by Éle Ní Chonbhuí
While ‘saving the planet’ we often mistake our actions for selfless sacrifices, rather than what they actually are – necessities. Many climate activists, myself included, have painted themselves as paragons of virtue due to their interest in the environment. Yet, suggesting that environmentalists are more morally mature through their decisions, infers that environmentalism is a choice. If the general population were presented with an idea of environmentalism as the next stage in our development, instead of a set of beliefs, it could increase its palatability – and therefore, its impact.
In fact, the very phrase ‘saving the planet’ is entirely misleading. We are only trying to keep it hospitable. We’re not saving any planets; we’re saving ourselves. By placing environmentalism on a pedestal, we have isolated it from other movements, which completely diminishes the impacts that it should have. Questioning the practices of climate activists is sometimes seen as a denial of the existence of Climate Change – or at least denying its urgency. This is completely untrue. There are many aspects of the climate movement that you can engage with, and critique, without having to wholly associate yourself with one point of view. Critique from, and collaboration with, all perspectives is utterly crucial to the proper development of climate justice. We only have to remember that the issues within the movement do not undermine the entire concept.
Environmentalism may be considered ethical, but its history would suggest otherwise. The racist history of environmentalism is far too complex for me to properly discuss, but for reference; many prominent early ecologists believed in eugenics (including the founder of the Sierra Club John Muir), and arguments around overpopulation often have racist overtones regarding poor people of colour globally. Green 2.0’s report on diversity in environmental organisations in 2014 found that of the NGOs that responded 88% of staff, and 95% of the boards were white, not to mention that people of colour tend to be the worst affected by and most concerned with climate change. In far subtler ways, climate action has been limited by decidedly white and western modes of thought. Sarah Jaquette Ray points out in her article “Climate Anxiety is an Overwhelmingly White Phenomenon” that climate anxiety is a continuation of white fragility. I would argue that in a more global sense, it becomes a form of “western fragility”. It distracts from the issue, puts the attention back onto white people, and more importantly, values despair. It also gives rise to apathy and inaction, or zealotry and extremism. The fact is that popular culture is still dominated by black influence, which is partially why it hasn’t been used to full effect to encourage climate activism. The pervasiveness of climate anxiety and fatalism in culture deters people from the movement. The necessity to create new, resilient, traditions in the face of an unlivable future may be new to some, but it most certainly isn’t to all.
“If we recognised that environmentalism is a practical movement, rather than a moral one, it would be easier to take criticism”
Discussions of race and environmentalism favour the USA, but the arguments are highly applicable to class. Low income households around the world are living with the reality of climate change already. As Peter Newell puts it in his paper on “Race, Class and the Global Politics of Environmental Inequality” the “elite control of the framings of problems” has emphasised the future impact of climate change – leaving poorer communities out of the narrative, and therefore out of the solutions. As it stands, environmentalism is run by the people who benefit the most from the global destructive system of inequality we have to change, inevitably limiting our responses. According to Oxfam, the richest 1% of people cause double the amount of CO2 emissions than the poorest 50%. Having that 1% lead environmental efforts has often led to solutionism and connoisseurship in our activism. By solutionism, I mean reactionary solutions that do not tackle the root of the problem. Usually, these are global decisions made by elite groups, that have massive local consequences that go unnoticed. Ironically, grassroots activism frequently gets ignored by major green initiatives. Connoisseurship is a loose term, which generally means the practice of preserving and appreciating beauty. There’s nothing evidently wrong with that, but when applied to conservation – the lack of interaction with nature and the value of beauty fail to really change how we integrate sustainability into our everyday lives. It creates a world where we have National parks as a tourist destinations and communities in cities that have no access to clean water. These failed ‘solutions’ do not tackle the problems, but rather make us complicit in the injustice and harm caused by structures of inequality.
Viewing environmentalism as a belief system has allowed the prejudices of those with the luxury to develop long-term planning strategies, rather than the communities that were forced to focus on the everyday, to seep into the actions and reactions of climate activism. It’s not that we shouldn’t build a movement on a white supremacist, classist system, it’s that we can’t. If we recognised that environmentalism is a practical movement, rather than a moral one, it would be easier to take criticism, not as a judgement on our ethics, but as our logic. Further, the implication of environmentalism as a moral code alienates many people who have rational problems with the climate movement. It remains that a factual approach to sustainability would be more inclusive, diverse, hopeful, loving and resilient.
For my own sake, I would like to add that although I consider environmentalism to be entirely factual and scientific, my relationship with the environment is founded on soulfulness and love. However, my emotions have gotten the better of me in the past. By thinking I had less value in the days that I wasn’t my ‘best’ environmentalist, I started to give up. We have to ask ourselves, who do we need to be environmentalists? Not the best people, but everyone. For us to have our bodies and our minds, we must have the support of the whole earth behind us. It’s true we’re saving ourselves, but selfishness has no place in justice. Rather, it is that we are unified with the earth, so by fighting for ourselves we are fighting for everything. If we have this as our core belief, we can continue to act practically, without jeopardising our values.
The complexity of climate action is compounded by the fact that we want to keep the world we have by radically changing it. In trying to protect the interests of environmentalism, we have only managed to insulate its members – and therefore its achievements. We have to criticise every aspect of our activism, but some problematic elements do not make the whole thing a problem. Environmentalism might not be a moral issue, but it doesn’t have to lack heart. Recognition of the self in nature, and the self in others, are the keys to strategic policy – and the basis of fact.