When I was a student at Columbia in New York City there were two major divestment campaigns on campus: one for private prisons and another for fossil fuel corporations. Though they shared similar tactics and aims, their constituents looked very different from each other. The former was led by Black students. The latter was predominantly white.
John Muir, a co-founder of the Sierra Club and disciple of Thoreau, wrote about the indolence of Black “Sambos.” He described the Miwok, the Indigenous people of Yosemite, as “dirty” and “altogether hideous.” “They seem to have no right place in the landscape,” he wrote.Madison Grant, a prominent conservationist and Muir’s contemporary, wrote the 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race. The text influenced the Immigration Act of 1924, which limited emigration from Southern and Eastern Europe and Africa, and banned migrants from Asia. Adolf Hitler called the book his “bible” in an admiring letter to the author. Today, echoes of Grant can be heard in the hate speech of white nationalists like Richard Spencer.In light of this history, it is perhaps unsurprising that when Muir and Theodore Roosevelt went on perhaps the most consequential camping trip in American history in 1903, the president conserved 230 million acres of public land—an area larger than Texas—through the expulsion of Indigenous peoples and the rural poor. Dubbed “America’s best idea” by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, these parklands were first and foremost a sanctuary for Anglo-Saxon gentlemen. In truth, then, the origins of environmentalism are closer in spirit to the safari or trophy hunt than the march or sit-in.
“The origins of environmentalism are closer in spirit to the safari or trophy hunt than the march or sit-in”
Our generation must do better. “Now we have young people that are moving into spaces and are linking the various movements,” Dr. Bullard told me. “The intersectionality arguments many young people in their organizations and movements are linking together, whether it’s folks who are working on climate, energy, Black Lives Matter, criminal justice, food security… You start to bring those pieces of the puzzle together—that’s very refreshing and it will pay off in the long-run.”The environment is no longer a white sanctuary. The messy business of society, power, and race is everywhere and intertwined. People of color have made the question of who—who leads, who is represented, and who deserves justice—unavoidable. Among my generation it is becoming more common to see Black, brown, and Indigenous people—and particularly women—leading the way.“We see the legacy of a climate movement that has deeply failed people of color on many, many counts,” said Aru Shiney-Ajay, a 21-year-old child of Indian immigrants who has taken the year off from Swarthmore College to help train young people for Sunrise. “I think about why I want to really invest in leaders of color, and I’ve seen how much people have invested in me and how much Sunrise has been this life-changing process of growth. I want to give that to other people.”But an inconvenient truth remains: climate change does not answer to racism, politics, or even justice—at least not directly. Its only principles are chemistry and physics. And this might be its greatest cruelty. Power is grazing the fingertips of people of color for the first time. But as we finally start to grasp it and change an environmental movement rooted in a racist past, science may have other designs.Julian Brave NoiseCat is director of Green New Deal Strategy for the think tank Data for Progress, and narrative change director for the Natural History Museum, an artist and activist collective. He is also a correspondent for Real America with Jorge Ramos and contributing editor for Canadian Geographic. Follow him on Twitter.Have a story for Tipping Point? Email TippingPoint@vice.com
“Among my generation it is becoming more common to see Black, brown, and Indigenous people—and particularly women—leading the way”