Tag Archives: environmentalism

People of color and the planet, part I

“If you breathe air and drink water, this is about you.” – This Changes Everything

Almost all of my adult life, I’ve received the message that environmentalism isn’t for black people. Black people aren’t “outdoorsy.” (Don’t tell these folks!) We don’t camp (ahem) or hike or kayak, and we damn sure don’t mess with wildlife. And anyway, we don’t have time to worry about polar bears and glaciers when we can’t even walk home from the corner store without fearing for our lives.

But here’s the thing: Preserving the natural environment is critically important to black people — not just because we live on this planet with everyone else, but precisely because we are black.

Mainstream discourse causes us to think of “the environment” as some special, pristine place, far away from our day-to-day lives and immediate needs. This encourages us to believe that the only people who should concern themselves with environmental issues are people who have the luxury to focus on niche causes. In other words, white people.

In reality, our environment is directly connected to us. It is what we eat, drink, and breathe every day. What affects our air and water affects our health and well-being and our children’s ability to thrive.

In the United States, it is poor communities and communities of color that are most likely to experience the effects of pollution. Freeways are built through our neighborhoods, factories bury hazardous chemicals near our homes, and municipalities locate landfills in our backyards.

Often these polluting forces are brought with the promise of jobs, most of which are provided at the expense of our health — sometimes our very lives. More often than not, they are forced on us, because we do not have the money, political clout, or connections to stop them.

Natural disasters often disproportionately affect black people, both because we are more likely to be living in substandard housing and because the country as a whole just gives less of a damn about our well being.

On a global scale, the effects of climate change are not being distributed equally. The nations that will be most affected by climate change are in the global south, while the global north, which is largely responsible for the problem, sets emission targets that will protect its own people and then does nothing to meet even those.

So-called “developed” nations have built their wealth by appropriating resources from brown and black people across the world and by placing the disproportionate burden of their extractive, wasteful, greedy culture on those same people.

What this means is that we cannot truly improve the well-being of black and brown people without fundamentally changing the way we treat our environment. Rather than rejecting environmentalism as a hobby for people who already have everything, black folks should be at the very forefront of the movement to protect our planet and demand justice for its inhabitants.

This is not about buying recycled toilet paper or organic bed sheets. Certainly, individual choices have a role (though to be clear buying stuff is the exact opposite of what we need to be doing), but to counter the forces that are destroying us, we must build something bigger than our individual choices. We must come together as communities to protect our land and water. We must demand affordable, accessible transit service and safe places to walk and bike. We must insist on healthy, whole food grown sustainably. We must share with our neighbors.

We must refuse to accept rapacious corporations into our communities because they promise us a handful of jobs. Instead, we must insist that our young people be the first hired to build the sustainable, healthy, and safe communities of the future.

We no longer have the luxury of leaving environmentalism to others. As the tragedy in Flint makes painfully clear, our very lives depend on it.

Wisdom from a walker

“Part of the mystery of walking is that the destination is inside us and we really don’t know when we arrive until we arrive.” — John Francis

I recently watched this very interesting talk by John Francis, aka “Planetwalker.”

I don’t remember how I came across the talk, because I had never heard of Francis or his extreme walking before I happened upon it.* A little background:

In 1971, when John Francis was in his 20s and living in Inverness, California, two oil tankers collided under the Golden Gate Bridge and spilled close to a million gallons of oil into the San Francisco Bay. The resulting devastation disturbed Francis deeply. He volunteered to participate in cleanup efforts, but it didn’t feel like enough. So, after some soul searching, he decided to give up riding in motorized vehicles and walk to get around.** According to his official bio, Francis “started walking because he felt partly responsible for the mess that washed up on the shore.”

A few months after this decision, Francis also decided to stop talking – at first to take a break from the arguments with friends and family that his new walking lifestyle had prompted, and then as a discipline. Not talking helped him learn to listen and, paradoxically, strengthened his ability to communicate.

Over the next 22 years, this silent walker (and occasional cyclist and sailboat rider) earned several degrees, including a PhD in land resources; taught university courses; wrote oil spill regulations for the US Coast Guard; started a nonprofit; and traveled the world as a UN ambassador.

Damn.

But what is interesting about Francis’s talk is that it is not about the decades he spent walking. It is not about the struggles, triumphs, accomplishments, or even the recognition that resulted from his steadfast adherence to a decision he made as a very young man.

No, Francis’s talk is about the reasons he decided to stop walking — or, to put it more accurately, to start riding again. He didn’t change his mind about what he believed, nor did he simply grow weary and disillusioned and give up. Instead, he evolved. Over the years and miles, Francis’s understanding of humanity’s abuse of this planet deepened and broadened.

“Environment changed from just being about trees and birds and endangered species to being about how we treated each other. Because if we are the environment, then all we need to do is look around and see how we treat ourselves and how we treat each other.”

He began to see the connections between our disrespect for other human beings and our disrespect for other species. He began to see justice and ecology as intimately intertwined. And he began to see that he had an obligation to spread this message as broadly as possible. To do this, he would have to put his days of taking years to travel across states behind him.

“I realized that I had a responsibility to more than just me, and that I was going to have to change. I was afraid to change because I was so used to the guy who only just walked. I was so used to that person that I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t know who I would be if I changed, but I [knew] I needed to. I [knew] I needed to change because it would be the only way that I could be here today. And I know that a lot of times we find ourselves in this wonderful place that we have gotten to, but there’s another place for us to go, and we kind of have to leave behind the security of who we’ve become and go to the place of who we are becoming. And so, I want to encourage you to go to that next place, to let yourself out of any prison you might find yourself in, because we have to do something now. We have to change now.”

I relate to John Francis on many levels. I relate to his love of walking. I relate to his deep appreciation of the natural world. I relate to his horror and sense of helplessness in the face of unprecedented environmental destruction, motivated by unprecedented greed. I relate to his extremism, which in my case, has its roots in part in an “all or nothing” mentality and in part in a self-righteousness that I have only in the last few years begun to acknowledge and attempt to address.

I relate to his conviction that racism, war, inequality, colonialism, environmental destruction, and all forms of abuse are symptoms of the same sickness: the sickness of disconnection and separation, of viewing “self” as being contained within the walls of one’s skin, rather than as one essential part of a beautiful, connected whole.

I relate to the way he tied his identity to his mode of travel — and especially to his eventual chafing at this connection. For many years, my identity — or at least, my public persona — has been built upon how I choose to get around. Yes, public transportation is something I deeply value. It speaks to me on many levels, and I intend to keep riding as long as I am able, which I hope is for the rest of my life. But my identity is not dependent on my transportation choices.

I will never tire of writing about buses, because they are much more than a way to get around. But I have more to say – about motherhood, and community, and spirituality, and justice, and history, and ecology. And I, like John Francis, believe I can do a better job saying it without the yoke of an identity that is no longer serving me.

Though our family will continue to live without a car, and I will continue share my love of public transit — here and elsewhere — I’m ready to write about more than just buses. And really, it’s about time.

***
* Of course, after the talk, I went straight the library and checked out his book. I’ll report back.
** I have no idea why he didn’t consider using a bicycle to facilitate his travels. Perhaps he has the same mental block that I do.