The same people and organizations we admire for protecting our wild places also have a history of being apathetic—or plain antagonistic—toward issues of race and social justice
Given the history of conservationists elevating endangered plant life over endangered black lives, it is environmentalism’s soul that most needs saving. Photo: Kristen Rogers Photography/Stock
Facing a new White House administration led by Donald Trump, environmental leaders recently signed an accord pledging their allegiance to civil rights and social justice. Among the signatories are several leaders of the Sierra Club, including its executive director, Michael Brune, who in recent years has steered the organization toward rather bold stances on a range of issues that aren’t traditionally recognized as “green.” In 2013, its board of directors voted that the organization should advocate for immigrant rights. The following year, the Sierra Club endorsed and defended the Black Lives Matter movement. Since President Trump came into office, the organization’s resolve has only strengthened, as Brune indicated in a November 18 blog post: “I’m proud of how the Sierra Club has begun to address the intersection of climate with inequality, race, class, and gender, and I guarantee that we’ll go even deeper.”
This shift toward racial justice matters has not been universally accepted among the Sierra Club’s ranks and may even have cost it a few members. Those who disapprove have often expressed sentiments amounting to “racism is not the environmental movement’s responsibility.” But Brune says the organization won’t be backing off anytime soon, a position he forcefully defended on the group’s blog. He will assure his members, he tells me, “that we are continuing to protect wildlife and wild places, and this is how we can best do that in the 21st century.”
What Brune is acknowledging is the darker legacy of the green movement. Some may believe that environmentalism has little to do with social justice issues, but the mission of the Sierra Club, and many conservation groups like it throughout the late-19th century and most of the 20th century, was anything but race neutral. In many ways, racial exclusivity actually shaped the environmental mission, which is what makes the Sierra Club’s leap toward civil rights advocacy such a radical move. It’s important not because a network like Black Lives Matter needs environmentalists, but because environmentalists need black lives. Given the history of conservationists elevating endangered plant life over endangered people of color, it is environmentalism’s soul that most needs saving.
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