Are Mainstream Environmental Groups Keeping Racism Alive?

29 Jul

are, mainstream, environmental, groups, keeping, racism, alive?, ,

by Kat Stevens / Policymic

Editor’s note: This story is part of PolicyMic’s Millennials Take On Climate Change series this week.

We are living in an age of world-wide energy and financial crises. In Westernized nations like the one I live in, poor rural communities are suffering now: small Appalachian communities ravaged by mountain-top removal mining, rural farms surrounded by frack wells. But what about the communities we don’t hear about?

Here we need look no further than Houston’s toxic East End, a textbook example of environmental racism, where mostly Latina/o children living fence-line to industry are poisoned mercilessly by refineries like Shell, Exxon, and Valero. Environmental racism (ER) is just another form of systemic racism, the ongoing legacy of colonialism, genocide, and slavery. ER is the intentional and systematic targeting of communities of color with respect to environmental hazards and failure to enforce environmental regulations. For businesses which threaten public and environmental health, it is easier to operate near low-income communities of color with less political and economic power to resist.

When we remove the American-centric lens we are encouraged to view the world through, we see that environmental racism is a global phenonmenon. Because of globalization, an ambiguous term that is usually laden with warm connotations of unification, corporations are highly mobile. This makes it easy to travel anywhere in the world to maximize profits through the least government and environmental regulations, the best tax incentives and the cheapest labor (easily exploitable communities). Consequently, we see the destruction of indigenous cultures, livelihoods, and the fragile and unique ecosystems that plant, animal, and human life alike depend upon to sustain.

Some Americans who consider themselves “well-meaning,” “left-leaning,” “liberal,” “earth-friendly,” etc. recognize the corruption and get sad, upset, and restless. If not pacified, they could become a threat to the status quo.

Enter the most powerful tool of the environmental movement: the big green non-governmental organization (NGO). 

Big green NGOs present an exciting semblance of resistance that tells Americans that they can make a difference just by clicking heresigning there, sending in monthly donations, watching a flashy video about an adventurous “direct action” that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to pull off, and making bi-annual trips to the White House to really give that darn president a piece of your mind!

These “movements” seem to do everything in their power to placate, pacify and render ineffective their target consumers: white, liberal Americans with a small sense of the hollowness of everyday life in capitalist America. By proposing simple and false solutions inside a framework of “peaceful resistance,” potential disruptors of the status quo are rendered ineffective while believing they are engaged in meaningful resistance.

In reality, the mainstream environmental movement in the U.S. has done almost nothing to counter the political and economic conditions that make participation in environmental movements an impossibility for many people from the very low-income communities of color that are bearing the brunt of the assault.

Tom Goldtooth, the Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, said in a 2011 interview with Africa Report, “If you look at the NGOs, these are European ‘white’ NGOs, and there is tremendous racism and classism woven into that. When an ethnic person speaks up, they get offended they don’t want a solution from the marginalized. They want to devise the solution they feel is best for the whole system — and we have to ask ourselves what the system they actually represent, entails … We challenged the big organizations with environmental racism including Greenpeace and Sierra Club, to bring our voices to the board … They resisted us.

“Look at — we had to challenge them to bring us to stand with them on the pipeline issue. Bill McKibben, the Ivory Tower white academic, didn’t even want to take the time to bring people of color to the organizing.”, just one example of a problematic NGO, has the look and feel of an authentic grassroots movement, but in reality it is a multi-million dollar campaign outfitted with a staff that receives six-figure checks. In addition to placating the public and perpetuating systemic racism, has recieved funding from the Rockefeller family, one of the most elite and nefarious families of all time.

Their most insidious superficial means of appeasement? Promoting divestment campaigns, an easy way to quell would-be radicals on college campuses by exploiting impressionable students to spend vast amounts of time, energy, and resources to divest their schools from fossil fuels, which are arguably not only a waste of time, but overtly counterproductive. 

We must refuse to be obedient and passive “movement builders” armed with e-mail lists, invoking the name of Bill McKibben, and marching towards the next carefully calculated, police-approved, staged “action.” The stakes are so high, with 400,000 people, mostly people of color, dying each year from climate-related disasters. Time is running out for countering the damage that has been done to the global environment. We must dismantle not only capitalism and globalization, but the mainstream NGO trope along with them.

16 Responses to “Are Mainstream Environmental Groups Keeping Racism Alive?”

  1. Aaron Packard July 30, 2013 at 8:49 am #

    Hey, well I am one of the few people that actually work for, and I can assure you staff definitely DO NOT receive six figure checks. In fact, my income is at about the same rate in Australia as a petrol station worker. I think much of your blog is untrue, and want to point you to see the work organisers across the Pacific Islands are doing through as an example:
    And I’m by no means claiming that is perfect, or nor does it claim to be. It continues to learn. And by the way, I haven’t been mandated or told to write this response by (or by Bill McKibben!!), as that is not the way we work.

