In 1992, local community members and environmental organizations formed a coalition in Halifax County, North Carolina. Their goals centered around preventing more hog factories from taking up residence in the area (Allen, Daro and Holland, 2007 pg. 121). The group’s first task in addition to identifying the demands of the group, was to come up with a name. The two names suggested were Help Environmental Loss Prevention (H.E.L.P), which was introduced by a white environmentalist, and Swine Habitat Is Terrible (S.H.I.T), which was popular among the African American members (Allen, Daro and Holland, 2007 pg. 121).
While all participants agreed that the further animal agriculture development would be detrimental to the environment, a divide emerged in identifying the most pressing needs in the group. For the white members, much of the focus centered around protection of water spaces that were used for recreation and the negative effect the hog production could have on the aesthetic quality of the land. The African Americana members viewed further agricultural development as something which would negatively affect the quality of life and health of community members (Allen, Daro and Holland, 2007 pg. 122). One of the activists was particularly succinct in articulating the racial and economic divide amongst the groups. “Most of the whites are concerned about the surface waters because it is recreation for them. And those of us who live in rural communities are more concerned about the ground water because it is life for us… (Allen, Daro and Holland, 2007 pg. 122).
On the surface, the priorities and desires of environmental organizations and environmental justice activists could be viewed as parallel or overlapping. Clean water, clean air, and a focus on raising awareness of environmental issues are important in both camps. However, a split occurs when the priorities of historically white and masculine organizations such as The Sierra Club and Earth First! are examined in conjunction with the needs and desires of environmental justice organizations. The division between traditional environmental groups and the grass roots movements of environmental justice activists centers around the ways each group defines “environment”. For large and well-funded organizations, the tenor of concern is placed around a desire to protect, preserve and restore pristine spaces or protection of species habitats. Conversely, many environmental justice organizations primary concern is the health and well-being of their communities. To better support environmental justice in communities, the notion of “the environment” must be reassessed in the mission statements of large environmental organizations. In this paper, I argue the next phase of environmentalism in this country will have less to do with the preservation of pristine spaces, and more to do with kitchen tables and urban cores.
What is an Environmentalist anyway?
Growing up to me, a white girl from Oklahoma, the word “environmentalist” meant exactly one thing. Hippy. And not in a nice way. Social cues from family and peers constructed my perception of an environmentalist, and while I happily took the moniker, to this day I struggle with the negative connotation the word holds in my mind. In the same manner my perception of the term was shaped by my environment (ha!), so has the connotation meandered in the consciousness of communities of color often, however, with less jovial and flippant acceptance. Glenice Baker, A participant in Allen Daro and Holland’s late 1990’s interview series recalled what ‘being an environmentalist’ meant to her.
… the word “environment had been more or less co-opted by the environmentalists. But people began to see their environment completely differently. And the idea that the environment was, in the holistic sense, you say it in terms of not wilderness, and not of whales, but the air over your head, and the asthma patient down the block …(Allen, Daro and Holland, 2007 pg. 110).
To Ms. Baker, environmentalism was not something accessible to her, or her community. So, when an issue arose that threatened the health of her family, she did not immediately identify with traditional notions of “hippy” environmentalists. To her, the idea that a space she may never see could hold more value than the land and air directly around her and her family every day was a logical impasse. On the other hand, the message of large scale environmental organizations often center around the preservation and protection of large “beautiful” spaces; spaces generally used for recreation and leisure. In the United States, these organizations have been notoriously occupied by white men, who possessed the time and money required to care for spaces in which they did not directly reside (Domosh and Seagar 2001, pg.190). This conception of the “environment” as strictly applying to some and not all areas, hinders the inclusion of minority and impoverished communities’ experiences in the identification and discussion of environmental issues.
How could two such differing views of the same word exist in the minds of individuals? One answer may lay in the classist and racialized distribution of environmental hazards in our country. Upon close inspection of any environmental ill in the United States, correlations between the proximity of hazardous disposal areas and industry to impoverished communities becomes clear (Allen, Daro and Holland, 2007 pg.113). These areas are exposed to hazards wealthier, and whiter communities would never abide (Verchick, 2004 pg. 64). The absence of interest, and by default political power, these spaces hold in the public sphere has pushed many individuals impacted in these areas to take up arms so to speak, in defense of their home environment.
