Environmentalist and Civil Rights Movements Meet

The other day I read an article in The Nation: Powered by Radical Roots; the natural alliance of black and green could save the world, if we claim it by James Gustave Speth & J. Phillip Thompson III.

It’s a very short, impactful article which underlines the connections between the environmentalist and civil rights movements. Both identify neoliberal society as the key blockade for the progressive human and natural cause. They also highlight the widespread devaluation of life that we have arrived at.

The distinct separation of human beings from nature (rooting from Western biblical practices, which saw European man created in God’s image) may be held responsible for a lack of respect for the earth and its resources. This distinction is also reflected in the de-humanisation and mistreatment of non-whites which we have seen occur throughout history (going back to colonial domination over indigenous people & land).

And it’s not an exaggeration when they state that this relationship, of white superiority over non-whites, permeates the systems that function today. Nor is it an exaggeration when they highlight that the drivers of our capitalist system care far too little about the human and natural world.

We see the de-humanisation of people of colour evidenced in the disproportionate amount that end up in the prison system, stigmatised and later discriminated against upon rejoining the community. This is driven by a society which aims to punish and hide its most vulnerable, rather than support them equitably.

We see a complete devaluation of human life in the intimidating military-style, trigger-happy interactions of police with the public. This seems to be driven by a fear for protecting the individual unit, and lack of trust in each other as compassionate human beings.

And we see the distancing from our sources of food and lack of care for animal’s treatment. This is driven by a consumer culture that wants things quick and cheap, and a market that facilitates an invisible food source as if it wasn’t a living thing at all.

These issues are diverse and multilayered. However when I read the article I realised that the link between environmental issues and the inequalities of minority groups, has presented itself to me prior to this.

Last year for an Anthropology of Development class I read the ethnography: Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith by Vincanne Adams. It addresses the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the African American population of New Orleans. Adams brings to the surface the direct exclusionary practices of the state and private recovery companies, such as: preventing repairs loans for people who lost all banking and insurance paperwork in the disaster & re-building and renting at higher costs which previous residents could not afford. These events saw the permanent displacement of 13% of New Orleans’ African American population.

My attention was called to the experience of displacement more recently during a Cinco De Mayo event at Juvenile Hall, San Leandro (where I spent 6 months volunteering). Staff members from Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ, a community group which aims to break cycles of violence and poverty, working directly with affected youth) performed and served food for the youth in custody. One member recited spoken word poetry she had written (over 15 years ago) about gentrification of the Mission District of San Francisco. She felt sad that it was still relevant today. During the event the emphasis was on the experiences of the youth in custody, the majority of whom are of black and brown skin colours. The theme of being stripped of your identity and belonging, drew unity and strength amongst the room. It was very powerful to me as an ‘outsider’, being one in a handful of white people present, and fortunate to never have experienced societal displacement.

Another prominent example for me occurred during a talk on Climate Impacts, Water and Adaptation by Kathy Jacobs at the University of California, Irvine in April 2016. (Kathy is the Director of the Center for Climate Adaptation, Science and Solutions and Professor in Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science at University of Arizona. She is a white woman and is well educated with a reasonably influential job.) Amongst the various climate change statistics and strategies for addressing these, she mentioned that climate change is also a chronic stressor for indigenous groups and other people in poverty because they are at worst risk of extreme impact. It’s promising that analysts and leaders are aware of this issue and discussing it. But these themes need to be shown to everyone, not just the climate change community.

We need to acknowledge that the neoliberal market takes advantage of lower socioeconomic demographics being unable to recover from the impacts of environmental (along with other) stressors, ultimately profiting from their displacement and the gentrification of more and more areas.

Seth & Thompson’s conclusion is that our environmental and civil rights issues stem from a long history of arrogance. Arrogance surrounding the ‘other’, arrogance surrounding the superiority of the white man. I wholly agree with them. This continues today.

The next step is taking notice of the evidence of these issues as they occur in real life, self-reflecting, extending care to the earth and other humans, and having a willingness to adapt.


Note: While the issues discussed may relate to other parts of the world, or the entire global community, this particular stream of consciousness stems from thoughts and materials centred around the United States.


Powered by Radical Roots; the natural alliance of black and green could save the world, if we claim it by James Gustave Speth & J. Phillip Thompson III, The Nation, May 9 2016, pp. 22-25.

Climate Impacts, Water and Adaptation; findings of the third national climate assessment (NCA3) by Kathy Jacobs (audio + powerpoint), at the University of California Irvine, April 14 2016.

Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith; New Orleans in the wake of Katrina by Vincanne Adams, 2013.


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