“The first principle of the exploitive mind is to divide and conquer. And surely there has never been a people more ominously and painfully divided than we are both against each other and within ourselves” Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America

I don’t go outside, I go inside. I live outside. I love the outdoors, I don’t call it “the outdoors” though, I call it the world. My love for the world and my disdain for the indoors is an important part of my life. I’ve been interested in ecological justice movements for years but I’ve noticed ecological justice movements I am a part of are usually homogeneous, they are usually White folks like me. The more I’ve learned about ecology the more this concerned me, but the more that I’ve learned I’ve also begun to recognize some solutions. I hope to stop being divided and conquered, but instead to unite and heal. This blog entry and its successor will explore the importance of diversity, not just biodiversity but racial diversity as crucial factors to healing the land.

“For members of the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, and Nature Conservancy the only question is how much land can be protected in the form of ‘wilderness’ -areas in camping, hiking, backing, and the like, writes Laura Pulido in Environmental Racism. This concern for preserving an area untainted by human interaction was a product of the Romantic period we are slowly weaning ourselves from. One can look to Bill McKibben’s End of Nature or read up on Jacques Derrida’s critique of Claude Levi-Strauss’s structuralism to see the division between nature and culture begin to disintegrate. This dualistic tendancy still affects ecological justice organizations today, although much less today than a decade ago when “the poisoning of an urban community by an incinerator facility was a community health issue, not an environmental one[1].” While ecological justice organizations and the academic field of ecocriticism has made strides in healing this divide its limitation to stop at healing the nature/culture divide has stunted its growth. By mending the division ecological justice organizations make between economics, politics, and history it can reach its full potential: a movement capable of impeaching corporations from their throne in the United States and replacing that throne with a balanced community of creation[2].

You may think I am concerned about dismantling racism in environmental justice organizations because I harbor White guilt (I do, and I’m working through it) or because I have some sort of fantasy that a diverse community will automatically make the world a magically great place (again, I kind of do and will explain below) but I want to take a moment to talk about a real sort of reverse racism.

Popular imagination would have it that reverse racism is racism of People Of Color (POC) against White people. This has been debunked because an oppressed community cannot be systemically oppressive to the dominant community. (Here’s a funny video about it). The sort of reverse racism I’m talking about is the kind I see in Christian conferences and permaculture convergences. No doubt this occurs at other conferences too but I honestly only pay attention to Christian and permaculture conferences- so I’ll limit my critique to them although I’m fairly certain it doesn’t end there. What a friend of mine calls “adding sprinkles to the cupcake.” This sort of tokenism actually perpetuates racism just by adding a POC or two on the docket or sometimes even to the leadership an organization does not stop it from being racist. That is, if the term can be properly applied, reverse racism, although the term is probably better left to die. I only used it here in an effort to explain a quick fix can make the problem worse. Treating a symptom only lets a disease continue, we must instead treat the origin of the symptom.

I’m actually concerned about dismantling racism for very selfish reasons. I want to dismantle racism in organizations and institutions I am a part of, environmental justice organizations, especially Christian ones, because I want them to excel, I want them to be regenerative. When you plant a bunch of corn by itself it does okay. When you plant corn with beans and squash they excel, they create symbiotic relationships known as a plant guild. “The trio qualifies as a guild because each of these plants supports and benefits the others. The beans draw nitrogen from the air and, via symbiotic bacteria, convert the nitrogen to plant-available form, boosting the growth of all three vegetables. The cornstalks form a trellis for the bean vines to climb. The rambling squash, with its broad leaves, forms a living parasol that densely covers the ground, inhibiting weeds and keeping the soil cool and moist. Further cementing this trio together comes the news from scientists that the roots of the corn ooze specific sugars that are the perfect nourishment for the nitrogen-fixing bacteria[3]… Jane Mt. Pleasant, an agronomist at Cornell University who has blended her Iroquois heritage with her research, has shown that total yields of this guild, measured in calories, are about 20 percent more than comparable yields of corn grown alone in an equal-sized plot[4]. Certainly, each individual is unique and adds their own bit of complexity to a group. Each sweet meat squash (an amazing squash developed by Carol Deppe specifically for Oregon) is unique and beautiful in its own way, but a crop of sweet meat squashes are still only squashes and are not nearly as productive as when working together with their good friends corn and beans. People of other cultures, ethnicities, and socio-economic classes do the same thing when they become part of a group.  Integrating other dimensions to the system is imperative to becoming a regenerative community. This is no easy task though.

