Environmentalists Are Not All Well-Off

Sam Chapman

The image conjured by the word “environmentalist”––a vague and overlong term I still hate––is similar to the vision of the typical Whittie: a semi-outdoorsy, dirty-blonde post-hippie who jogs in sandals, feels very deeply about only the trendiest of issues, and is, in all likelihood, financially well-off. If this is what you saw, don’t feel bad: The perception of the environmentalist as Caucasian and upper-middle-class is pervasive in our generation.

It is also untrue. The stereotype relies on the perception that those who have time to worry about pollution, conservation and greenhouse gases must be rich enough that they lack “real problems.” It’s true that people in higher tax brackets frequently turn to the environment when looking for a cause, but the green movement––diverse and decentralized as it is––does not have its genesis in luxury. The true green movement is a response of the downtrodden of all demographics, which the wealthy may choose to either aid or ignore.

At the Qatar climate summit last year, a number of countries forgotten by globalization demonstrated this point perfectly. After a battle against blinkered obstruction by the United States, low-lying island nations such as the Maldives, Seychelles and Fiji won a decisive victory when delegates resolved that polluting nations should compensate the nations that suffer from rising sea levels. None of the members of the Alliance of Small Island States––Nauru, Mauritius, Cuba––are known to be overflowing with wealthy citizens. Nobody who heard their delegates’ voices quaking with frustration as they tried to explain that the United States was weighing its economy against their lives could ever again subscribe to the cliché of the environmentalist who argues his case over a seven-dollar cup of coffee.

The plight of the Alliance is a perfect illustration of the concept of environmental justice, which acknowledges that the degradation of the planet has a way of disproportionately affecting disadvantaged populations. As I’ve written, we can look at this globally––burning coal in the United States and China will sink the Maldives, not the United States and China––but we must also acknowledge it locally. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a poor and historically black county chosen as North Carolina’s major toxic waste dump or Oregon’s fuel station attendants exposed to carcinogens on the job; when you’re poor, not only do rich and powerful people believe they can harm you without consequences, but you are sometimes forced to put yourself in harm’s way because you’ve got no other choice to survive.

The economically downcast take the environmental movement into their own hands more than any other segment of society; it has belonged to them since the first progressives fought for clean cities and safe workplaces at the turn of the last century. The first Earth Day, based on the grassroots tactics of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez, succeeded by bringing out communities that ordinarily wouldn’t have had the resources to demonstrate. In British Columbia, First Nation activists killed the Northern Gateway Pipeline. There is a reason that the Keystone XL has united environmentalists and Tea Partiers against it: When a corporation comes to bully a rural farmer off her land with the sanction of the government, she is going to fight back whether or not she’s got the time and money––not because it’s cool, but because it’s her land, and it may be all she has.

I don’t mean to exclude wealthy people from the movement; not only is that wrong, but we can’t afford to exclude anybody. I only mean to break down a stereotype, to demonstrate that while we may be annoyed by some privileged environmentalists, we have a moral responsibility to others. Fighting for the future of the earth is not something we do because we are bored, or want to impress our classmates. The real environmentalist campaigns out of a conviction that we must save the planet one way or another, and there is no other way.