Are Mainstream Environmental Groups Keeping Racism Alive?

Editor's note: This story is part of PolicyMic's Millennials Take On Climate Change series this week.

We are living in an age of world-wide energy and financial crises. In Westernized nations like the one I live in, poor rural communities are suffering now: small Appalachian communities ravaged by mountain-top removal mining, rural farms surrounded by frack wells. But what about the communities we don’t hear about?

Here we need look no further than Houston’s toxic East End, a textbook example of environmental racism, where mostly Latina/o children living fence-line to industry are poisoned mercilessly by refineries like Shell, Exxon, and Valero. Environmental racism (ER) is just another form of systemic racism, the ongoing legacy of colonialism, genocide, and slavery. ER is the intentional and systematic targeting of communities of color with respect to environmental hazards and failure to enforce environmental regulations. For businesses which threaten public and environmental health, it is easier to operate near low-income communities of color with less political and economic power to resist.

When we remove the American-centric lens we are encouraged to view the world through, we see that environmental racism is a global phenonmenon. Because of globalization, an ambiguous term that is usually laden with warm connotations of unification, corporations are highly mobile. This makes it easy to travel anywhere in the world to maximize profits through the least government and environmental regulations, the best tax incentives and the cheapest labor (easily exploitable communities). Consequently, we see the destruction of indigenous cultures, livelihoods, and the fragile and unique ecosystems that plant, animal, and human life alike depend upon to sustain.

Some Americans who consider themselves “well-meaning,” “left-leaning,” “liberal,” “earth-friendly,” etc. recognize the corruption and get sad, upset, and restless. If not pacified, they could become a threat to the status quo.

Enter the most powerful tool of the environmental movement: the big green non-governmental organization (NGO). 

Big green NGOs present an exciting semblance of resistance that tells Americans that they can make a difference just by clicking here, signing there, sending in monthly donations, watching a flashy video about an adventurous “direct action” that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to pull off, and making bi-annual trips to the White House to really give that darn president a piece of your mind!

These “movements” seem to do everything in their power to placate, pacify and render ineffective their target consumers: white, liberal Americans with a small sense of the hollowness of everyday life in capitalist America. By proposing simple and false solutions inside a framework of “peaceful resistance,” potential disruptors of the status quo are rendered ineffective while believing they are engaged in meaningful resistance.

In reality, the mainstream environmental movement in the U.S. has done almost nothing to counter the political and economic conditions that make participation in environmental movements an impossibility for many people from the very low-income communities of color that are bearing the brunt of the assault.

Tom Goldtooth, the Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, said in a 2011 interview with Africa Report, “If you look at the NGOs, these are European 'white' NGOs, and there is tremendous racism and classism woven into that. When an ethnic person speaks up, they get offended they don't want a solution from the marginalized. They want to devise the solution they feel is best for the whole system — and we have to ask ourselves what the system they actually represent, entails ... We challenged the big organizations with environmental racism including Greenpeace and Sierra Club, to bring our voices to the board ... They resisted us.

“Look at 350.org — we had to challenge them to bring us to stand with them on the pipeline issue. Bill McKibben, the Ivory Tower white academic, didn’t even want to take the time to bring people of color to the organizing.”

350.org, just one example of a problematic NGO, has the look and feel of an authentic grassroots movement, but in reality it is a multi-million dollar campaign outfitted with a staff that receives six-figure checks. In addition to placating the public and perpetuating systemic racism, 350.org has recieved funding from the Rockefeller family, one of the most elite and nefarious families of all time.

Their most insidious superficial means of appeasement? Promoting divestment campaigns, an easy way to quell would-be radicals on college campuses by exploiting impressionable students to spend vast amounts of time, energy, and resources to divest their schools from fossil fuels, which are arguably not only a waste of time, but overtly counterproductive. 

We must refuse to be obedient and passive “movement builders” armed with e-mail lists, invoking the name of Bill McKibben, and marching towards the next carefully calculated, police-approved, staged “action.” The stakes are so high, with 400,000 people, mostly people of color, dying each year from climate-related disasters. Time is running out for countering the damage that has been done to the global environment. We must dismantle not only capitalism and globalization, but the mainstream NGO trope along with them. 

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Kat Stevens

Kat grew up in the Finger Lakes bioregion of "New York", occupied Haudenosaunee Confederacy territories, Cayuga Nation. Kat is a co-founder of the Finger Lakes Action Network, a board member for the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, a co-founder of the Wildseeds Collective for independent media, a member of the Earth First! Journal Collective and has been an organizer and spokesperson with the Tar Sands Blockade. Kat works with student and community groups across the country providing workshops, trainings, and lectures on topics such as environmental racism and the intersectionalities of systems of oppression.

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