Fighting for the environMANt

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In my first month at UC Berkeley, I went to the College of Natural Resources for an advising session. As I entered Mulford Hall, the earthy tones and wooden walls welcomed me in. I wandered around a bit, looking for the stairs before coming across a hallway that stopped me in my tracks. It was full of elegant, framed pictures. 

And every person hanging on the walls was a white man. 

Environmental activism has been a field dominated by white male voices since its inception. When people think of environmentalists, John Muir, Al Gore or maybe Leonardo DiCaprio come to mind. And while young people, especially young people of color, have recently been stepping up and taking action, most mainstream environmental organizations are dominated by older, white male voices.

The head of the Environmental Defense Fund, Fred Krupp, is a white man.

The head of the U.S. Department of Energy, Rick Perry, is a white man.

The dean of CNR, David Ackerly, is a white man.

How did this “manthropocene” come about? Well, it started out this way, according to U.S. history. Pre-Columbus indigenous societies were sustainable. It was only when white settlers began to overuse resources that the movement became necessary. In the mid-19th century, works such as “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau, as well as John Muir’s set of writings about the Sierra Nevada, drew popular attention to conserving the state of the environment. Then, in the early 1900s, President Theodore Roosevelt put conservation in high gear with the establishment of 230 million acres of public, protected lands — 150 million of which were preserved as national forests.

Then, conservation organizations such as the Sierra Club were created, many with the goals of protecting existing green spaces and combating the horrible pollution in cities. Large amounts of governmental action took place because of popular support: The National Park Service was created, the Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act were passed, and more. 

But why have women and minorities been excluded from this movement? If you look at when most of this public-spurred governmental action occurred, you’ll see that it mostly occurred in the 1960s and early ‘70s. This timeline coincides with the Civil Rights Movement, which mainly occurred in the 1950s and ‘60s. And the second wave of feminism? It also happened in the 1960s.

At the peak of early environmental activism, many minority activists were fighting for their rights. Environmentalism was viewed as an elitist issue. Only folks with enough societal privilege seemed to have the time and energy to care about the environment. And once an institution is set in its ways, it can be awfully hard for it to change. White men had established their environmental boys’ club and were loath to give them up. 

This trend has seemingly continued to the present day. A 2014 report found that in the richest (read: the most powerful) environmental organizations, 90% of board chairs and presidents were white men. Coupled with the impact the #MeToo movement has had on these organizations (the Nature Conservancy had its CEO and president both resign in June after numerous sexual assault allegations), the current picture isn’t pretty.

As a result, the focus of the most recognized environmental organizations has been narrowed to what one select demographic has cared about. The problems that gain mainstream attention have been based on the projects of these groups, ignoring issues that plague minority groups across the country, particularly for black Americans and Native Americans.

A 1983 government study found that three out of four hazardous waste sites were in majority black communities where most families were below the poverty line. People of color today are twice as likely to live without access to modern sanitation and potable water. Redlining by federal agencies seems to have worsened this issue: In the 1960s, Flint, Michigan was about 95% segregated.

Recently, many organizations have been taking concentrated steps toward increasing their diversity (peep the “diversity” tab on all of their websites). Many leaders have stepped forward to acknowledge the gap in representation. They’re at the beginning of a long journey toward having their staff demographics match those of the United States. 

Most people begin to care about the environment by connecting with nature. But there are other ways to interact with the environment besides going camping at Yellowstone with your family every year. Tackling issues such as air and water pollution within your community is just as crucial. 

It’s what you believe in and what you want to do to help our planet that’s important. Even if you live in the middle of a city, you still have an impact on the environment, albeit in a different way. The environment is not an elitist issue. I mean, we all live on our beautiful Earth. That’s why special effort must also be made to validate and recognize everyone’s experience as an environmentalist.

What would environmentalism in the United States look like if more minority voices were making decisions? Groups like the Sierra Club would have more contact with the communities that most need their help. And if environmental organizations were to directly connect themselves to communities in need, then projects could be shaped by these communities, working with the government to properly focus their efforts. 

Channels of collaboration and communication would be opened by increasing the number of people of color and women participating in environmental discussions. And once that space for minorities exists, diversity will beget diversity. 

Walking through that white hallway in CNR was sweat-inducing. As a woman of mixed race, would I belong here? Thankfully, every staff member and adviser I spoke to were energetic and excited that I was interested in CNR (shoutout to Ryann!). When I left Mulford Hall, I was armed with knowledge about majors that made my tree-hugging heart sing. It makes me proud to say that I’m a student of environmentalism in a diverse college at UC Berkeley (go Bears). 

Katherine Shok writes the Wednesday column on environmental politics and justice. Contact her at [email protected].