12:55 PM on September 23, 2019 [1 favorite]


Unfortunately, the goal of the article appears to be to prevent any sort of progress unless it is sufficiently "intersectional"

I’ve been thinking about this since Friday’s climate strike. There was a speaker at my local rally who specifically attacked “white male cis-het scientists”. As someone who feels we are going to need all of the scientists, even the white male cis-het ones, on our side if we’re going to get out of this mess, this really struck me the wrong way. I think both of these things are simultaneously true: 1. Climate justice is tremendously important and there are many legit grievances that need to be heard, and 2. Presenting it as this speaker did is needlessly divisive and counter-productive, and will certainly backfire if the goal is actually to help marginalized groups.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 12:58 PM on September 23, 2019 [11 favorites]


For those who value science it is sometimes difficult to admit that there are inescapable ideologic factors that inhere within both science theory and science praxis. We are conditioned to see science as a crystal-clear and irrefutable view of the world, rather than as an instrument the accuracy of which is largely dependent on the operator.
posted by No Robots at 1:03 PM on September 23, 2019 [22 favorites]


I work with a lot of very smart (often white male) people who are still not able to articulate the political and biased nature of science as currently practiced. There's a point at which white scientists like me need to realize that we're impeding progress and shouldn't be the ones leading the way when it comes to setting societal agendas. We're important parts of the solution, but we don't get to choose the direction.
posted by ChuraChura at 1:14 PM on September 23, 2019 [23 favorites]


We might need all the white male scientists. They can go get coffee and sandwiches, and do the typing.
posted by Autumnheart at 1:25 PM on September 23, 2019 [10 favorites]


Kind of weird how racism in environmentalism holds the movement back, but racism in capitalism is full speed ahead.
posted by Faint of Butt at 2:13 PM on September 23, 2019 [8 favorites]


It really isn't possible to save everyone, despite what well meaning people want to believe.

I'm sorry, but what on earth are your qualifications for making such a blithe statement? Do you work in climate science? Have you even read the IPCC reports?

To talk about how the developing world needs to reduce its population is, I'm sorry, pretty racist when an American or Australian like me emits approximately one hundred times the carbon a Nepalese person does in a year.

It's othering of people in developing nations and plays into stereotypes of uncontrollable hordes - which is nonsense as birth rates are in fact actually falling across most the developing world and access to contraception and schooling are the biggest barriers.

Agriculture will actually be more productive when destructive subsidies stop.

If you don't really know much about climate change or international development, I'd suggest doing some more reading before throwing out uninformed opinions that prop up racist and apocalyptic thinking.
posted by smoke at 2:34 PM on September 23, 2019 [37 favorites]


The real issue is: how do we convince people to reduce human population through equitable birth control, rather than through mass starvation and/or genocide.


The real issue is: how do we stop giant corporations headquartered in Europe and North America that are responsible for global climate change and the drain on resources and biodiversity and the governments who are propping them up and subsidizing them and outsourcing the "negative externalities" to the rest of the world. No need to invoke racist population bombs or eugenics-style arguments when we can see quite obviously who the actually guilty people are, and who are being scapegoated so they don't have to face consequences for their actions.
posted by ChuraChura at 2:42 PM on September 23, 2019 [37 favorites]


To talk about how the developing world needs to reduce its population is, I'm sorry, pretty racist when an American or Australian like me emits approximately one hundred times the carbon a Nepalese person does in a year.
This is a very misleading and cherry-picked statistic, which makes it seem that a tiny proportion of the world's population accounts for most of the world's carbon emissions. If you look at aggregate data, high income nations average 10.9 tons per capita, upper middle 6.5, middle 3.9, lower-middle 1.5 and low 0.3 (representing less than a tenth of the world's population). The world average is 4.9 tons per capita.

90.3% of the world's population is lower-middle or above and 50.6% is upper-middle income or above. A lot of developed nations have CO2 emissions not far from the average. For example New Zealand's emissions are 7.7 tons per capita, which is only about 50% higher than the world average. The United Kingdom's is only 6.5 and quite a few European nations are in that ballpark. Even a high emissions nation like Aussie is only 3 times the average. Pretty far from "100 times".

So yeah, developed nations do emit more CO2 on average (no surprises there) but the differences aren't nearly as high as you are trying to represent.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 3:09 PM on September 23, 2019 [4 favorites]


I like my environmental scientists the same way I like my environmental activists: fully aware of the history and philosophy of both science *and* political activism as sets of powerful, functional practices used to establish truths about the world within inescapable political contexts, and sideline other non-truths. I don’t think it’s even primarily about the demographic makeup of cohorts of scientists, it’s more fundamentally that too many overall don’t accept that science itself is just an intellectual practice. Science works bitches, but for who and for what?

