Woke Environmentalism

Christopher W. Wells, ed., Environmental Justice in Postwar America: A Documentary Reader, forward by Paul S. Sutter (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018)

There is an especially remarkable moment in the viral campaign video that helped propel Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to her attention-grabbing victory over 20-year incumbent Representative Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th Congressional district. “It’s time we acknowledge that not all Democrats are the same,” she says, before laying out her criticism of Crowley.” A Democrat who takes corporate money, profits off foreclosure, doesn’t live here, doesn’t send his kids to our schools”—and then, the crescendo—”doesn’t drink our water or breathe our air cannot possibly represent us.”

Those eight words are the only environmental messaging in the spot, but they are also the hardest working. To draw a contrast with her opponent, she makes claims about what it means to belong to a place. Before we are taxpayers or entitlement recipients, business owners or workers, homeowners or renters, we are sacks of guts and bones, hopelessly vulnerable to the world around us. When Ocasio-Cortez describes her district as “a place where your zip code determines your destiny,” she is speaking not only of the punishing economic conditions her neighbors face but also the inescapable ecologies they are obliged to endure. She is making an environmental justice critique.

A woman in a red blazer holds a cup of water smiles as she chats with two young girls selling muffins and popcorn.

A still from “The Courage to Change,” the viral campaign video of Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who makes an implicit environmental justice argument when she contrasts herself with her opponent who “doesn’t breathe our air or drink our water.”

Historian Christopher Wells has assembled a useful new resource to trace the roots of Ocasio-Cortez’s eight words: Environmental Justice in Postwar America: A Documentary Reader, published just last month by the University of Washington Press, whose Weyerhaeuser Environmental Classics series already includes excellent document collections on the history of Progressive conservation, DDT and Silent Spring, nuclear energy, climate change, and environmental politics around the first Earth Day.

The cover of "Environmental Justice in Postwar America: A Documentary Reader" edited by Christopher W. Wells. The photograph shows a large bridge above a flooded residential neighborhood with smoke spewing from factories in the middle distance.

Environmental justice is, as Wells defines it, the “minority-led movement” mobilized around “a broader range of issues than those addressed by establishment environmental organizations, including adequate housing, occupational exposure to harmful pollution, and the pronounced tendency of locally undesirable land use to congregate disproportionately in minority neighborhoods.”

The book chronicles environmental justice’s history with 80 artifacts dating from the late 1930s up though 2016. More than ten percent of the content is from this decade alone, entirely appropriate for a movement that is becoming only more vibrant and varied with each passing year. Wells is careful to note that the forces against which environmental justice activists push—“state-sanctioned racial discrimination” and “pollution and racial segregation endemic to American cities”—were features in the American landscape long before World War II. But his interest is in tracing the long, halting coming together of the civil rights movement and mainstream environmentalism in the decades since.

This is not a story of poor and racialized Americans having a belated environmental awakening. It is instead the tale of them beating down the doors of institutions and movements that have overlooked them. In 1972, a Sierra Club survey (included in the book) found that 40 percent of the mainstay group’s members “strongly disagreed” with an insultingly worded proposal to devote resources to “the conservation problems of such special groups as the urban poor and ethnic minorities.” Twenty years later, the Club’s executive director addressed its centennial celebration while standing next to activists Winona LaDuke and Benjamin Chavis and encouraged people of color to launch a “friendly takeover” of the Club. And now, a quarter century hence, many of the most visible environmental stories—Flint, Standing Rock, post-Katrina New Orleans—are environmental justice stories.

Wells helps us understand how we got here. From his book’s short, gripping excerpts of speeches, reports, declarations, laws, letters, oral histories, songs, and poems, five core insights emerge about the movement that, in the words of Indigenous environmental activist Tom Goldtooth, “put soul into the environmental movement.”

Environmental racism is real—and deadly

[We] found penalties against pollution law violations in minority areas are lower than those imposed for violations in largely white areas….This racial imbalance…often occurs whether the community is wealthy or poor.

Marianne LaVelle & Marcia Coyle, “Unequal Protection” (1992)

Race continues to be an independent predictor of where hazardous wastes are located, and it is a stronger predictor than income, education and other socioeconomic indicators.