Justice versus environmentalism – Does a divide exist?
You would be hard pressed to find a self-proclaimed environmentalist declare apathy to the very real concerns environmental justice organizations. However, the perception of the environmental movement as a “white” space by low-income communities has led to a disconnect in goals, and a sentiment of frustration on the part of environmental justice advocates. To address this divide, Dr. Peter Wentz, a noted environmental ethicist and philosopher, discussed several notions of perceived conflict between environmentalism and justice (Wentz, 2007 pg. 57). Wentz concedes environmental policies can increase instances of injustice in communities of color, but opts to exclude that component from his analysis. Instead, the focus of the arguments center around his claim that no intentional harm is incurred on low income communities.
Throughout the essay, Wentz makes points on various issues illustrating the manner in which environmental movements and advocacy have impacted poor communities, and argues these policies “generally help poor people most” (Wentz, 2007 pg. 64). Wentz’s analysis revolves around the necessity of environmentalists to further support preservation and protection of our environment. Throughout the paper, he directly addresses claims launched against environmental organizations in defense of poor communities. Some such claims include: attempts to curb global warming harm the poor (pg. 58); attempts to combat overpopulation harm the poor (pg. 59); and attempts to promote animal welfare harm the poor (pg. 63). In each instance, Wentz outlines his personal views on how these issues, which are presented as common arguments, actually do more to assist global impoverished communities than harm.
By addressing issues that some members of the environmental justice community may see as regressive on the part of environmentalists in the United States, Wentz constructs a succinct and compelling case. He argues that while goals posed by environmentalists and environmental justices advocates may not always directly align, continued efforts in the environmental organizations have benefits that can be directly perceived by poor communities (Wentz, 2007 pg. 67). Examples include movements to expand the reach of renewable energy or access to fresh food; both spurred by environmentalists; and the potential positive effects in low income communities (Wentz, 2007 pg. 69). However, as nice as it would be to assume business as usual is best – not because it is the best path forward for everyone, but because people will benefit no matter what we do- seems a little misguided.
What I feel Dr. Wentz misses in his analysis of the issues that divide environmentalists and environmental justice advocates in the United States, (apart from systemic racism in the country which he chose to eliminate in his analysis), are the externalities incurred in the political economy of production and consumption in all countries in the world. Wealthier countries consumptive behavior is directly responsible for the practice of the “spatial fix”. Appropriation of the hazards associated with production and consumption are often moved to areas with less political influence and power, a fact that is willingly preyed upon by industry. If the fix occurs in our country or another is irrelevant. Poor communities, regardless of location, are disproportionality vulnerable to the constant struggle to maintain a global growth based economy (Verchick 2004, pg. 64).
Kitchen Table Environmentalism
Due to socially normalized notions of “women’s spaces” (Domosh and Seagar, 2001 pg. 2), women are often the first line of defense against ailments and irregularities that may befall their family. In low income areas and communities of color, these defenders assume a secondary, and often far more crucial role, that of the advocate and protector against the harms that can befall families from external forces. Women have assumed the role in instance after instance of taking up the reigns and raising their voices in pursuit of justice for their communities. If environmental organizations were as benevolent as Dr. Wentz would have us believe, why are these women still fighting alone? The answer is the divide that between environmentalists and justice is wide because it requires a certain status to attain admittance to traditional environmental organizations. To even become a “member” of some environmental organizations requires a monetary contribution, dues, which may not be a large dollar amount to some, but could lead others feeling they do not belong based on that issue alone. The financial division between self-proclaimed environmentalists and those fighting for the protection of their lives and families illustrates significant conceptual and socio-economic disparity in representation. For this reason, among others, individuals, again often women, take an alternative route to resolve issues in their areas.
Women led coalitions have contributed to community led modifications to corporate and political employment of the spatial fix in the United States and other countries. From Love Canal and Silent Spring to “Mothers of East Los Angeles”, women have led the way in tackling large-scale environmental hazards head on (Verchick, 2004 pg. 63). By appropriating spaces and members of the communities they are comfortable with, women and men around the world have made monumental differences in the community health and environment, despite the corporate interests vested in industries. This method of “kitchen table environmentalism” has progressed into the environmental justice movement we are familiar with.
