Thursday, April 18, 2013

Whiteness and Sustainability: Reflecting on Race, Class, and Green Living

Is the movement for environmental sustainability a white, middleclass phenomenon? I imagine that many of us have heard this allegation, and, unfortunately, with the exception of the environmental justice movement, it seems to be, for the most part, accurate. Yet many in the movement respond to this observation with perplexity. The typical attitude can be summed up in questions like: "Why don't these people (working class people, people of color, low income people) recognize the urgency of the ecological crisis?" and "How can we reach them?" We've been asking these questions for four decades and gotten no satisfactory answers. Perhaps the time has come to ask new questions. Rather than asking why they don't get it, maybe we need to think deeply about what we (white middleclass people) are not getting. I think a good way to start would be by exploring how the agenda and worldview of the ecology movement is shaped by unacknowledged race and class privilege, such that it has simply not been able to make itself relevant to people from other race and class backgrounds.

The reason privilege is such a potent source of unquestioned beliefs is that it is itself quite stealth, at least to those who possess it. Indeed, it is in the very nature of privilege to remain unnoticed by those who benefit from it, while it is almost always blatantly obvious to everyone else. This is the result of a psychological process called cognitive dissonance, whereby the brain essentially rewires itself so as to not perceive aspects of the world that present painful contradictions or challenge one's sense of identity. In the context of privilege, this means that we structure our experience of the world so that our social advantages seem natural and/or deserved. Another result is that those who are clearly struggling may be seen as somehow different or deficient. A useful example of this sort of post hoc rationalization is physical ability.[1] Physical access is obviously far easier for those of us who possess physical abilities that have been coded as "normal." After all, who among us thinks about our physical ability as an unearned privilege? Yet that is exactly what it is. Our built environments have mostly been constructed by able-bodied people, for able-bodied people. That we have mostly missed this fact, of course, does not by itself make us bad people. It just makes us human.  

Similar to able-bodied privilege, race and class privilege are unearned and they are built into the structures and institutions of our society. Moreover, cognitive dissonance operates in the same way, ensuring that those of us possessing privilege experience a reality radically different from those who do not. The social consequences of this disconnect are enormous, and include the makeup of the ecology movement and the particular race and class-based perspective that shapes its agenda.  

One example of the race/class perspective of environmentalism is its traditional concern for preservation. Going back at least to John Muir, advocates of environmental protection have been motivated largely by their veneration for the wild, especially for the beauty of so-called untouched wilderness and for the majesty of large charismatic mammals. Even appeals to scientifically legitimate concerns such as biodiversity and ecosystem integrity often tap into these deeper emotional currents, which are rooted in a Romantic or aesthetic attitude, and which are more typical of city dwellers who conceive their relationship to the natural world in terms of leisure outdoor activities. People who depend on nature for their livelihood as well, as those trapped in inner-city settings lacking access to wild spaces, are understandably unmoved by the Romantic appeals of traditional preservationism.  

We also need to recognize the ways in which so-called green consumption, as a response to ecological
concerns, is bound up with race and class privilege. There is certainly no question that those with resources ought to make ecologically responsible consumer choices. The problem is with casting what amounts to luxury consumption in moral terms. Unfortunately, certain forms of consumption, such as buying local, driving a hybrid, or even voluntary simplicity, are often conferred moral weight, despite the fact that the ability to make such choices relies on the systemic unearned privileges that go with being white and middleclass in the U.S.

In the spirit of this examination and with apologies to Peggy McIntosh, I have assembled a partial and provisional list of specific race and class privilege that seem to be taken for granted in the culture of white middleclass environmentalism or sustainability.

Here is my list so far. Please feel free to suggest other privileges that I missed:

