I remember watching a film 25 years ago that made me realize just how at odds the struggles around environmentalism and racism could be. It was a short science-fiction film in which alien Space Traders came to the US and offered its leaders gold, cold fusion technology, and machines to clean the environment in exchange for all the Black people in America. Not surprisingly, after little debate, the US government agreed and Black people were rounded up by force and sent into space. It was a horrifying film—one you could feel in your gut that if something like that really happened, America’s response would have probably been exactly as the filmmaker portrayed. After all, the White majority has been sacrificing the dark-skinned minorities since before the founding of this nation.
In the aftermath of yet another round of police brutality, exposed disparities of health outcomes in minority communities made more visible by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the powerful response of the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been a growing dialogue around White supremacy, antiracism, and intersectionalist environmentalism—a dialogue that has been opening the eyes of White people like me in past months. I acknowledge (shamefully) that I am grappling more now with the systemic racism that pervades the United States more than I ever have before.
For me, since my environmental awakening, I’ve focused on the long-term survival of humanity—that means all people—and increasingly (in recent years) the sustaining of Gaia, which while marginalized by the dominant anthropocentric culture and civilization, has far more right to life than any of us do (though to be clear we, humans, are part of Gaia so we, too, have a right to life).
While my research and advocacy (particularly on consumerism) provided me space to be critical of the exploitation of humans around the world (necessary in order to provide our unending parade of cheap consumer goods), I admit that I did not focus on the immediate social challenges of racism within the U.S. I didn’t do that maliciously, though I do recognize now that my being White allowed me to ignore it. After all, I benefit from this system every day. But I also rationalized disengagement by thinking of it as ‘not my battle,’ that the abuse experienced within US borders was not as extensive as that in countries we actively exploit for our resources and manufacturing, and, if I’m being honest (and acknowledging my inherent racism), didn’t feel as important—for if we don’t address sustainability, first and foremost, then we all die because we kill the planet, and thus all other social struggles are all moot.
I understand now that that was wrong.
In a recent article in Sierra, Hop Hopkins wrote, “You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can’t have disposable people without racism.” Meaning if we didn’t see some people as disposable, we wouldn’t destroy their homes, their water, their soil, in order to extract natural gas, or bury or burn garbage, or smelt metal, or manufacture cheap disposable goods we don’t really need. And it is racism that allows the elite, the policymakers, and the majority to believe that it’s in the collective interest to sacrifice certain people (whether for space gold or cheap energy).
No Growth without Disposable People
Hopkins makes an important point, but it’s a step not far enough. In reality, we can’t have growth without sacrifice zones and disposable people. Economic growth requires the exploitation of people and the planet. Period. In the early years, that came in the form of colonialism, slavery, killing or driving Indigenous people away to take their land and resources. Now, we have export processing zones and sweatshops, as well as modern forms of slavery (like the armies of brown-skinned fishing slaves abducted in order to feed White consumers’ pets); the establishment of toxic industries in poorer (and often minority areas); and the conversion of tropical forests (also once or still Indigenous land) into soy or palm plantations. Actually not much has changed in the past four centuries, other than perhaps the speed and scale of the exploitation, and the effectiveness of the public relations efforts in hiding the abuses, so that this business/exploitation-as-usual can continue.
So we can’t stop racism, or White (and, highly overlapping, wealth) supremacy, without ending growth—actually without intentionally degrowing human society back within the limits of Earth (so that no one needs to be exploited but we can live off Earth’s bounty/surplus). But without better distribution, those who have been exploited for decades, even centuries, will never agree to degrowth. And thus, we will never make the radical changes necessary—until the Earth does it for us, and that tragically will lead to terrible suffering, especially to those with the fewest resources, those living in the tropics (which could become too hot to be livable), and those living in low-lying areas (which in the US, again, is often poorer communities and communities of color)—in other words, to those victims of racism already being exploited.
Remember: there are 7.8 billion of us on the planet. Even if we all live like Cubans (good healthcare and education but very few consumer luxuries), we’d be pushing up against the edge of the planet’s biocapacity. And there are more of us on the way, while Earth is getting less healthy and able to care for us from our years of abuse.
So the idea that this system, in which the world’s 2,153 billionaires hold more wealth than 4.6 billion people can survive is sheer nonsense. It could in theory morph: into a corporate republic or some sort of feudal system, held in place by violence and a soldier class, and as food and basic goods become scarce, I’m sure in some places this will become increasingly the case (America’s current system certainly could prove to be a precursor to this path). That is a scenario where everyone but a few would merely eke out an existence, not pursue a higher purpose of their choosing or help undo the multiple centuries of damage the Earth has endured during our expansionist period. And thus, things would just keep getting worse and worse until a new carrying capacity is reached (a few hundred million people perhaps?).
Collective Sacrifice Requires Solidarity
Alternatively, we can rebel against this inequitable distribution of goods—not to redistribute, which I know is the easy/safe answer, but to bring everyone down to a very simple way of living—one that still leaves room for joy, for community, and for health and happiness (and perhaps even higher levels of wellbeing as fewer people derive their meaning from exploitative and Earth-destroying consumer goods on the one end, and on the other end, fewer will be working multiple jobs just to survive).
Memorial of George Floyd in downtown Portland, Oregon. Photo by RickMouser45
But that then requires solidarity. A recognition that we’re all in this together—in the long-run, but therefore, also right now. If environmentalists don’t stand with Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) now in this urgent struggle for justice, then this continuing wound of racism will prevent any real solidarity in the future. That’s not to say this is purely instrumental (i.e. fight racism to prevent climate collapse). It’s a continuing injustice that is wrong. Full stop. And incompatible with environmentalist values of justice, fairness, and sustainability. And only if we heal the divides we’ve created and sustained (even just through our ignoring of them) will we be able to come together to make the collective sacrifice necessary to stave off rapid and total environmental collapse.*
Also, if we cannot expand our perspective to transcend White supremacy, how are we going to transcend “human supremacy,” that is, the delusional belief that we are outside of nature, that we don’t have to obey the same laws as every other species on the planet? It is this denial/false exceptionalism that deceives us into pursuing infinite growth—sacrificing countless other people, creatures, and species against their will in the process.
We have a long journey to make toward solidarity. Starting with people of all colors, cultures, and countries. Of all genders and sexualities. And if those weren’t difficult enough, of solidarity with all species. And the biosphere as a whole. Only then, when we understand that we’re all in this together will we start making the choices that are truly best for all of us—not just for White people, not just for all people, but for all life, for Gaia.
Post-Script: What’s this mean to Gaians?
What this means is that racism or sexism or any other prejudice in any explicit or implicit form is never acceptable. That we stand in solidarity for the struggles for equity for all and that all people are equal (no exceptions). Of course, I feel I don’t even need to say this, but it also means that all persons of any race, sex, culture, gender can be Gaians, can hold a position of responsibility in the Gaian community as long as they commit themselves to the active healing of Gaia. It is truly outrageous that in some religions certain races, women, LGBTQ+ individuals, classes, and others continue to be made unwelcome or prevented from holding positions of responsibility. Gaianism is welcoming to all—as we are all the children of and part of Gaia.
That said, A Gaian Perspective on Race and Racism was drafted a few months ago and we have now included it on the website. It is a working draft and we welcome constructive comments or suggestions on that page.
Special thanks to the Coginchaug Area Transition group for hosting two recent conversations on race and environmental justice and sparking this essay.
*Not collapse of this exploitative western society, which inevitably will either be dismantled intentionally (degrowth) or will buckle and implode from the changes of the Earth that we have already locked into our future, but a shift so significant that human civilization—possibly even the human species—will no longer be possible.