Are You an Environmentalist?

Posted in activism, environmentalism, politics, race on July 10th, 2011 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

Am I an environmentalist?

It depends on what you mean by that.

Going to college at American University — a school on environmentalism overload — I was under the impression that most university-aged students were concerned with “the environment.” However, twice since starting to teach at CUNY, I’ve attempted to get my students reading and talking about environmentalism of different kinds, and both times it has fallen pretty flat.

The first time, I assigned articles about corporate exploitation of environmental disasters (the Upper Big Branch mine disaster and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill). Initially, I found their lack of criticism about either event disconcerting but understandable, since both had happened far away from their urban New York homes. But one student’s assertion that they just didn’t really care about the environment — not even considering that there isn’t one single “environment” — made me angry.

This summer, I tried to make environmentalism more relevant, and I asked my introduction to cultural anthropology students to read an essay by Melissa Checker, whose work about an urban, African-American environmental group (HAPIC) from Georgia seemed like it would speak much more directly to my students. But I received a similar lack of response from most of them as I got before. One reason I think Checker’s work is so interesting is because of the way her interlocutors characterize the environment: it’s “where we live, work, and play.” Furthermore, they see their group as distinct from the mostly white, middle-class groups that typify environmentalism in the U.S. These groups are generally based more on an interest in conservation and “green” consumption practices — two activities that most members of groups like HAPIC can’t afford. They are concerned about environmental justice, in which improving the place where they live, work, and play will counter some of the inequalities they’ve suffered from for many years.

I felt that this description of the environment and who should be concerned about it would be much more interesting to my students. After all, this is the kind of environmentalism that concerns me. Interest in making places that people live healthy and safe for them and their families is relevant to all sorts of environments. But my impression of New York-style environmentalism is that it mostly revolves around bike lane controversies, organic restaurants and local food movements, and Greenpeace volunteers in your face asking for money all over Manhattan. Environmentalism in New York is not presented as a working-class issue. This isn’t to say that people of all backgrounds aren’t or can’t be environmentalists (check out Melissa Checker’s newer work on Staten Island), but it makes it understandable that the environment doesn’t resonate with most students. Most of their families are working class, and many are immigrants — environmentalism here is still seen as a bourgeois issue, and they don’t see themselves as participants.

So, what does it mean to label oneself an environmentalist? Several of the activists in the anti-mountaintop removal movement who I so admire — and who have been recognized by worldwide environmental organizations — have been hesitant to call themselves environmentalists because of the term’s association with exclusively white, middle-class clubs. A concern with environmental justice isn’t quite the same thing. If it’s not characterized as “environmentalism,” would it seem more approachable to my students? In the end, I think it’s impossible to convince them they should think about the environment in one or two classes; it would take a long and critical look at the different manifestations of the movement over time to move away from the assumptions people make about environmentalists. This is a project that I’ve been working on for years, and I still can’t decide if I’m part of that group.

Here’s where I ask for your input: do you consider yourself an environmentalist? Why or why not?

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