Diversity and the environment movement

There’s an interesting article over at Politico about the challenge of diversity in the environment movement:

The green movement dreams of pushing major bills through Congress on the scale of President Barack Obama’s health care reform law and the immigration overhaul expected to begin next year.

But those issues enjoy something the green movement does not: wide and deep support across key Democratic groups, including Latinos and African-Americans.

It is an interesting for several reasons.

Firstly, I believe it shows the world-view constraints of Washington political reporters. It is largely only able to see things through the prism of congress and the GOP-Democratic horse-race. For example, its entire reference is back to the white-male demographic problems that face the Republicans — and their failure to win the votes of Latinos and African-Americans.

Similarly, the impact of the environment groups is seen (or reported) by the Politico reporter Talia Buford in terms of their ability to influence the legislative agenda of the Obama administration.

Just look at the issues that have caught traction during Obama’s presidency versus those that haven’t, said Daniel Kessler, spokesman for 350.org, the climate activist group that staged mass sit-ins and arrests outside the White House last year to protest the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

“We’ve seen stuff move over the last couple years since Obama’s been elected, where you had a broad rainbow of people come together and you have seen legislation move,” Kessler said. “The health care bill comes to mind. I think immigration reform, in this coming year, will be another example of a diverse set of people getting together, primarily led by the immigrant community in this country — Hispanic Americans. I think we’re going to see progress there too. But the climate bill didn’t have that kind of support behind it, and it crashed and burned.”

Although I only saw the health care bill and immigration reform from a distance, my view is that their success (such as it was) cannot be due solely or largely because of minority support. In fact, it is a kind of revisionism to say health care and immigration reform were enormously successful.

Obamacare, while an important reform, was a horrible compromise with Big Pharma. Ultimately, it rested on a knifes-edge when it went to the Supreme Court. It disappointed a great many advocates of health care reform because of its timidity. Rather than being any kind of social health insurance, it simply mandated the compulsory purchase of private health care and forbade the refusal

Immigration reform (or specifically the DREAM Act) likewise was only a baby-step, and really only regularised the immigration status of children and students of “undocumented” immigrants. In fact, it coincided with the largest increase in deportations of any administration — presumably a hedge by the Obama administration so he couldn’t be portrayed as “soft on illegals”.

In any case, although the environment movement’s big legislative push (the carbon tax or cap-and-trade system) was not successful, I think this is down to the fact that it faced much more staunch conservative opposition from the fossil fuel industry — the world’s most profitable industry — rather than simply a lack of diversity. (As the Politico article notes, there are many reasons for the failure of the cap-and-trade bill.)

The second reason that I find the article interesting is that it seems to wilfully ignore the many ‘people of colour’ who are deeply involved in and lead the global climate movement. While things may be quite “white” in the USA, globally, it seems to me to be different.

The most obvious example I think is Kumi Naidoo, global leader of Greenpeace, but in the opening paragraphs, Politico journalist Talia Buford quotes Van Jones, a very prominent ‘green’ and progressive leader in the US.

“You should fish where the fish are biting,” said Van Jones, the former green jobs adviser to Obama. “All causes that want longevity need to look to influence the emerging majority, which will be a nonwhite majority.”

It’s unsurprising that Van Jones and other progressive leaders should have this view. After all, the USA is undergoing a seismic demographic shift, and by 2050, whites will no longer be a majority. It’s natural that any progressive movement will need to — and in fact should encourage — an increasing number of non-white participants and leaders in its movement. If progressive organisations are to interest, engage and lead large groups of people, then they should reflect the populations they serve.

Internationally, I can think of many climate justice organisations from the Global South which are comprised by and lead by ‘people of colour’. But, in the USA, perhaps the numbers are much fewer.

I reflected on this earlier. In a nation where there is so much injustice — especially to do with issues of race and civil rights — it does not surprise me that the leaders of those communities would be more concerned with addressing those injustices than with climate change. In the Global South however, where Climate Justice movements are working hard, the people of those nations are directly affected, daily, by the damaging effects of global warming. Even with the climate-related extreme weather of Hurricane Sandy in the US, relatively few Americans see climate change happening.

Is concern about global warming a “white-person’s issue”? Do affluent white people have the relative luxury of caring about reefs and wetlands and forests?

It would be easy to think so, and I believe in Australia, the conservative media want to position concern over global warming as elitist and out of touch.

On the other hand, Jones says, minority communities care about clean air, water and open spaces, too.

During this year’s election, Latino voters in four swing states told the Natural Resources Defense Council that they supported candidates who wanted stronger EPA standards, more initiatives for renewable energy and higher fuel efficiency standards. The Congressional Black Caucus is one of the greenest voting blocs in Washington, Jones said, pointing to the caucus’s overwhelming support of the Markey-Waxman climate bill, which passed the House in 2009 before failing in the Senate.

“I think there’s a myth out there that African-Americans and Latinos don’t care or don’t vote the right way on environmental issues,” Jones said. “But we’re seeing a lot more engagement and good polling numbers.”

This brings me to Australia. Is the environment movement in Australia too “white”?

Australia is a very white country. Over sixty percent of Australians claim white, anglo-European heritage, and a majority of the thirty percent who claimed “Australian” heritage probably are of European origin.

I think, more so than the US, most of Australia’s climate leaders are white, or of European ancestry. Thinking of the leaders of major climate/environment organisations, I can’t think of a single person of colour. Or for that matter, many women.

The issue of race in the US is deeply engrained in their psyche. Racism and its ugly stain still affects the lives of millions there.

For Australia though, I believe the diversity challenge is really to do with gender. While the Australian Youth Climate Coalition has had women leaders for some time, as has CANA and Environment Victoria, few major environment organisations have (please correct me if I’m wrong).

I can’t make any great claim to a great depth of knowledge about Australia’s environment movement. My own involvement has been very specific. But this gender gap at the senior levels does seem real to me.

One of the underlying points being made by Van Jones and Daniel Kessler and others in the Politico article is that the environment movement must reflect its communities before it can lead them. Global warming affects everyone. It is not simply a matter of recruiting more ‘people of colour’ into environment organisations, or more women. It is, as Stuart Strahl says, about making common cause with them.

In Australia, community campaigning is essential. The grasstops strategy of engaging political and business leaders to influence legislation is important, but can have only limited effect when opposed by other powerful special interests.

Grassroots organisation and campaigning — involving ordinary people, engaging them and giving them a unified voice and purpose — is what will see real environmental change. And this means diversifying, of course.