  1. I can, if I wish, purchase fresh local produce at my neighborhood farmer’s market. 
  2. I have the means to access organic produce and other environmentally friendly products at local coops, and other eco-conscious merchants. 
  3. I can, if I wish reduce my carbon footprint by driving a hybrid vehicle.
  4. I can choose to live in a neighborhood where many local services are accessible by walking or bicycling. 
  5. Because I have had access to an abundance of consumer products all my life, I am able to derive both material and moral satisfaction from choosing a simplicity based lifestyle.
  6. I can imagine that the consequences of environmental destruction constitute a threat of future calamity rather than an ongoing disaster.
  7. I can choose to live in a neighborhood where I feel close to nature and wildlife. 
  8. I can choose to take advantage of incentives provided by my workplace to carpool or take public transit.
  9. I have access to wild places, where I may deepen my appreciation for the natural world and its diversity of life forms.
  10. When I cannot get to wild places, I can enjoy parks and other pockets of natural beauty in my neighborhood.
  11. If I spend time in wild places, I will encounter people who look like me, and I can count on feeling welcome there.
  12. I am able to appreciate spending time in wild places because outdoor activities have always been accessible to me and my kin.
  13. Wild places do not provoke cultural memories that associate the woods with the torture and killing of people who look like me.
  14. I can take a nap in a public park without it being assumed that I might be homeless.
  15. I can spend time in the deserts of the Southwest without anyone asking to see my papers.
  16. My sense of intimacy with the land does not entail spending all day in the hot sun picking strawberries or tending someone else’s lawn.
  17. I can work in my own yard or garden without people assuming I am the gardener.
  18. I can choose to spend time outdoors only when the weather is agreeable.
  19. Because the satisfaction of my basic needs is buffered from the vicissitudes of nature, such as storms, droughts and bad harvests, I can approach the natural world in predominantly aesthetic or spiritual terms.
  20. I can enjoy National Parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone, imagining them as intact wildernesses because their establishment did not involve the forcible removal of my ancestors.
  21. I can take part in Native American ceremonies and adorn myself with their cultural artifacts without considering the struggles of actual Native Americans to preserve their culture in the face of genocide and forced assimilation.
  22. I can take part in Native American ceremonies and adorn myself with their cultural artifacts without considering how Native Americans may feel upon seeing their culture appropriated (and often profited on) by non-native people.
  23. I can take part in Native American ceremonies and adorn myself with their cultural artifacts without considering how Native Americans continue to be oppressed and impoverished and have their culture imperiled by U.S. policies.
  24. I can adopt an uncompromising attitude about the protection of ecosystems & wild land habitat without worrying that my own livelihood will be threatened or that I will be unable to access the products I use in my daily life.
  25. I can choose to blame the whole human species for the ecological crisis, rather than looking at how my lifestyle depends not only on ecological destruction, but also on inter-human violence, exploitation, and oppression.
  26. Because my children attend a relatively safe school, are not suffering from asthma due to poor local air quality, and are not harassed by the police or surrounded by gang culture, I have the emotional space to feel agony over the imminent loss of iconic species such as polar bears, African lions, and dolphins.
  27. For the most part, I do not have to concern myself with the impacts of the war on drugs, the war on terror, the war on illegal immigration, or the right-wing war on the social safetynet because none of these action directly target me or people who look or live like me, leaving me time and energy to focus on ecology.
  28. I have time and energy to think abstractly about ecology because my lifestyle is supported by a vast and semi-invisible labor force.
  29. I can choose to focus my energies on causes that appeal to me, and I prefer ecology because nature is beautiful and the wildlife does not express anger toward me or cause me to feel guilty about the crimes of my ancestors.
  30. I can work on environmental issues and feel good about myself for my good intentions rather than feeling guilt and shame for stuff that feels beyond my control.  
  31. Unlike much of the human family, I can believe that ecological destruction is separate from and more urgent than racism, sexism, or other forms of ‘merely’ human oppression
  32. My decisions about which issues to focus on have no direct or immediate impact on my physical well being.

[1] I owe this example to Reverend Deborah Johnson. 


  1. Gregory, this is a marvelous piece. I love/hate seeing myself in most of your examples. So when will we see your follow-up piece, giving some ideas of how, with a renewed awareness of and critical suspicion toward our own privilege, white middle class people can act against environmental destruction? I trust the goal of your critique is to reorient, not immobilize.

  2. excellent piece. I have a blog called I would love to feature you as a guest blogger. This post would be perfect. If interested email me!

  3. When I read this, the first thing I thought about was how I never felt 'connected' to the plethora of Green Peace and Sierra Club college kids activists that interact with me on the streets of Berkeley, CA during the summer. I am asked to donate to save the environment and the images of polar bears and 'our national parks' are shown to me as 'incentive.' I always think about how these organizations, atleast the representatives here in Berkeley, never engage with environmental justice and talk about combating environmental racism as an 'incentive'. But no, it seems like the environmental racism endured by low income people/people of color living RIGHT here in the bay area, such as part of Richmond and Oakland, are never part of these organizations concepts of doing just ecological work. Instead, we are shown pictures of polar bears thousands of miles away.