‘I’m just a scientist and in it for the science’ was Werner Von Braun’s argument...
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 3:14 PM on September 23, 2019 [7 favorites]


It is not misrepresentative if someone is framing the problem as soaring populations in the developing world. Population is mostly not the issue as countries with small populations are emitting like crazy. It's consumption.
posted by smoke at 3:49 PM on September 23, 2019 [7 favorites]


Advocating a reduction in the population of non-white people isn't racist if you're also advocating a reduction in the population of white people, which I am. In fact I think a reduction in the white population is even more important because, on average, white people's incomes are higher and thus they consume more resources and create more waste.
The argument that there's "enough for all" has some pretty serious holes in it.
First, it assumes that current food production practices are stable and non-destructive, which is obviously false. Agriculture is one of the greatest destroyers of wildlife habitat, polluters of water, and creators of greenhouse gases on the planet. Fewer people would need less food, thus less destruction. This is not a racist argument.
Second, even if there were enough food for all right now (at 7.8 billion), that's no guarantee at all that there will be enough when the population continues to grow to 9, 10, or 11 billion.
Third, advocating for a reduction in human population is not mutually exclusive with fighting for more equitable economics and a reduction in consumption and waste in more privileged countries. If you're saying we should tax the rich, I absolutely agree. If you're saying that the rich are too rich and the poor are too poor, I absolutely agree. I also believe in population control. The idea that these positions are in contradiction is a recent and weird development, and it's not helping anything.
Fourth and most importantly, we need to examine the question "how many humans can the planet support?" Why are we even asking this question? There is no good reason to have more humans in the world. There is every reason to have more of all the species that we are currently driving to extinction.
I can't see how it's doing the downtrodden of the world any favors to ignore the issue of overpopulation. Studies have repeatedly shown that, given the chance, most poor women would have fewer children. Advocating free and safe birth control for everyone is good for the planet and good for humans as well. I totally fail to see how this is racist. Maybe I'm just stupid.
posted by Joan Rivers of Babylon at 3:53 PM on September 23, 2019 [5 favorites]


Unfortunately, the goal of the article appears to be to prevent any sort of progress unless it is sufficiently "intersectional" to include every concern of Homo sapiens. If we're asked to add a focus on people we've never met, cultures we've never experienced, and histories we've never known to our already overwhelming task, many of us will choose to continue in defense of the ecosystem.

Right. Sure. Except:

From the article:
According to the 2014 Green 2.0 report, people of color comprise 36 percent of the U.S. population, but account for only 12 percent of the staff of environmental organizations. A 2019 update shows that diversity has actually declined in recent years.

Access, meanwhile, has done little to advance environmental good. Even though green groups have a collective annual budget of over $500 million—significantly more than the Koch network’s $400 million—they have been largely outflanked by polluting industries and the right-wing.
Along with:
Where data, maps, and litigation blazed a trail, a movement followed. In 1982, the predominantly Black, poor, and rural residents of Warren County, North Carolina took a stand against a PCB oil dump in their community. Schoolchildren were arrested for laying their bodies in front of trucks carrying oil. National organizations such as the NAACP, United Church, and Congressional Black Caucus stepped up. “If you look at some of those photographs and some of that footage, and if you look at what was happening in Standing Rock—that was a microcosm or smaller or earlier version of people saying no,” said Bullard. Similar protests challenging instances of environmental racism began coalescing across the country.
So basically what I'm seeing is a bunch of white people turning away POC who want to save the world too because of, I dunno, the need to put shitty scare quotes around words like intersectionality.
posted by mordax at 4:11 PM on September 23, 2019 [22 favorites]


Here's a good summary of why environmentalist concerns about population are (often) masking racism! And here's another one.

Very little of the current agriculturally-driven habitat destruction in the developing world is actually related to feeding people in the countries losing habitat. Agriculture causing deforestation in, say, Indonesia, is not clearing orangutan habitat to feed a burgeoning Indonesian population. Instead, it's clearing orangutan habitat to plant more palm oil plantations to fill the global demand for palm oil. Agriculture causing deforestation in Cote d'Ivoire is not clearing rainforest for small scale subsistence farming. It's clearing rainforest to convert that land to cacao and rubber plantations to fill the global demand for chocolate and rubber. Agriculture causing deforestation in Brazil is for beef (for global meat markets) and palm oil and corn (for global biofuel). Resource extraction from the global south to the global north is responsible for agricultural deforestation, not growing populations.