How Can We Integrate?

One of the main problems POC face, who are typically the lower end of the socio-economic strata because of historical-structural racism, is they are often employed by the corporations responsible for the degradations of the environment. And we are told not to bite that hand that feeds us, one of our famous American proverbs (it seems to me almost all American proverbs are ways of subjugating people, coercion from the cradle.) Before the creation of the “American Dream,” creating a culture that emphasized home ownership which must be had through loans and debt, unions were much more powerful. Nowadays if workers go on strike a majority run the risk of losing their homes, any form of noncompliance can result in homelessness. “[U]nless an environmental movement emerges that is capable of addressing these economic concerns, people of color and poor White workers are likely to end up siding with corporate managers in key conflicts concerning the environment.” (23) This is the sort of division corporations utilize to advance their ecologically degrading programs, they are always couched in job creation rhetoric. Most have heard this rhetoric around Keystone XL and we’ve more recently and locally seen it with the coal trains. This is the blind spot of ecological justice organizations, they are typically comprised of middle or upper class White people, often of retirement age.

In Confronting Environmental Racism Robert D. Bullard evaluates nine ecological justice movements led by POC. Grassroots movements focused on ecological justice happen quite often and predominantly are led by women of color. These movements have typically begun because of an obvious problem within oppressed communities: a landfill being zoned nearby, a water treatment plant being constructed, uranium being mined, etc. Organizers of grassroots movements typically lack any experience but that did not prove to be an insurmountable barrier[5] and “actions taken by grassroots activist to reduce environmental inequities are consistent with the struggle to end the other forms of social injustice found throughout our society- in housing education, employment, health care, criminal justice, and politics[6].” Much can be learned from these movements: their tactics, organization, recruitment strategy, and development but what is important here is that they are often litigating against the government or against corporations (probably time we start dismantling this divide too!) This tactic, along with others, are often strengthened by working with other local or national ecological justice organizations. A good way to think about this is not in terms of building alliances, but building accomplices. There is more than one reason for this switch but in the case of ecological justice organizations I think it makes more explicit the power dynamics between “us” and the “powers and principalities.” Ecological justice organizations must be economically and politically subversive, so we need to be and make accomplices, not allies.

I would warn against initiatives that try to make an ecological justice organization more diverse to avoid looking like a whitewashed tomb. As mentioned above this can result in tokenism but when we recognize the social, economic, racial, and political intersections of ecological injustice and the interlocking factors we have a genuine impetus to engage with and become accomplices to other social justice and grassroots movements. Their battle and our battle are all part of the same “war,” or the same nonviolent act of subversion as us Jesus-type folks may have it. It is vital to do more than pay lip service advocating for other movements and organizations. Ecological justice organizations shouldn’t just make public they support this initiative or that, but actually get involved with the effort. The ecological justice organization should contribute out of its own distinctive purpose. For instance, if an ecological justice organization chose to support PAALF with their attempts to halt the building of a Trader Joe’s recently they could do so for ecological reason. PAALF would rather this land be used for local businesses, ecologically-minded folks know local business have less impact on the ecosystem than national or regional businesses that transport goods from all over the world to the local marketplace. This sort of accomplice-building works for the benefit of both organizations and contributes to a stronger community economically, environmentally, and socially. Sign the petition today if you’d like, but more importantly get involved and look for opportunities to become an accomplice. If not with PAALF with other efforts to stop social injustice like VOZ. Hire a day laborer to help with church or home maintenance. Squash, meet corn.

Stay tuned for part II of Matt’s blog post!


[1] Nature as Community: The Convergence of Environmental and Social Justice Giovanni Di Chiro, p. 300 as cited in American Indian Literature, Environmental Justice, and Ecocriticism, Joni Adamson

[2] Shalom and the Community of Creation, Randy Woodley

[3] Gaia’s Garden, Toby Hemenway 185

[4] Ibid.

[5] I highly recommend reading The Gender of Globalization which is rife with stories of grassroots resistance to neoliberal policies by marginalized women abroad and transnational women.

[6] Environmental Racism, Bullard 30

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Read more about Matt and other EcoFaith Recovery Interns here.

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Three Sisters Will Heal the Land (By EcoFaith Intern Matt Cumings)
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