1) People of color in the United States – especially Black and indigenous people – suffer the most from climate change.
2) People of color support environmental issues more than whites.
3) According to a 2014 report, people of color make up of only 12% to 16% of mainstream environmental NGOs, foundations, and governmental agencies.
Let that sink in.
First, let’s realize the truth: climate change is not just rising sea levels and global warming. Climate change includes the appallingly wide array of human-caused changes to the environment that we should be fighting.
It is the Flint River. It is Israeli water restrictions on Palestine. It is trash dumping in Black communities and the poisoning of rivers on indigenous land in the United States. By prioritizing global warming and rising sea levels, the White West has set a global environmental agenda shaped by issues that matter most to the White West, meanwhile sidelining issues more immediate to non-dominant groups who are at greater risk of environmental harm.
Climate change is broad. It includes any unjust exploitation, control, and theft of natural resources to the harm of peoples who rely on these resources. Racism, neocolonialism, imperialism, sexism, classism, ableism, and more justify and allow for this resource exploitation to happen. Climate change is oppression.
Now, imagine an environmental movement that actually deals with these roots. Imagine a movement that incorporates all these systems at once, a universal freedom struggle based on intersectionality, centering Black, poor, and indigenous peoples in the White West, and people in the Global South. A movement to break so many chains.
But truly engaging with oppression seems to be only a “diversity” side project of the Western Environmental Movement, not its central mission. Whether due to lack of funds, lack of knowledge, or lack of diversity in leadership positions, I’ve seen this apologetic disregard on college campuses, NGOs, and in the Ivory Tower. When most “diversify,” they just include more people of color into a movement that won’t directly fight for them. Some local organizations as the occasional large non-profit have centered the most vulnerable. These are diamonds rarely found in the larger mainstream movement.
The world will suffer under White Western guidance. Fossil fuel divestment – the mainstream environmental fight – is too slow to save any lives in the near future. The “historic” Paris agreement in December, signed by 194 nations and applauded by the West, created an aspirational limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius for global warming. We have already failed. Millions are dying and more are going to.
Regardless of the goodwill of the White West, the White West remains the safest from climate change, and it leads the environmental movement as an incompetent colonial savior. The White West will be protected by immigration rights, food and water security, sturdy infrastructure, and the ability to exploit the resources and bodies of the Global South and Black, poor, and indigenous populations. (Here’s one example.) In what other movement are the oppressors the leaders? How can one expect change from those who need it the least?
Mainstream White Western environmentalists have not rallied to stop American companies from going to other countries to pollute freely, to funnel adequate adaptation funding to developing countries, or to open borders to climate refugees. In ignoring oppression as the root of climate change, the White West has proven incapable of preventing the millions of climate-related deaths occurring every year, right now.
There is no need to “diversify” the Movement. The need is to decolonize. If this occurs, people of color will funnel in. A complete power shift must occur within the Western Environmental Movement, from college campuses to NGOs, centering the most vulnerable within White Western nations, and – separately, but in solidarity – people in the Global South. And no, having Western movements “uplift” the fights of the vulnerable does not count. The reigns must be handed over. Equity, not equality. Only then will we win this fight.
This is not a demand to dismantle Western organizations or a demand for the White West to do less. We need 350, Green Corps, Better Future Together. The White West simply has to do better. The Western Environmental Movement has the potential to take this constructive criticism and enact true change by channeling resources to organizations led by the vulnerable. It can fund Black, poor, and indigenous movements in White Western nations and movements in the Global South. It can transfer knowledge, organizing skills, and money. But they cannot lead. Those who feel the issues more intimately must be the leaders.
If the White West refuses to give up the reins, it’s time for the most vulnerable to directly protest these organizations which tokenize, whitewash, and exclude their struggles. There are too many lives on the line, too much of our world about to burn, for anything else.
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