The Trouble with Environmentalism

by Christina Ospina, ’12


Being “green” is one of the sexiest trends that has arisen in the past several years, made popular largely by increasing concerns over Climate Change.  People want to buy clothes made from organic cotton, use biodegradable laundry detergent, eat free-range chicken, invest in solar energy, and protest to save polar bears.  But we must ask: who are the people behind this movement?  Realistically, someone struggling to pay rent might not feel compelled to invest in solar power to avoid using electricity generated from coal-fired plants.  Today, the American environmentalist movement’s biggest challenge isn’t Climate Change, it isn’t over-fishing, it’s not rainforest degradation, and it’s not it industrialized agriculture; the main obstacle the environmentalism faces is transforming into a movement for all socio-economic levels.  Environmentalism shouldn’t be a movement for the privileged, it should be integrated in all levels and all communities that comprise the American population.

Historically, lower classes and minorities have been left out or overlooked in American environmental and conservation movements.  Just look back at the emergence of conservation with the Romantic movement in the mid 1800s, with influential figures such as Roosevelt,  Muir and Thoreau, who evoked imagery of the sublime in their writing and praised the powerful beauty of wilderness.  In “The Trouble With Wilderness,” William Cronon explains that the figures at the forefront of this movement to create pristine parks or escapes from the crowds and bustle of city life generally came from “elite class backgrounds”, and the “very men who most benefited from urban-industrial capitalism were among those who believed they must escape its debilitating effects.”  Later, in the 1960s there was a resurgence in environmental concerns – in response to Carson’s Silent Spring and population growth – and civil rights activist Van Jones describes this movement as led by predominantly white, affluent leaders.  While positive changes in policy development, such as the creation of the Clean Air Act and the EPA, emerged, this movement “developed huge blind spots” to poor and minority communities facing serious pollution problems.  From this re-emergence in efforts of environmental protection concerns, a new field of environmentalism also arose – environmental justice.  Jones explains that this field is not integrated into the mainstream movement to be environmentally conscious, but that it functions separately. creating “an environmental movement that is segregated by race.”  Minorities and those who are less wealthy should not have to rely on a separate branch of environmentalism to ensure that they are not completely left out of the green movement.  Instead, they should be embraced by the green movement, and this is the main challenge we now face.

This trend of classism and elitism within environmental activism seems to be persisting from historical events.  Many impoverished or non-white communities suffer from overlooked challenges of polluted and neglected neighborhoods, costly “green” products (if they are even available), and inadequate information about how to adopts environmentally conscious practices.  Today, the ideal image of a sustainable city is filled with farmer’s markets and electric vehicles – two popular developments with low financial accessibility.  Granted, environmentalism does not have to be expensive; there are many in-home changes people can make to reduce their carbon footprint – but how well is this information circulated?  Do minorities and non-affluent citizens feel connected to environmental issues?  Countless cases seem to reiterate the idea that only certain people are welcome in the realm of environmentalism.  For example, major conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy are traditionally led by white, affluent members, and these groups have done little to diversify their workforce.  Looking more closely at California, environmentalism has actually been criticized for contributing to the increasing class divide.  In policy debates, many opponents of new environment and energy related policies suggest that these changes benefit too few people, and the wrong people.  The state has passed “enormous subsidies and tax breaks for solar and other renewable-energy producers” and the green-jobs that have been created along side these policies are low-wage positions.  Such products tend to be expensive and only accessible by a few, and these new jobs might not be enough to adequately bridge the divide between working and upper classes.

This is not to say that the work environmental organizations do are necessarily misguided, or that the goals of emissions reduction policies are undesired.  On the contrary, these groups and changes are strong drivers in making America to a more environmentally responsible country, and they should be supported to help bring us into a greener era.  Even so, environmentalists must recognize the tendency for many of the major developments and policies to be ones that concentrate on the desires of a particular social level.  Green movements have been traditionally led by affluent and white interest groups – there is no need for this trend to continue today.

Issues of Climate Change and environmental degradation affect all of us, and achieving widespread environmental responsibility can only succeed of the American society as a whole is participating.  The ability to shape the movement and create images of a sustainable world should not only be in the hands of those with the financial resources to make the changes encouraged by so much environmental rhetoric.  The rights and desires of working class citizens and minorities should be a key component of the green movement, and there is no reason why the goals of different social groups should be irreconcilable.   Environmentalism should not be a divisive movement, but instead one that brings people together, embracing economic and cultural integration, to protect the natural world and the lives of future generations.


Christina Ospina is a senior majoring in HumBio, with a concentration in Human Ecology: Human-Environment Relations.  Her interests right now focus on the reciprocity of the human-environment relationship (so, the idea that humans have a profound impact on conditions in the natural world, and the changes we create can in turn affect our lives).  Some issues she enjoys exploring are the impacts of industrialized agriculture, environmental changes and marginalized populations, and environmental policy making.

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