At a glance, the first two topics in the title don’t seem like some things would be related. Bear with me; because the connection is actually very relevant to the crossroads at which the US environmental movement stands today.
As many of you may know, the US:
- makes up 5% of the world’s population
- is responsible for 29% of green house gas emissions
- incarcerates 25% of the world’s prisoners
There’s this idea in our society that things are disposable; stuff we no longer want can just be “thrown away.” Resources (such as oil) can be burned away without thought. But what is ‘away’? A landfill? A recycling plant? While that stuff is no longer in our hands, 'away’ is actually a place that negatively affects a lot of people.
The incineration of recyclables releases many toxic chemicals into the air that can spread for miles, harming everyone who inhales them. The people who live near incinerators are predominantly poor and nonwhite. Landfill workers have extremely dangerous jobs, and again, are predominantly poor and nonwhite.
This way of thinking spread into our treatment of people. We throw people away all the time. We discount people (predominantly of color) as lesser and use legal structures aimed at throwing them away. But instead of a landfill, we use prison cells in the country.
We look at recycling to be, in many ways, superior to just throwing things in the trash. We’re giving this piece of plastic or aluminum a second chance to be remade into something new for somebody else to use -and that makes us feel good about ourselves. That thing won’t rot in some landfill to someday be paved over to create a new strip mall. Unnamed plastic bottle has a destiny, and it’s better than being buried under another dollar store!
But a real, live person with a name, family, story, and soul? Their destiny is no better than a prison cell. They often get no chance at being 'recycled’. Prison sentences are long, and the conviction and prison stay prevents that person from ever reintegrating into society to lead a healthful, productive life.
So how can those of us in the environmental movement truly be inclusive when what we fight for is the second chances of plastic bottles and not human beings? A huge topic is how to make this movement a diverse and inclusive one. People are being paid lots of money to develop branding for eco-mindedness to attract a growing and evermore diverse population. However we cannot expect a person of color to give a thing a second chance when their son was thrown away in prison and can never expect that same kind of opportunity.
Environmentalism can never be inclusive until we make change the emphasis from the “what” we’re fighting for to the “who,” and understand that it’s about changing more than behavior. The systemic inequalities are what contribute to environmental degradation. Until we address them, we’re no better than any other white-dominated, elitist movement that will fail to achieve any real change.