The environmental movement has been criticized as a luxury movement for decades, a movement meant solely for the white and middle-class. Why has this assumption lasted throughout the years? To answer this question, we have to understand the role of race and class privilege in the general environmental movement and the environmental justice movement.
In the appropriately titled article, Race and Class Privilege in the Environmental Movement, Gregory Mengel draws on previous activist works to examine the lack of diversity in the environmental movement and the role that privilege plays in perpetuating this phenomenon. He starts with the claim that we must, “engage the entire human family.” I agree – it’s important to expand the reach of sustainability and for environmental activists to emphasize the universality of environmental change. Mengel also emphasizes how easy it is to be blind to the inequalities pervasive in daily life and in activism, citing cognitive dissonance as the source.
“Cognitive dissonance, whereby the brain essentially rewires itself so as to not perceive aspects of the world that present painful contradictions or challenge one’s sense of identity.”
This analysis interests me, coming from a psychology/neuroscience background. Cognitive dissonance (coupled with guilt, lack of perspective on what “normal” entails, et cetera) may very well be the reason for the lack of understanding within the activist community, the refusal to address the diversity issue that is very much a problem. Reiterating Mengel, this doesn’t mean that the people in the environmental justice movement are bad people; nonetheless, it does mean that a perspective shift is necessary.
The list that Mengel provides is helpful as a starting point. These items should spark conversation as well as an initial shift in perspective that encourages people to change their baseline assumptions of privilege and the lack thereof as related to sustainability.
The featured five items from the list are:
I can, if I wish, purchase fresh local produce at my neighborhood farmer’s market.
Because I have had access to an abundance of consumer products all my life, I am able to derive both material and moral satisfaction from choosing a simplicity-based lifestyle.
I can take a nap in a public park without it being assumed that I might be homeless.
My sense of intimacy with the land does not entail spending all day in the hot sun picking strawberries or tending someone else’s lawn.
I can enjoy National Parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone, imagining them as intact wildernesses because their establishment did not involve the forcible removal of my ancestors.
These items call into question previously held presumptions around sustainable food choices, green consumerism, public parks and other natural spaces, and romanticizing sustainability, reminding us to keep race and class in mind rather than getting swept up in the privilege that is often required to maintain the green living forced indiscriminately onto everyone in a well-intentioned but poorly informed push that alienates individuals without these privileges.
Ultimately, Mengel’s points are well-backed up by statistics, including those from The Green Insider’s Club, that reveals problems in the mainstream environmental movement including a green ceiling, pervasive discrimination and bias, and lackluster effort and disinterest in diversity.
Some of the statistics shocked me, especially concerning the lack of interest in NGO’s, government agencies, and foundations in promoting cultural initiatives externally or internally. However, this article ends with a positive spin that adds an element of logistical, concrete solutions that complement Mengel’s idealogical shift. By promoting tracking and transparency, accountability, and increased resources, it is possible to transform the environmental movement for the better.