    • Ben Wiley July 30, 2013 at 7:31 pm #

      ^this. 350 isn’t perfect, and openly acknowledges the need for other non-NGO groups, especially frontlines, to complement its work. it also tries to support those smaller/frontline groups.

      as far as staffers go… they definitely do not get paid 6 figures (what the hell? where did that come from??) and I can tell you that all of them that I know personally are engaging the fossil fuel fight on multiple levels. divestment and actions at the white house are two of those fronts, but they as individuals are working tirelessly to push action on fossil fuels, environmental destruction and climate change wherever they can. it happens that when we’re facing as colossal an issue as climate change, big organizing sometimes has to happen, but that isn’t to say smaller organizing shouldn’t still be happening as well.

      I can see how the work of some NGOs can be painted as unhelpful but 350 is doing a hell of a lot to make action happen where it really wasn’t happening before. I just don’t understand how 350 became the target here. it’s like the author doesn’t really understand very much about what 350 is doing.

      • Earth First! Journal Cascadia Office July 30, 2013 at 8:01 pm #

        Again, apologies for any inconsistencies or inaccuracies in the story. One thing about your response, Ben, that is kind of interesting is the way you say that you don’t understand, and then say that they don’t understand. There is obviously some misunderstanding happening.
        Aside from the six figure salary canard, let’s look at the truths underlying the article: “In reality, the mainstream environmental movement in the U.S. has done almost nothing to counter the political and economic conditions that make participation in environmental movements an impossibility for many people from the very low-income communities of color that are bearing the brunt of the assault.”
        Let’s think about the economic issues involved with capitalism that are rarely, if ever, approached by the mainstream environment movement. This isn’t really about alone, although 350 is now in the unique place of being wedged between direct action and mainstreamness. it’s about systems of exploitation that have been around way before the mainstream environmental movement.
        I commend you on your efforts and encourage you to continue kicking ass. At the same time, it’s a good idea to recognize that frontline communities aren’t in a position where they can defend themselves, and they aren’t getting a whole lot of help from groups like the Sierra Club. I’m actually from Houston, where the example in the article comes from, so it definitely vibrates with me.

      • Ben Wiley July 30, 2013 at 9:41 pm #

        Yeah, I totally agree environmental racism and frontline communities not being able to fend for themselves is a huge problem and that’s why I’m actively involved in working to end that. But I don’t think the culprits were totally effectively identified here. Greenpeace, for all its big corporate-targeted “nice” campaigns, also supports a lot of on-the-ground, frontline direct action work, and we’ve already hashed out 350. I’m not going to sit around defending the Sierra Club.

        Regardless, I don’t think we’re framing the problem correctly if we suppose that if Greenpeace and 350 didn’t exist, people would suddenly be flocking to the frontlines to assist communities with their environmental problems. If anything, they’re helping that happen more.

        I never would have known anything about the work being done by I was lucky enough, growing up in western Kentucky, to have Kentuckians for the Commonwealth around to get me involved in the fight against MTR. Not every high school student was so lucky. But another thing KFTC did was to help me get to Power Shift 2011 and get connected with 350 and Greenpeace — networks that have helped me stay involved in the fight as I’ve moved to North Carolina. In Charlotte, by the way, Greenpeace has worked tirelessly to get rid of coal-fired power plants that are adversely affecting local area urban communities.

        There are reasons to be upset about the models of all these organizations but targets presented in this article unfortunately kind of nullified the greater, real problem of environmental racism and frontline ignorance that we should be working together to address.

      • Ben Wiley July 30, 2013 at 10:04 pm #

        I don’t totally know what I was trying to say in the beginning of that third paragraph but I think I meant to just start the paragraph with the second “I.”

  2. Earth First! Journal Cascadia Office July 30, 2013 at 2:30 pm #

    Cheers Aaron, Thanks for your input. We’re always open to different
    points of view, critiques, and corrections. 350’s usage of finances and
    funds is an important part of the picture—however, 350 has spread money
    around to real grassroots, direct action organizations and networks that
    include indigenous peoples, so it gets very complicated. The question
    remains: can a balance be struck between the grassroots and the high
    dollars? We’re sorry if you have found inaccuracies in the story,
    and encourage more comments in the future. Thanks for viewing our site.

