Is the Green Movement Too White?

by Chris Clarke of the Ecology Center

Four years ago Becky Lum waited her turn at an automatic teller
machine at San Francisco State and noticed some people working the
line, collecting signatures for a forest protection initiative. The
canvassers talked to each person, one at a time, as the line
progressed. Becky fished a pen out of her pack in order to sign. She'd
been looking forward to a chance to add her name to the petition. But
when the canvassers reached her place in the line, they skipped her
and went on to the next person. Becky was the only Asian-American
person in the line.
	I heard about the incident and brought it to the attention of
some people I knew who were working on the campaign. I supported the
initiative, and didn't want its success eroded by the unconscious
racism of otherwise well-intentioned volunteers. The two organizers I
spoke to had the same response, "They probably assumed she wasn't a
	A minor incident, to be sure, though it deterred Becky from
devoting any time or energy to the initiative, which lost. It's
probably a safe assumption that the above incident was multiplied a
few times that day; the initiative certainly suffered due to lack of
support outside relatively affluent, largely-white environmental
	And I certainly don't intend to single out that particular
campaign for criticism, as it's no worse than most of the rest of the
mainstream environmental movement. Consider:
	There's a well-funded conservation group that (quite rightly)
criticizes Japan's horrid environmental policies, but does so with a
large inflatable Godzilla puppet, leading one observer to wonder why
they didn't use Speedy Gonzalez to symbolize their opposition to
	The same organization declares a rainforest people's struggle
to maintain their traditional way of life "over," and solicits money
to "ease their transition into the modern world."
	Another dreadnought organization signs on to proposed
legislation which would restrict immigration-from Mexico and Asia.
	And (lest we at the Ecology Center be accused of being
holier-than-thou) a grassroots environmental organization in the East
Bay criticizes other groups for racist practices, while maintaining an
almost totally white Board of Directors (possibly partly due to its
volunteer status); of its staff of 35 people, only four are people of
color in positions not centered around manual labor.
	There has been significant progress made by mainstream groups
in addressing their own racial bias over the past few
years. Greenpeace and the Earth Island Institute, in particular, have
taken the lead among the "Big 20" environmental groups in rearranging
their priorities to better reflect the diverse makeup of the society
they purport to represent. Earth Island sponsors a precedent-setting
Urban Habitat project, and has appointed the apparently indefatigable
Carl Anthony as the Institute's president. Greenpeace has aggressively
tackled the issue of environmental racism, notably toxic industry's
preferential location in communities of color; the group's outward
focus has also been reflected in its hiring practices. And if one
expands the field of view to include other than well-funded national
organizations, hundreds of local grassroots groups are fighting toxic
dumping and speculative development of urban open space, advocating
urban gardens and restoring creeks, and they're doing it in a
culturally-inclusive way.
	But the fact remains; most national "environmentalist"
organizations are lily-white. And those established groups that have
addressed the issue to some extent have done so after pressure has
been applied from communities of color. Why has the established
environmental movement been so slow to address issues facing
communities of color? Why do some activists' demands for the
preservation of biodiversity apparently exclude human racial and
cultural diversity?
	Part of the answer can be found in the attitudes of the
environmentalist organizations' staff. Though people of color tend to
give a higher proportion of their income to charitable organizations
than do European-Americans, and though fundraising done by most
ecology groups takes this fact of life into account, mainstream
environmentalists tend not to return the favor by addressing issues of
immediate importance to people in the neighborhood, nor do they admit
that those communities may have important ideas about issues not
directly relevant to said neighborhood.