Advocate for women's education. Advocate increased access to health care of all sorts. Advocate for changes in global economic systems so that people can intensify local agricultural production and plant crops to feed their families rather than to sell for cash. There are all sorts of ways to advocate for improvement in peoples' conditions and a more equitable and productive use of land that is currently being used non-productively in order to protect increasingly vulnerable biodiversity. But advocating for birth control so that Those Downtrodden People control their population ... that's racist.
posted by ChuraChura at 4:22 PM on September 23, 2019 [28 favorites]


Thanks for the link, which said pretty much the same thing I was saying:

"Luckily, we know the answer. It is family planning that enables women to have only children they want and choose, and education of girls, giving them access to income opportunities outside the home. We know that women, given the resources and the choice, will opt for smaller families."

"Another way to approach the problem would be, rather than prevent the birth of extremely wealthy people, prevent the creation of extremely wealthy people. In other words, prevent the accumulation of massive wealth. You could do that by, for instance, taxing the shit out of wealthy people."
posted by Joan Rivers of Babylon at 5:28 PM on September 23, 2019 [10 favorites]


From ChuraChura's second article:
In fact, the poorest half of the global population, some 3.5 billion people, are responsible for only around 10% of global emissions (while living overwhelmingly in the countries most vulnerable to climate change). The richest 10% of people in the world are responsible for around 50% of global emissions.
It's clear to me we should be spending way more time discussing how to deal with the richest 10% before even getting to the topic of population control. Dispassionate or neutral ways of saying, "we can't save everyone," just read, "we can't save POC," to my by brown, US citizen ears. Obviously not what people in this thread are going for. Here's how I'd put things instead:

We'll save as many as we can and do our damnedest to ensure we invest in all communities struggling against climate change. We must ensure the tools of science are being directed toward the survival of all and not just the rich or powerful. We know rich nations have contributed most to global warming over the last century, so we will take responsibility by reducing our own emissions rapidly and assist other nations in similar efforts. We will not foist our tailing ponds or nuclear waste or oil pipelines on poor communities or black communities or indigenous communities. We will work to bolster the education of women across the world. We will find ways to improve quality of life that are carbon neutral or carbon sequestering. We will not build a wall to keep migrants out because of our own short shortsightedness and greed. In fact, we'll pay anyone who is willing to work on renewable infrastructure, in EV production, or sustainable carbon sequestering agriculture. We will lose some people... many people, but it won't be for apathy or hatred or lack of trying. We'll do this together or we'll be doomed together.
posted by Mister Cheese at 9:37 PM on September 23, 2019 [21 favorites]


[One deleted; we've got articles and actual Mefites in the thread saying there are problems with racism in the environmental movement and that there are reasons why general "overpopulation" rhetoric often comes across as racist. Don't just deny there could be a problem, or act like people are making this up; that's not a useful way to engage.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:25 PM on September 23, 2019 [15 favorites]




A sampling of the Europe-wide FFF participation earlier in the year, including the first, huge, Global Strike for Future March 15, showed around 70% girls. (As is typical for Europe, no data on ethnicity).
posted by progosk at 11:41 PM on September 24, 2019


I did a bit of hunting about the IPCC, as I was fairly certain that it was good on hiring diversely. I found this in the Terms of Reference for one of the task groups:

3.3 TG-DATA will be composed of approximately 12 members, but not more than 15. The
composition of the TG-DATA shall aim to reflect to the extent possible:
a) the range of scientific, technical and socio-economic views and expertise as needed to fulfil
its role and responsibilities;
b) geographical representation, experts from developed and developing countries and from
countries with economies in transition,
c) a mixture of experts with and without previous experience in IPCC;
d) gender balance;
e) experts with a background from relevant stakeholder and user groups.
3.4 The TG-DATA shall have two Co-Chairs with suitable experience, one from a developed
country and another from a developing country/EIT. At least one of the Co-Chairs should preferably
be female.


This is an analysis on the diversity of authors for the AR6, due out in 2022. And Working group 2 is specifically tasked with considering gender roles and ethnic groups, as well as the regional specific effects of climate change.
posted by kjs4 at 7:58 PM on September 26, 2019 [2 favorites]


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