In addition to the perception of exclusion some communities feel from conventional environmentalism, communities exposed to a disproportionate number of environmental hazards also experience an elevated perception of risk in their environments. People of color and women in particular are more familiar with experiencing the world as a threatening place. When a person had experienced the oversights common in a white patriarchal society, (example include victim shaming in instances of sexual assault or in efforts to address instances of asthma in low income communities), the heightened perception of risk becomes more understandable (Verchicik, 2004 pg. 72). Women have pulled together to address issues that directly affect their families and environments, in part because the feel a heightened sense of risk, but also due to an absolute lack of faith that anyone will come to assist them. With such division, and in some instances distrust, I ask whether a successful integration of the concerns of environmental justice activists in to conventional environmentalism has occurred (Faber, 2007 pg. 135).
A path forward
The commonwealth of Massachusetts experienced its fair share of environmental injustices in low income communities, as is common in so many other areas. Since World War II, policies and racial biases have impressed unfair environmental burdens on specific spaces (Farber, 2007 pg. 137). White flight, capitalizatized on low property value by industry, and racialized segregation of housing areas exacerbated the condition to a critical tipping point (Farber, 2007 pg. 137). By 1980, the city of Boston experienced a loss of over 200,000 citizens (Farber, 2007 pg. 137), many of which were middle and upper class white individuals. The combination of these issues led to a majority population consisting of low income people of color for the first time in the city’s history (Farber, 2007, pg. 137, 140). Symptomatic ailments of poverty and exploitation became synonymous with Boston’s core.
Residents were not ignorant to the changes occurring in their communities, and some organizations took it upon themselves to become directly involved with community environmental justice advocacy groups. They sought to draft inclusive environmental policies that would revitalize, re-envision and above all support communities experiencing the most detrimental health impacts of racial and economic based zoning policies (Farber, 2004 pg. 140). Intersectional environmentalism meant not only were community members’ concerns given teeth on a policy level, but the relationships between those members and the environmentalists were strengthened. The group’s efforts spanned multiple grassroots organizations, and led to the development of inclusive policy, ultimately benefiting all members of the common wealth of Massachusetts and the Boston core.
Boston’s example provides the framework that can be employed at the community level and effectively scaled up. Ultimately, the goals of environmentalists and environmental justice advocates align, but careful recognition of the social, political, and economic disparities amongst the groups must be directly addressed, as opposed to assuming business as usual environmentalism will have blanket benefits for all parties.
There is no easy answer to bridging the divide in environmentalism in this country. The issues intertwined with conceptions of environmentalism are deeply ingrained in social and racial identities, and are not immediately malleable. However, I do not feel presenting arguments similar to Wentz which defend the status quo represents the most prudent path forward. Instead, applying pressure to environmental organizations in hopes of forcing a more inclusive and intersectional vision of the environment could at least assist in forging a path. Following the example of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, other communities, municipalities and organizations could make constructive headway toward a new notion of environmentalism. One which was not necessarily stigmatized as “hippy” or “white’, but one whose focus is on inclusiveness, attentiveness, and accessibility for everyone, no matter the location or status.
Allen, K., Daro, V., and Holland, D.C. (2007). Becoming an Environmental Justice Activist, in Sandler R. and Perzzullo P.C (ED) Environmental Justice and Environmentalism (PP. 105 -134) Cambridge, MA. The MIT Press.
Domosh, M., Seager, J. (2001). Putting Women in Place, Feminist Geographers Making Sense of the World. New York, NY. The Guilford Press.
Faber, D. (2007). A more “Productive” Environmental Justice Politics, in Sandler R. and Perzzullo P.C (ED) Environmental Justice and Environmentalism (PP. 105 -134) Cambridge, MA. The MIT Press.
Verchick, R.R. (2004). Feminist Theory and Environmental Justice, in Newman, M. K., Lucas, A., LaDuke, W., Berila, B., Di Chiro, G., Gaard, G., … & Sze, J (ED) New perspectives on environmental justice: Gender, sexuality, and activism. Rutgers University Press.
Wenz P.S (2007) Does environmentalism Promote Injustice for the Poor in Sandler R. and Perzzullo P.C (ED) Environmental Justice and Environmentalism (PP. 57 – 83) Cambridge, MA. The MIT Press.