	Let's look at a typical example of this selective blindness:
the assertion that non-white people don't pay attention to wilderness
issues. You'll hear this one a lot, and certainly, if one's only
standard is the racial makeup of organizing meetings of the
wilderness-protection groups, it has the ring of truth.
	But even just a bit of research brings one to the conclusion
that probably the most effective wilderness organizing in the world
has been done by indigenous people that depend on wilderness as their
home, their larder, their habitat. From the G-O Road battle in
Northwestern California to the lowlands of Brazil, native people are
at the forefront of much of the wilderness-protection action taking
place today. Though mainstream activists are starting to belatedly
give credit where it's due, the "official" green picture of native
people is generally a patronizing one, treating vibrant, present-day
cultures as extinct, and one-dimensional at that.
	When local values come into conflict with "green" values, that
patronizing tone can become derogatory. Witness the dispute between
small-scale Chicano ranchers and large Green Corporations like the
Nature Conservancy in the mountains of New Mexico. Though there was
room for reasoned objection to arguments presented by both sides, the
Nature Conservancy and the National Audubon Society characterized
their opposition as merely self-interested, backwards yokels. Locals'
suggestion that low-intensity grazing may actually have been a
sustainable use of the land was ignored. Though TNC and Audubon's
hearts may have been pure, one can't deny that their modus operandi
differed little from that of Chevron's in Richmond, as they followed
their absentee agenda without input from the people in the
	The problem stems, generally, from the European notion that
wilderness is defined by its absence of human influence. This notion
originally proposed that wilderness was a thing to be conquered by
European settlement; it now claims that wilderness is a thing to be
protected by European-American management. A peculiar mental
disjointedness allows mainstream environmentalists to both acknowledge
the existence of Native American culture, for instance, while
describing the pre-conquest American landscape as untrammeled and
untouched by "humans." The idea that humans can live, and have lived,
in a sustainable relationship with their habitat that approaches the
classic definition of an ecological niche, is largely outside the
accepted terms of argument. The unspoken assumption is that such
people are not fully human.
	And once you make that assumption, any decision you make about
the land those people live on will likely deprive them of their full
spectrum of rights, whether it's a "debt-for-nature" swap in which
people lose access to traditional hunting grounds (subsumed in a new
park) or a "sustainable" development program where native people are
plugged into the world economy, selling nuts or tree sap to green
capitalists. From the vantage point of a person forced to abandon her
traditional culture to the marketplace, there may not seem to be much
difference between the World Wide Fund for Nature and the World Bank.
	You don't have to look to the rainforest for examples of
environmentalists causing injury to people of color. The World
Wildlife Fund's panda trademark can be seen on boxes of rubber stamps
of endangered animals; WWF accepts part of the profits from sales of
the stamps. The Oakland-based manufacturer of WWF's rubber stamps,
Rubber Stampede, is being sued by a former employee, who alleges that
her ex-bosses knowingly violated worker safety laws, exposing an
almost entirely Spanish-speaking work force to dangerous solvents
without providing the required protective gear. The manufacturer had
also been lauded by environmentalists for using starch packing pellets
instead of styrofoam.


	It's easy enough to come up with horror stories; harder to
suggest ways to prevent them.
	But there are a few things I've picked up along the way that
are helpful for a person seeking to explore and combat their own
racism. Though I've usually heard them targeted at individuals, they
seem eminently applicable to organizations. They might just serve as
well for groups with million-dollar budgets as they do for the
	Talk to people. It's a cliche but it's one for a
reason. The best cure for racism is friendship. The more you know
about a person or group of people, the more likely you are to take
their feelings into account. Unfamiliarity, in this case, breeds
	Use your defensiveness as a learning tool. If people direct
your attention to some behavior they feel is racist, gauge your
reaction. Do you feel insulted, angry or guilty? If the accusation is
ridiculous, shouldn't you be reacting less strongly? The first step to
ridding yourself-or your organization-of racism is to admit it may be
	Take the time to learn the issues important to other
people. When I worked with the "peace community" in Western New York,
people there moaned about Black people's lack of interest in the MX
missile. But there were plenty of peace activists in the Black
community: they just had their sights focused a bit closer to home, on
the cops and thugs in the neighborhood.
	Celebrate diversity in human cultures with as much gusto as
you would celebrate biological diversity in a Brazilian forest.

This article is reprinted with permission from Terrain, the monthly
publication of the Ecology Center.

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