The environmental movement has had a reckoning coming its way for decades when it comes to its racist history. While it’s been inching toward it in recent years, the events of the past two weeks have thrown the floodgates wide open.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, the environmental movement has had to figure out where it stands in relation to other fights for justice. There have been statements and retweets of support, and on Wednesday, 224 groups took a more substantive step of specifically endorsing five of the Movement for Black Lives’ core demands. That includes divesting from the police and investing in Black communities, protecting these communities in the wake of the coronavirus, and respecting protesters.
On the one hand, it’s a notable step. The letter’s signatories include the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and Greenpeace USA, all major environmental organizations that are joined by up-and-coming groups like the Sunrise Movement and local environmental justice groups. The coalition points to what could form to make meaningful change. But could doesn’t mean will. Forging a new, radically remade movement that fuses climate and environmental concerns with real justice for Black and brown communities requires more than a letter.
“Doing the actual work, that’s hard, that’s messy,” Elizabeth Yeampierre, the executive director of UPROSE and co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance, told Earther.
To gauge whether they’re ready to put the work in, Earther reached out to the Sierra Club and Center Biological Diversity as well as other environmental heavyweights who didn’t sign the letter, including Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council. All of them have increasingly taken on work focused on environmental justice. For example, Ray Wan, Earthjustice’s vice president of communications, pointed Earther to its work with predominantly Black communities in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley to fight one of the world’s largest plastic plants. Sierra Club has put millions into shutting down coal plants that predominantly pollute communities of color. Many of their efforts, though, have stopped at the waters’ edge of what we traditionally associate with environmentalism.
Kierán Suckling, the founder and head of the Center for Biological Diversity, told Earther it’s natural for organizations to consider mission drift and other factors when choosing how far to push into new territory. But there’s been a gravitational shift in the environmental movement that’s increasingly driven by young people, visions of a Green New Deal, and the reality that society cannot be untangled from the environment.
“Can you imagine, for example, a world in which there is no environmental destruction, but there is racism?” Suckling said. “That world cannot exist.”
Floyd’s murder and the protests sparked by it have been a catalyst to push the largely white environment closer to a more holistic vision of what it can be. The letter is one sign of that, as are other forms of support. NRDC’s senior press secretary Jake Thompson told Earther the group was directing members to “give support to groups that provide necessary legal and financial assistance” and giving staff time to work on racial justice issues without using vacation time.
Hop Hopkins, Sierra Club’s director of strategic partnerships, told Earther in a statement that the group has mobilized its million-plus member email list “asking them to contact the Minneapolis City Council and ask them to defund the police, in solidarity with the demand from local organizations like Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective.
“But let’s be real: People in the Sierra Club community are trying to grow to meet this moment right now,” Hopkins continued. “Some of us within the organization have been in this struggle for decades, but many are coming to it for the first time. We’re learning and listening.”
The listening itself is important, especially after years of neglecting Black and brown communities. Suckling called this a moment of “reinvigoration of a sense of justice” for the movement. But what needs to follow is actions that put justice at the center of what large environmental groups do long-term. That includes bringing more diversity into its ranks to reflect society-at-large and continuing to build bridges to other movements fighting for justice. At the end of the day, a fight for a safe climate is a fight for freedom from all forms of tyranny.
It’s fair to be skeptical given the long history of a movement that, in the past, advocated for population control and kicked Indigenous groups off their land. And Yeampierre said that the power dynamics still favor large environmental groups that can swoop in to snag glory and fundraising dollars rather than amplifying the work of smaller groups and communities of color fighting for change at the grassroots level. Breaking down that system of oppression has to be part of the fight to bring about that world that Suckling described.
“We’re living in a world that is going to be disrupted by climate change,” Yeampierre said. “We want to look back and say ‘how am I using my privilege?’ That’s the work right there.”
Looking for ways to advocate for black lives? Check out this list of resources by our sister site Lifehacker for ways to get involved.