Once upon a Colonial Time: The Story of White Environmentalism

Patagonia and Blundstone clad, mason jar toting activists make up the image of the environmentalist today. Stereotypical? Yes. But true? Also yes. White, college educated, and middle class– these are the individuals who have come to represent the majority of the environmentalist movement. 

As we learn to maneuver our lives through a COVID-19 ridden reality, we cannot forget a vital point. This pandemic is as similarly rife with racism and inequality as the environmentalist movement and natural disasters are today. Where climate change movements neglect the histories and needs of black, inidgenous, and people of color (BIPOC), COVID-19 unjustly wreaks havoc on their health and lives. The same privilege which cushions some communities with safety renders other communities unprepared and on the fringes of life and death. 

The mid-through late 70s was highlighted by a spike in environmentalist movements. However, this surge in environmental activism was only the successor of an earlier, white-centric conversationalist tilted movement, the Progressive Era. Spearheaded by racists like Madison Grant, the Sierra Club, and other initiatives like it,  blatantly cultivated an exclusive environmentalism. Wildlife and parks were conserved for their aristocratic and noble qualities. Issues of “the urban poor” were unanimously unacknowledged by Sierra Club members. No minorities or indegnous people were included. 

This racist history has come at the cost of the participation and acknowledgement of other voices and peoples. Non-whites “reported higher concern for the environment than whites.” Ethnic groups underestimate their corresponding group’s concern for the environment. But, they overestimate that of whites. 

Thus, the self fulfilling prophecy of white environmentalism has manifested in a hesitancy in BIPOC to participate. 

Of the most egregious farces is the lack of acknowledgement of land ownership. All the land we walk on today was violently taken away from one indigenous tribe or another. Bard College itself, and most of the surrounding Hudson Valley, lies on what once was the land of the Mohican people. Confrontation of the colonial conception of this land and country, and the robbing of Native American livelihoods and futures, remains invisible. How can we properly address all of the remaining lack of representation in the movement today without first holding ourselves accountable?

And so the environmentalist movement is built upon a foundation of irreparable violent exclusion that has seeped into its present form. Predominantly white, it excludes not just most minorities, but also Native American populations from the environmental fight. Said crucial population has historically placed environmental preservation at the forefront of its cultural values. In not acknowledging its injustices towards the Native Americans of this country, the movement has found ease in dismissing its injustices towards other minority populations.

Contemporary environmentalists are not to blame for the plight of Native Americans today. But should they continue to neglect Native Americans from their fight, they will perpetuate hegemonic ideologies of capitalism, colonialism and exclusionary power. Hegemony, a concept defined by sociologist Antonio Gramsci, details state dominance of a people through cultural, ideological and moral means. To understand the white environmentalist movements’ perpetuation of injustice, we must understand the unequal powers at play. 

Several studies point to the extremely poor quality of life found on federal Indian reservations. Natives are living in squalor. Many homes on reservations, like the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, do not have access to running water or electricity. Natives suffer from diabetes, alchoholism, and are more prone to suicide. The list can go on. Federally subsidized food is often of lesser quality, which contributes to the failing health of many Natives. The unemployment rate on some reservations is upwards of 80%. Overcrowding due to state subsidized inadequate housing is a common occurrence. The suicide rate on reservations like Pine Ridge is a horrifyingly high 82%. 

White, middle class environmental activists fight for things like a near comical recycling industry. There are bright plans to plant 1 trillion trees to reverse a decade’s worth of CO2 emissions. Yet, issues of Native life quality, and access to clean water, air and land conveniently fly under the radar.  The environmentalist movement also neglects to address Native American environmentalist activism. Indigenous groups suffer from exclusion in all aspects of their lives. Not only are they excluded from the right to basic human necessities, like health care and housing, but their environmental activism is equally excluded from mainstream society.

As white environmentalists fight to save the climate, they neglect to fight to save Native American land. They neglect to fight for Native American lives, which are slowly withering away on decrepit reservations. They neglect the rightful inhabitants of the environment they fight for today. A colonial trend of environmental destruction, and reconstruction, underlies the entirety of the movement. Our government and especially President of the United States, blatantly allow this inequality to continue. Hegemonic leadership institutes policies which further the obliteration of these populations and their wellbeing. Trump recently approved the Dakota Access Pipeline permit. With his approval is the consent to further obliterate Native American livelihood and existence.

A Native American Rights Fund Attorney released a statement in the fight against the Pipeline. There was virtually no consideration given to the effects of the Pipeline on the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s water system and hunting and fishing rights. There is massive potential for oil spills and plenty more issues could ensue.  Indiginous activists opposed the potential for water contamination, displacement, and destruction of sacred land and habitats. Various laws, like the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, were violated in allowing for construction of the pipeline. 

Natives do not consent to their unlawful segregation. Neither do they consent to the violation of what little land they do still lay claim to. But, they do fight back. Numerous protests against the proposed Dakota Pipeline showcase the resilience of Native populations. In March of 2017, a four day protest against the Dakota access pipeline consisted of a mile march to the Capital and protests in front of the White House. 