  3. Tree Bark July 30, 2013 at 9:46 pm #

    “the mainstream environmental movement in the U.S. has done almost nothing to counter the political and economic conditions that make participation in environmental movements an impossibility for many people from… low-income communities of color”

    What would you have them do to counter these economic conditions? Get the poor of the world more money? That would be environmental SUICIDE.

    Environmentalists, if they are serious, need to focus on DESTROYING the economy and the technoindustrial system that supports it.

    Environmentalists CANNOT fight poverty because it is in fact counter-productive to have more wealthy or middle-class people. Lifting people out of poverty isn’t fighting against the industrial system, it’s directly supporting it.

    Sorry if you don’t like how this sounds, but I’m on the side of the bears.

    • Earth First! Journal Cascadia Office July 31, 2013 at 4:14 am #

      I think the only thing I can say is that your notions of poverty and middle class are totally hinging on the bourgeois constructs of political economy. Everyone can be fed, everyone can live clean, healthy lives free from tyranny and oppression. That would not be a bad thing. I think we all agree on smashing capitalism. The thing is, capitalism in the US wastes more food every day than it would take to feed all of the starving people in Africa. It would not be a loss of energy to feed those people—quite the opposite, since the food is already there, it would decrease desperation and lead to societies with steady populations and less war, which is the number one cause of environmental destruction nomatter how you slice it. So the end of it is not, “don’t feed to Third World,” it’s “smash capitalism so we can all get free.” If you smash capitalism, the middle class life with all its consumer big-box demands goes away. think about it.

  4. Ben Wiley July 31, 2013 at 12:41 am #

    One other comment I’d like to make… I just want to clear up what the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (which, by the way, is distinct from the Rockefeller Foundation, despite erroneous reports on the Internet), is not the same thing as Standard Oil. Standard Oil was broken up in 1911 and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund today focuses on cutting greenhouse gas emissions and establishing peace dialogues. You may not like how they operate, or the fact that they uphold the philanthropical-industrial complex, but the idea that 350 accepting money from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund is like being bribed by an oil company makes no sense. As far as I know, the donation from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund had no strings attached.

  5. Vbomb July 31, 2013 at 2:21 am #

    This article is great but, I fear that the author is short-sighted in not including EF! and ALL other majority white ‘enviro’ groups in this, regardless of their tactics and budget. “In reality, the mainstream environmental movement in the U.S. has done almost nothing to counter the political and economic conditions that make participation in environmental movements an impossibility for many people from the very low-income communities of color that are bearing the brunt of the assault.” This is very true for ALL white ‘enviro’ groups. Large, medium and small. I just drove 2 hours out of Eugene with $300 worth of camping gear to get to TWAC…. Also, I know this is harsh but, I know POC that would rather bite their own arm off then attend an EF! event. The truth of the matter is that we’re all shitty at anti-racism regardless of each group’s tactics and salaries. This article is just another testament of a growing competitive trend of ‘who is more anti-racist than who’ coupled with an old competitive trend of ‘who has better tactics than who’. Making anti-racism and activism some sort of weird white thing that is competed for to owe and reign supreme at. It ain’t no competition and to make it one is short-sighted, ineffectual, misinformed, elitist as fuck and, well, very ‘white’. White people from the Pacific Northwest fighting white NGO people on being anti-racist and ineffectual is comedic. Tragic, cop-outish and dude-ish but, nonetheless, comedic. We all have such a long way to go. Best to check yourself before setting out of the journey……………………………..

    • Earth First! Journal Cascadia Office July 31, 2013 at 3:09 am #

      The point “we’re all shitty at anti-racism” needs to be countered with: “anybody who isn’t working with POC in those communities most effected by climate change is going to be ‘shitty’ in this situation, because they will be fighting what is socio-economically created, by the 1%, as a ‘white person’ (ie, rural NW) struggle.” People are racist, we live in a racist society, and unless we actively struggle against the institutional forms of class/race oppression, we won’t/can’t learn from eachother and build the movement.
      That said, of course there’s alot of shit to work on, and nobody begrudges that comment or would claim it is false.
      Again, lots of EF!ers, myself included, have spent time working with POC groups resisting foreclosures along with biodiversity groups resisting land grabs in sensitive areas. We don’t call it ‘EF!,’ because we’re working in different groups for different struggles, but if you can’t see the intersectionality, then wtf…
      As for your ‘comic’ claim, there’s nothing much I can say, except that this article isn’t meant as “a hit piece against everyone but EF!,” but rather an instrument for building antiracism within the ecology movement.

