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Oh, Mercy Mercy Me

So I, like most of Amer­ica, have spent a fair amount of time think­ing about the Trayvon Mar­tin sit­u­a­tion. Some of you may be won­der­ing what that could pos­si­bly have to do with a sus­tain­abil­ity blog. Truth be told, one can eas­ily make the case that safety and equal­ity can and should be top­ics of impor­tance within sus­tain­abil­ity more broadly. How­ever, I thought this blog could rec­og­nize the oppor­tu­nity that is being pro­vided by the tragedy of the killing of Trayvon Mar­tin, the oppor­tu­nity to talk about race in Amer­ica and for the pur­poses of this blog post, apply it to the envi­ron­men­tal “movement.”

I do not approach this topic lightly, like all con­ver­sa­tions about race, it is full of risk and makes me uncom­fort­able but I believe as some­one I have as much respect for as is humanly pos­si­ble said “Want­ing to talk about race as long as it doesn’t make us feel too uncom­fort­able means not really being will­ing to have an hon­est con­ver­sa­tion of any sub­stan­tial depth. “ So here we go …

Envi­ron­men­tal­ism and the “main­stream” envi­ron­men­tal move­ment has been and is still com­prised of mostly white and mostly upper mid­dle to upper class indi­vid­u­als. To any­one who has attended an envi­ron­men­tal meet­ing of any sort pretty much any­where in the coun­try, this will not come as a sur­prise. Much of the rea­son­ing for this comes from our his­tory, our ori­gins. The roots of the move­ment emerge with folks like Teddy Roo­sevelt, John Muir, and Gif­ford Pin­chot. To over­sim­plify, upper class white peo­ple who were look­ing to pre­serve their “play­grounds”. This is not to under­cut the impor­tance of what they did, land con­ser­va­tion at that period of indus­trial growth was indeed rad­i­cal and we as a coun­try are bet­ter off because they did what they did.

The orga­ni­za­tions that emerged before the ‘60s includ­ing Sierra Club (1892), National Wildlife Fed­er­a­tion (1936), National Parks & Con­ser­va­tion Asso­ci­a­tion (1919), Izaak Wal­ton League (1922), and Defend­ers of Wildlife (1947) did not focus in any way on health issues and had nearly exclu­sively all white mem­ber­ship, lead­er­ship, and staff. Again, this is not to belit­tle the amaz­ing work of each of these orga­ni­za­tions. Rather, this cre­ated an issue whereby the lack of diver­sity in the indi­vid­u­als who made up the move­ment and even the gen­eral inter­est of pro­tect­ing the “envi­ron­ment” became a self-selecting cycle essen­tially ensur­ing that the pipeline for indi­vid­u­als to get involved remained exclusive.

The 1960’s saw the pri­or­i­ties of the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment shift from wilder­ness pro­tec­tion to clean water, clean air, and pro­tec­tion against haz­ardous and toxic sub­stances. Focus became much more health related and less recre­ation and con­ser­va­tion related. In some ways this could have been an oppor­tu­nity for the move­ment to diver­sify as the issue became more uni­ver­sally rel­e­vant. Unfor­tu­nately, it did not hap­pen this way and in actu­al­ity two “move­ments” emerged – the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment and the envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice move­ment with sep­a­rate mem­bers, lead­ers, and organizations.

Grass­roots groups chal­lenge the “business-as-usual” envi­ron­men­tal­ism that is gen­er­ally prac­ticed by the more priv­i­leged wildlife-and conservation-oriented groups. The focus of activists of color and their con­stituents reflects their life expe­ri­ences of social, eco­nomic, and polit­i­cal dis­en­fran­chise­ment.” -Dr. Robert Bullard

So, what do we do with this his­tory and con­text? In Howard County we have had an exist­ing but rel­a­tively small envi­ron­men­tal “move­ment” (for lack of a bet­ter term). Over the last few years it has really begun to flour­ish and grow but not with the diver­sity that is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Howard County. The above con­text tells us why but also tells us how we might change that. Part of the chal­lenge lies in the dis­cus­sion of the envi­ron­men­tal issues we cham­pion and how we frame those issues.

It is also about break­ing the cycle of par­al­lel efforts, and imple­ment­ing a more uni­ver­sal approach. Unfor­tu­nately, too often we try and diver­sify by meet­ing with other lead­ers and orga­ni­za­tions and explain­ing to them why our issue is impor­tant to their peo­ple and then chal­leng­ing them to do some­thing about bring­ing folks to our orga­ni­za­tions. But wait, to lis­ten is to engage, right? Then we need to upend the par­a­digm and do more lis­ten­ing, focus on how we could bet­ter talk about issues, and maybe even fig­ure out how we can bring our resources to bear on issues that feel out­side of our usual wheel­house. After all, we are a sus­tain­abil­ity move­ment now that cov­ers all three bot­tom lines.

JD Feld­mark
March 2012

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