Environmentalism and Racism: connecting the local to the global

In truth, the founding fathers of Western environmentalism ranged from garden variety racists to fully-fledged eugenicists.

By Gurnam Singh | OPINION |

Against the backdrop of the cold-blooded killing of George Floyd, most public discussions about racism draw attention to acts of police brutality and hate crime. Additionally, we may talk about the ongoing injustices related to racism in goods, employment and services and institutional racism. Rarely do we think about environmental racism!

There are many wonderful people in the green moment and I personally have embraced environmental activism in my own politics. Saving the natural ecology of the planet and tackling climate change by moving towards renewable energies and sustainable models of growth is good for us all. It leads to a cleaner and greener world, and that is good for humans, animals and plants.

The big problem with the green movement is that protecting the ecology does not preclude the infiltration of far-right reactionary ideologues. Indeed, the origins of the modern ‘western’ environmental movement include some very dodgy characters and ulterior motives related to race purity and mythological ideas about a previously untouched pristine white landscapes.

All the data on climate change confirms that Indigenous people and people of colour and poor people are disproportionately affected, whilst having little responsibility for this state of affairs. But looking in the mainstream green movement, and the media more generally, they are often forgotten or excluded.

In a recent piece entitled The Environmental Movement Needs to Reckon with Its Racist History, Julian Brave NoiseCat – who is director narrative change at the Natural History Museum) – on 16 September 2019, argues that: “The environment is no longer a white sanctuary…“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.”

When we talk about environmentalism we have to make a distinction between two different kinds of environmentalism. There is the everyday environmentalism of indigenous peoples whose lives as far as I can see are the embodiment of ecological living and therefore this kind of environmentalism is as old as the human species. Then we have modern environmentalism which is predominantly a Western idea that grew during the past 150 years or so in response to questions about land guardianship, demographics, (i)migration, industrialisation and leisure.

In truth, the founding fathers of Western environmentalism ranged from garden variety racists to fully-fledged eugenicists. For example, we have Henry David Thoreau, the American essayist, poet, and philosopher. He was a leading transcendentalist, naturalist and abolitionist whose writings inspired Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., among others. But he also held troubling, but typical views about the inevitable demise of Native Americans. In his influential 1862 essay “Walking,” he wrote: “I think that the farmer displaces the Indian even because he redeems the meadow, and so makes himself stronger and in some respects more natural.”

Another figure is John Muir, a co-founder of the Sierra Club and disciple of Thoreau. The Sierra Club is an environmental organization that was founded in 1892, in San Francisco, California. It was one of the first large-scale environmental preservation organizations in the world and currently engages in lobbying politicians to promote environmentalist policies, currently promoting sustainable energy, mitigating global warming, and opposing the use of coal. Muir 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,”

Whilst there is a particular issue about the way in which in the West, eugenics has historically been associated with racial purity and white supremacy, the right-wing appropriation of environmentalism can also be seen in the East.

In India for instance, in a piece entitled ‘Purifying the Sacred: How Hindu Nationalism Reshapes Environmentalism in Contemporary India’ Owen Ellerkamp highlights how Hindutva ideologues are appropriating the environmental agenda. He suggests that this is done by the ‘transposition of the cultural, religious, and sacred onto physical geographies’, which he argues ‘ is practiced by humans everywhere. He goes onto argue that in the present moment, as India seeks to respond to the is own environmental catastrophe, ‘the preservation of “sacred geographies” is being presented by the Hindutva. ideologues as critical to the preservation of Hindu traditions. It is through ‘delineating Hindu nationalist histories and contemporary politics, that ‘environmental work politicizes the landscape through a Hindutva framework through the (re)imagination of Hindu pasts and futures through essentialist and fundamentalist lens.

The Black Lives Movement (#BLM), which was born to highlight and confront state brutality as was so horrifyingly demonstrated in the killing of George Floyd. It has now morphed into a wider struggle against ongoing legacies colonialism and white supremacy. It is important that the movement continues to evolve and for sure it will need to address environmental racism, which is manifest both in the way mercantile capitalism has sought to exploit people and the planet and also in white supremacist romanticisation of space and place.

And whilst the Black Lives Matter is rightly focussed on anti-black racism in the West, given the global dimension of climate disaster and the rise of oppressive nationalism across the world, it is important to connect the struggle for environmental justice with anti-racism on a global level. Indeed, one of the most encouraging features of the Black Lives Movement is its inclusive and international nature.


[Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at Gurnam.singh.1@warwick.ac.uk]

* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.



Time to flip some prevailing ideas (Asia Samachar, 24 April 2020)

Sohan Singh Bhakna: Founder of revolutionary Ghadr Party (Asia Samachar, 21 Jan 2019)

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