      • Vbomb July 31, 2013 at 3:50 am #

        All those things you just said weren’t in the article. If they were, i probably wouldnt have written half of my comment. in my opinion, context, humility and intersectionality are important to discuss when specifically targeting only 3 groups as the ‘problem with environmentism’ these days under the guise of EF! That’s all I was saying. Anything less makes it seem like some weirdo competition between the white grassroots and white NGOs that im sick of. Also, actively struggling against institutional bullshit (or more correctly — being an ally to those who are struggling) is very different from attacking one enviro group and not the other, over budgets and tactics. Lastly, I know this society is racist. it’s even more racist to boast about having worked with POC groups for validity. I’m sure GP, 350 and whoever else has probably done that work here and there too. Judging from Treebark’s comment, not everyone at EF! is on the same page as you, probably just like those other groups too. Context.

    • Earth First! Journal Cascadia Office July 31, 2013 at 4:09 am #

      The comments I made weren’t in the article, because the article, itself, was written by a POC who didn’t write the article for the EF!J or for EF!, although according to his facebook page, he’s down with the Marcellus anti-fracking network. It was on a big assumption that the folks commenting on this thread turned the post into an EF! vs. every other mainstream enviro group thing, which it isn’t. It’s an anti-oppression piece that’s supposed to be about folks actually sticking around and doing solidarity work.

      “it’s even more racist to boast about having worked with POC groups for validity”

      I agree, but nobody is really doing that right now. Actually, I’m saying the opposite—lots of EF!ers I know work with EJ and anti foreclosure groups under different names with different organizational representation or whatever, because we don’t have to co-opt or validate ourselves as “environmentalists” or “social justice activists” or whatever. I’m not speaking for people, I’m just saying that there’re a lot of underreported struggles out there, and a lot of people doing amazing stuff that will never really be noticed by anyone other than the people it actually effects.

      Lastly, I appreciate your comments very much. Thank you for opening up this conversation. And I agree with basically everything your saying. A lot of this is contextual. Like treebark, who is obviously ignorant.

  6. Russell Frege July 31, 2013 at 6:13 am #

    The tone and argument of this article is counter-productive. The first aim of corporatist counter-activism is to isolate radicals:

    Writing like this does it for them. Is it true that mainstream environmental groups need to be more inclusive and need to talk more about class and race? Absolutely. Does the rhetorical approach taken in this article do anything to advance that? Not. One. Bit.

    If we are going to win the epic struggle of the anthropocene dawn for global ecological justice then radicals, idealists, and realists need to find a way to resist the “divide and conquer” tactics of corporatism. I don’t mean to imply at all that radicals alter their fundamental moral convictions one bit. But I would suggest a rhetoric of generosity and positive engagement with idealists and realists. I think that finding positive ways to bring class and race dimensions into a broader spotlight is absolutel essential, but that should be done without the tone of personal attack on liberals who we need to have as allies againse corporatism even if they don’t adopt every radical thesis. If we don’t find a way to resist the divide and conquer tactics then radicals will be isolated and idealists and realists will be coopted in the exact same patter we’ve seen time and again. Just think about how to resist this and avoid self-isolating rhetorical barbs that feel good to say but don’t serve to advance the movement.

  7. greencircleas August 2, 2013 at 11:39 am #

    Hey ya’ll. I wrote this article and just wanted to let folks know that:

    1.) My mistake for publishing the six-figure statement without “hard” proof. I do believe the statement is true but I shouldn’t have let it stay in the article without a proper source.
    2.) The article had an 800 word limit and was slightly altered by the editors at PolicyMic.
    3.) I will be publishing a follow up piece soon based on the debate and discussion this piece and the “rebuttal” piece that was “published” sparked.
    4.) I am a queer, womyn, of color and mixed ethnic identity from a low income background that never went to college or graduated high school. I work all day, every day to serve my community and further “the movement”. Anybody who knows me, whether they like me or not, will tell you I put in work. I won’t be silenced or deterred by critics.

    Thanks to those who have been supportive. Be on the lookout for a lengthy interview which touches on this topic more from the Kanadian publication, “Upping the Anti”.

  8. Sylvia August 3, 2013 at 2:56 am #

    Hi Robby,
    I am also a trans person, and have also worked with Kat, in Texas. I am really sorry that you have experienced Kat as transphobic, and that they have not used your pronouns, that is not okay.
    I don’t want to diminish your experience in anyway.
    But what I do want to say here in “public” is that my experience of working with Kat is different. They have been a good friend and a tireless anti-racist, anti-misogynist ally in the work we were doing in Texas (and for what it’s worth, they always have used my pronouns).
    Kat is a person I look to as a model for working as an anti-racist organizer in the environmental movement, and somewhat I am grateful to have been able to get to know and work with.
    Just needed to put that out there.

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