Robert D. Bullard, et al., “Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty” (2007)

Environmental justice as a self-conscious movement began in the fight against the siting of a toxic waste dump in majority-Black Warren County, North Carolina in the early 1980s. This drew attention to the disproportionate presence of environmental hazards in communities of color, first detailed in a 1983 General Accounting Office study and then confirmed on a national level by the United Church of Christ’s 1987 report “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States.” A persistent criticism of environmental justice accuses activists of crying racism when they are merely observing the functions of class dynamics and property values. Wells’s documents offer a powerful rebuttal to that claim. He includes several studies which show lethal environment risks map onto racial geographies irrespective of class, and he devotes the first third of the book to the mechanisms driving postwar segregation, such as redlining and restrictive covenants, which were explicitly racist.

Environmental justice is about more than toxic waste

Environmental justice affirms the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all peoples[,]…recognize[s] a special legal and natural relationship of Native Peoples to the U.S. government…calls for the strict enforcement of principles of informed consent, and a halt to the testing of experimental reproductive and medical procedures and vaccinations on people of color…opposes military occupation…

“The Principle of Environmental Justice” (1991)

Food justice means…raising the minimum wage [to] help people have food; making sure our immigration policies are fair to those harvesting our food; making sure that women with children have child care so they can work.

LaDonna Redmond in Norma Smith Olson, “Food Justice” (2013)

Increased scholarly and political attention to racial environmental disparities, from Cancer Alley to Flint, might be seen as the signature achievement of the environmental justice movement. But perhaps even more influential has been its insistence on a big-tent definition of “the environment” and environmental problems. Early movement leader Dana Alston urged environmentalists not to ignore places “where we live, where we work, and where we play.” That may be an anthropocentric view of the environment, but it’s proven to be an indispensable anthropocentrism. It has allowed us to see how questions of governance, sovereignty, and decision-making processes affect all living things and our ecosystems. And, as Wells argues, it has helped forge the ascendant framework of “sustainability, with its emphasis on environment, economy, and equity,” which has powered climate justice, food justice, and green jobs initiatives.

We bring our pasts everywhere we go

…the threat of death is not new to Black people. Environmental pollution represents only another one amidst many, whereas for non-Blacks, it represents for the first time threats toward their survival.

Wilbur L. Thomas, Jr., “Black Survival in Our Polluted Cities” (1970)

Black people [are] constantly being told—often through violence—that the price of admission to certain places is your dignity, and possibly your life.

Brentin Mock, “For African Americans, Park Access Is about More Than Just Proximity” (2016)

…sometimes women give birth to the traumas they’ve experienced.

Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, “Rising Sea Levels” (2016)

Environmental justice isn’t just about turning attention to the underappreciated problems of overlooked places. It’s also about understanding that people’s environmental politics and aesthetics are mediated through all other dimensions of their lives. For low-income people and communities of color, environmental threats have been exacerbated by and had to be measured against the many assaults of racism and poverty. Childhood exposures to allergens, lead, and carcinogens remain in the bodies of even those who move out of unhealthy landscapes. The effects of environmental racism can be inherited, too, both genetically and culturally, as Wells shows with his selections. One discusses the stillborn babies born to women on the Marshall Islands, where the United States exploded 67 atomic bombs over two decades. Another considers the aversion some Black Americans feel toward state and national parks as the outcome of historical exclusions from such places. One young woman asks, “How do you expect me [to] appreciate these things if my parents didn’t appreciate it, my parents’ parents couldn’t appreciate it?”

Polluters aren’t the only opponents

Your organizations continue to support and promote policies which emphasize the clean-up and preservation of the environment on the backs of working people in general and people of color in particular.

SouthWest Organizing Project, “Letter to Big Ten Environmental Groups” (1990)

We had qualified people to put into Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality, but they put the white men in charge. And white men consistently make the decision to put the poisons on us. The environment is just a new lynch-post for them.

