The hyper-politicization of climate change tends to effect a relentless stream of attacks against the mainstream environmental movement everyday. And while most of the criticism is unwarranted, the most urgent problem is too often ignored: its glaring and inexcusable disconnect from the people affected by environmental degradation.
Despite the fact that lower-income people of color are the most at risk from climate change, the movement has historically catered toward wealthy white people. This trend can be explained by the fact that the wealthy have more time and resources to invest in the distant issues of increasing temperatures and rising sea levels. Meanwhile, those who face the direct effects of environmental problems (contaminated water, concentrated pollutants, waste sites and exploited resources) are the same people who deal with the daily struggle of supporting themselves and their families. So while it is understandable why lower-income people are not actively engaged in the lofty issues of the mainstream green movement, it does not excuse the movement itself from not doing more to directly address this intersection of environmental degradation and poverty.
It is important to note that there are currently hundreds of grassroots organizations like Sunrise, We Act and Green Action, directly working within disenfranchised and vulnerable communities to address environmental injustices. However, these local movements do not have the same widespread recognition and funding as the most popular global environmental conservation foundations, like the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and the World Wildlife Fund. As a result, the mainstream movement has been more focused on narrow conservation efforts rather than a holistic and inclusive framework of conservation and justice.
That is not to say that the conservation of resources and environmental protection is not equally as important as human health and security, because human well-being is dependent on a healthy environment. Perhaps in a perfectly equitable world of evenly distributed resources, we would be able to focus only on saving trees, turtles and polar bears, but instead our world is characterized by systematic exploitation of the environment for the benefit of the few at the cost of the many. Therefore, prioritizing conservation over human health and livelihood alienates the people most affected by the movement’s concerns. In fact, framing the movement in a way that discourages the people affected from actually getting involved is simply a means of erasure and marginalization.
Ignoring marginalized people is more than a crisis of justice— it puts the entire movement at stake. Poverty and environmental degradation are inextricably linked; we cannot fix the “environmental problem” without addressing the myriad of social problems, such as poverty, labor exploitation, a lack of healthcare and affordable housing, that are indirectly connected to environmental concerns. We cannot expect people who are concerned about putting food on the table to suddenly adapt to a more expensive and less efficient (at least in our current system) sustainable lifestyle—it is simply unrealistic and unfair.
This criticism of the movement, however, is not a means to an end but rather a recognition of an incredible opportunity. The reciprocal relationship between the environment and economics can be used as a mechanism to lift people out of poverty and increase equality, all while simultaneously building a more sustainable world. The only way to do so, however, is to integrate matters of equity and justice into the mainstream environmental framework.
Luckily, such a framework has already been laid out for us: The Green New Deal, proposed in congress by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Edward Markey, may be the solution to this environmental “identity” crisis. The deal recognizes that technological advancements and a narrow plan of conservation is not going to bail us out of this problem but rather presents a plan devoted to strengthening the most ‘at risk’ communities. The resulting proposal advances a plan to mitigate climate change — a transition to 100-percent clean energy by 2050, strong public transportation, clean air and water and access to healthy food — along with an economic platform based on reducing inequality.
A professor from Denison University and expert in the Green New Deal, Fadhel Kaboub, recently met with the Environmental Campus Organization (ECO) and the Kenyon Young Democratic Socialist Alliance (KYDSA) to discuss the details and concerns of the deal. He explained how the plan’s inclusion of universal health care, affordable housing measures, labor rights and job guarantees are not just a means to push a socialist agenda but are also necessary facets to the success of curbing catastrophic climate change. A strong safety net, Kaboub emphasized, is the single most important factor in building a resilient population in the face of climate change.
In all honesty, the only environmental framework worthy of devotion is one that uplifts vulnerable communities and focuses on their needs—not just because it is pragmatic, but because it is right. The economics of exploitation, extraction and inequality got us into this mess; the only way out is through a restorative economic of justice, equality and inclusion.