Astonishingly enough, Sioux Tribe efforts succeeded in an unprecedented way: as of March 25th, 2020, federal court in the District of Columbia “revoked the pipeline permit and ordered a full environmental review.”  This is a grand victory for Native American tribes and supporters alike. To some capacity, the federal government has recognized the violation of health and life that the pipeline posed to Native communities and land. In no way a righting of many wrongs, the reconsideration of the pipeline is a reconsideration of the importance of Native American lives and wellbeing. 

In the wake of a new Native American victory, a global pandemic has arisen in tandem with our current climate crises. COVID-19 has uprooted the life and human relations we all thought we knew. With over 926,000 worldwide deaths and counting, it is no surprise the pandemic is affecting the urban poor the hardest, especially in the United States, and places like New York City. Blacks and Latinos continue to be affected by COVID-19 at a disproportionate rate to their White and Asian counterparts, inside and outside of NYC. 

Native American tribes and populations have long suffered from higher than average rates of diabetes and heart disease on dilapidated reservations. Cramped living spaces and an underfunded healthcare system also render Natives an especially vulnerable population to COVID-19. Although many tribes have called into strict effect stay-at-home and social distancing orders, infection rates remain higher than the media have scantily let on. Data on COVID-19 deaths and cases have largely excluded Native American lives lost and affected. The Navajo Nation, occupying parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico is taking a harsh beating. As of May 24th, the Navajo Nation had the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the US.

COVID-19 is increasingly bringing to light the pre-existing gaps that shape our society and movements today. The Virus functions in the same way that climate change does: affecting those with the least resources. As Michael Blake, an Assemblyman representing the Bronx, recently commented, COVID-19 is a “pandemic of poverty.” The colonial spool of environmental destruction has unraveled to reveal itself in a new shape. Inequalities that have remained since the dawn of colonialism have only been highlighted and reified in recents days, in thanks to COVID-19. 

One can draw a clear line between the emergence of such a pandemic and its impacts on climate change. Interestingly enough, COVID-19 outbreaks all over the globe have brought our human worlds to a pause: less production, less movement, less interaction. Streets, the sky, sidewalks, all swept clean of footfall or traffic. Yet, in many cases, the non-human world is thriving– some parts of the world even seeing climate recovery. For example, carbon emissions in places like the UK, China and Germany have decreased in record breaking ways. The fossil fuel industry has temporarily crippled as car sales, car usage and plane ticket sales have also crippled. Nonetheless, Native Americans and people of color remain to be the most neglected yet affected communities by climate change, pandemics, and environmental poverty. 

Natural disasters underway today reveal how these groups are continuously affected. Hurricane Laura’s sweeping destruction across the industrial power plant littered Louisiana coast is obliterating none other than vulnerable communities of color, like Mossville and Lake Charles. Wildfires in California and Oregon and their levels of smoke continue to worsen the air quality of already at risk regions, occupied predominantly by low-income people. Minority communities are repeatedly placed in close proximity to chemical waste and sites of air pollution. This is indicative of the worth given to low-income non-white lives. Corporations repeatedly position their polluting factories, warehouses and more in majority poor, BIPOC communities. Natural disasters like Hurricane Laura only continue to feed the flame of poor environmental quality of life for said populations. 

We at Bard can start small by facing the fact of the matter. We live on stolen land and need to acknowledge this inside and outside of a classroom setting more often. We need to be cognizant of the fundamental inequalities built into our studies of the environment. Programs like Environmental and Urban Studies (EUS) recognize a need to pivot away from an environmentalism intrinsically steeped in a white, cis-male privilege. 

Speaking to Elias Dueker, EUS Program Director, I learned more about the steps being taken to confront environmental racism on-campus and in the department. Dueker, along with other faculty, across two thirds of the divisions on-campus, like Myra Arsmtead, Vice President for Academic Inclusive Excellence, as well as students, like Julia Golinger ‘21 and Damaris Borden ‘20, have recently formed an EUS Racism Working Group. Through online workshops and meetings, Dueker and attendees are able to question and discuss accountability of themselves, institutions, and programs for the role they play in unwillingly upholding certain power dynamics. Meetings have focused on centering “environmental justice in the classroom,” Dueker said. There has been a critical rethinking of core classes, with many EUS classes classifying as Engaged Liberal Arts and Science (ELAS) courses. This furthers the practice of centralizing race, gender and class in discussions of environmentalism. EUS 309, an ELAS course, is an example of the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of EUS. This course deconstructs a map as a tool tied to colonial power; it draws on Native American scholarship and has invited four indigenous scholars and activists as guest speakers, like Bonney Hartley of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans. 

Dueker spoke to the fact that there is no way forward in the environmental movement unless we as humans can confront its racist and classist past and present. Conversations have pushed students to take more creative action, Dueker observed. Being aware is the first step in the right direction. But, “There is hope in working together to make change… We do have the power to work together,” he said. By asking what is climate change and who it affects, we can begin to understand the privileged tinge of the movement. And so, the environmentalist movement must address “its troubling history of inherited colonialism, racism, and exclusion” before moving ahead to save the world.  

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