clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The face of environmentalism isn’t so white anymore. That’ll define its success today.

Environmentalism is more compelling when it’s inclusive.

protest
The People’s Climate March was one of the most diverse showings of any environmental event in US history.
Becker1999/Flickr

The People’s Climate March on Saturday was an arresting demonstration of fear and angst. Tens of thousands of people descended upon Washington, DC (and 370 other cities), to wave banners and pound their drums, with one clear message for the Trump administration: Your attitude toward the environment is reprehensible, and your policies will do great harm.

The march had many of the familiar features of tree-hugger gatherings — Mother Earth imagery, street performers on stilts, drums. But there was also evidence of something newer: Big Green environmental groups centering the needs of communities vulnerable to climate change, inspired in part by the intersectional sensibility that helped propel the January Women’s March to success.

In their early years, the iconic institutions of the environmental movement — the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the Natural Resource Defense Council — focused on the white elite for support and outreach.

“Big Green tend to be majority white; they haven’t been representative or present in vulnerable communities,” Catherine Flowers told me. She’s executive director and founder of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, a group that has tackled the risks of raw sewage to low-income communities. She marched on Saturday with Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project.

High-profile politicians and the typical (white) faces of climate change activists — Gore, author Bill McKibben, Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes, Leonardo DiCaprio — were present at the march, but in the wings. Instead, the spotlight was on the Standing Rock Sioux, who pushed back against the Dakota Access pipeline last year; Gulf Coast residents like Cherri Foytlin of Bold Louisiana whose home is literally being washed away; and Miami activists fighting climate gentrification — in other words, people for whom environmental destruction is an immediate danger.

“The first people marching at the People’s Climate March were people of color,” said Felipe Benítez, a consultant who helps green groups engage with Latinos. “It was Black Lives Matter marching with Latinos, such a beautiful sight. This is what the environmental movement needs to look like.”

Though “environmental justice” has been around since the 1980s, activists say there’s been a problem with “tokenization” — where black and brown faces would only be brought out briefly for events without any long-term investment in their issues. Another example of short-term interest: groups parachuting into a community before an election to rally the base around a dramatic local environmental plight.

Only recently have minority activists started to feel like Big Green was creating genuine points of connection and collaboration with them — and were willing to share power equally.

Two events in 2016 seemed to have helped accelerate the shift. One was the success of the Dakota Access pipeline protest — which allied a wide array of minority-focused groups in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and attracted widespread media attention. “The difference now is that we have a generation that has woke because of Standing Rock,” Faith Spotted Eagle, a tribe member from Yankton, South Dakota, said at the march. “There’s been a rebirth and a new awareness that it’s just not a native issue.”

The second was the election of Donald Trump, whose swift moves to cut funding to the Environmental Protection Agency, politicize grantmaking, and deny the science of climate change — not to mention his disparaging remarks about immigrants and inner-city black communities — have roused people into opposition.

When it came time for the climate march organizers to prepare for April 29, Benítez, who helped advise them, says the goal was clear. “Organizers wanted to put out in front those communities that are more affected and traditionally underrepresented— indigenous people, immigrants. It was a very strategic choice,” he said. (The lead up to the Women’s March in January also saw disparate activists converging around the idea of intersectional feminism, which made the march far more inclusive, and far more successful.)

One activist who addressed the press conference was Kilan Ashad-Bishop, a doctoral student in cancer biology and a member of the City of Miami Sea-Level Rise Committee, where she advocates for low-income people being priced out of their homes and forced to move from high ground to low ground where they’ll be more at risk of flooding. “If there isn’t a woman who looks like me at the table, you’re doing it wrong,” she said.

The Marshall Islands are now subject to frequent floods due to sea level rise and climate change.
Eliza Barclay/Vox

What also makes Ashad-Bishop and Flowers such valuable voices is their ability to present the deeper problems of structural inequality and institutional racism, which explain why some communities are disproportionately affected and vulnerable to pollution and the effects of climate change.

Arguably, the evolution of the environmental movement into a more mature and sophisticated environmental justice movement has been in the works for a long time. In a December essay in the Atlantic, Duke law professor Jedediah Purdy argued:

For decades, environmentalism and what we now call environmental justice were deeply intertwined. Care for the earth and for vulnerable human communities belonged together. Empowering workers, protecting public health, and preserving landscapes were part of a single effort. ... There’s no need for environmentalists to stop being experts, or to abandon the institutions and establishment alliances they have painstakingly built up over decades. But they should be clear that their mission is more than technical. They are working to defend a living world that is under assault at every point, from the global climate to the most vulnerable communities. Economic power, racial inequality, and the struggles of indigenous peoples are not optional or supplemental. They are at the heart of the work.

Indeed, the politics of climate change remain incredibly challenging; the Trump administration and many Republicans in Congress continue to push the fallacious narrative that they can save coal and coal will save America. Grassroots efforts can feel futile when Trump is considering pulling the US out of the Paris climate agreement.

But there is evidence that the political opposition — in the form of protests, phone calls, and other forms of direct pressure — is working on plenty of other issues when the human stakes are super clear (see the Muslim ban). And activists told me they’re ready to push hard to protect vulnerable communities and promote renewable energy at the local and national level — in town halls and courtrooms, and around next year’s midterm elections.

The People’s Climate March clarified the human stakes of climate change: There is much more suffering in store for the most vulnerable Americans who lack the ability to retreat in the face of danger. But it also suggested that Purdy’s vision is not a pipe dream. The environmental movement can flex political power not just by communicating the science of climate change but by defending the people for whom the consequences will be gravest.

Thanks to my colleague Brian Resnick, who contributed reporting from the march.

Further reading:

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.