Pat Bryant in Melissa Healy, “Administration Joins Fight for ‘Environmental Justice’ Pollution” (1993)

The impressive legislative, legal, and organizational apparatus mainstream environmentalism constructed in the 1970s reflected what Chad Montrie has called the “songbirds and suburbs” concerns of middle-class white Americans. So, for environmental justice activists, fighting for the health and well-being of their communities often meant facing off against not just polluting companies but also the nation’s leading “Big Ten” environmental organizations, the Environmental Protection Agency, and state and local conservation bureaucracies. Wells shows that the rebuttal of choice for these organizations was to champion “colorblind” environmental policy-making, which proved just as disingenuous and destructive as arguments for colorblindness in other contexts.

Environmental justice is borderless—and environmentalism’s best hope

The study of ecology—man’s relationship with his environment—should teach us that our relationship with each other are just as intricate and just as delicate as those with our natural environment. We cannot afford to correct our history of abusing nature and neglect the continuing abuse of our fellow man.

Senator Edmund Muskie, “Speech at the Philadelphia Earth Week Rally” (1970)

The coal miners. They are people, too. They are people, too! And they have to be included.

Van Jones, “Power Shift Keynote” (2009)

Environmental justice is in the lexicon, but we’re making it up as we go along…. It’s changing and you can be changing it. It’s messy and unstructured, relentless and global.

Leslie Fields in Brian Bienkowski, “2017 and Beyond: Justice Jumping Genres” (2017)

When mainstream environmentalism began to coalesce in the late 1960s, it was not immediately clear that it would pay so little attention to social problems and urban landscapes. In fact, its torchbearers in the Senate, like Edmund Muskie and Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, articulated an expansive environmentalism that was in step with the liberal initiatives of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty. Environmental justice has been marked by this openness and flexibility throughout its history, and its definitional devotion to grassroots organizing has helped it inspire activism around new problems and across borders. Jason W. Moore, updating W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous dictum, has written, “The problem of the global environment is the problem of the world color line.” The environmental justice movement has shown itself to be well-equipped to agitate at all scales, whether that means fighting city planning commissions, the EPA, or global racial capitalism.

Dana Alston, who urged environmentalists to attend to places “where we live, where we work, and where we play,” at a meeting of the Southwest Network for Environmental & Economic Justice in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Photo from the professional website of Dr. Robert Bullard.

“Our movement is not a reaction to the environmental movement,” Dana Alston told leaders of Big Ten environmental groups in 1991. “Our vision of the environment is woven into an overall framework of social, racial and economic justice. It is deeply rooted in our cultures and our spirituality.” By letting Alston and many other environmental justice activists speak for themselves, Wells presents environmental justice groups as organic, self-propelled phenomena rather than environmentalism’s discontents.

The collection is at its best when it features grassroots activists laying out their own environmentalist vision. There could have been even more gestures toward the movement’s capaciousness, whether that be sources from little-known local struggles or New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, which illustrates the book’s cover but is mentioned only in passing. The book’s first hundred pages, documenting the midcentury residential, occupational, and recreational segregation, are a rich resource, but probably more than are needed to set up what follows. It would be useful to have instead materials specific to the places where the activists in the book waged their campaigns. Similarly, many of the images in the book are either superfluous or insufficient. A photograph of 1940 cotton pickers in the Mississippi Delta is identical to what likely is already in the mind’s eye of most readers, while two pictures from the 1988 Great Louisiana Toxics March are quite striking and deserve more than the single sentence devoted to the event.

Wells presents environmental justice groups as self-propelled phenomena rather than environmentalism’s discontents.

In the spirit of environmental justice’s democratic commitments, we can hope that future Weyerhaeuser document reader editors will be drawn from a broader pool than white men with Ph.D.s in history from just two U.S. universities. But Wells has done an invaluable service to historians, activists, and the general public by rendering visible and accessible the diffuse, grassroots political struggles of some of the nation’s and the world’s most exploited people, who have—at long last—recast environmentalism as something worthy of a just, democratic society.

Featured image: The poet and climate justice activist Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner. Her essay “Rising Sea Levels” is excerpted in Christopher Wells’s Environmental Justice in Postwar America (University of Washington Press, 2018). 

Brian Hamilton is an editor at Edge Effects and Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he just finished teaching the course Race and Environment in the History of the United States.” His most recent contribution to Edge Effects was The Monuments We Never Built (August 2017). Website. TwitterContact.