Growing up in East Los Angeles as the son of Guatemalan immigrants,
the everyday challenges faced by the people of my neighborhood seemed far
removed from the American dream: the lack of good housing and jobs, money for
groceries, failing schools and all-too-common police brutality. If you had
asked us, we would have told you we were concerned about the days when the air
pollution was especially thick, or when the smells coming from the incinerator
directly south of our housing complex were particularly bad.
We would have told you we were concerned, but that these were not the
greatest challenges facing us. That's not to say they were not important
problems, but any agenda that did not speak to our economic and social needs
For communities like mine, environmentalism has seemed to be about
preserving places most of us will never see. Even when environmentalism has
focused on problems that affect urban communities, such as air pollution or
lead poisoning, it has pointedly avoided addressing our desperate need for
economic development. Environmentalists do not talk about the importance of a
living wage or affordable housing because, we are told, those are not
environmental problems. Foundations feed this problem by failing to recognize
minorities and urban city residents as prominent stakeholders in the
While many leaders of the environmental movement have a deep and abiding
interest in social and economic equity, that concern is largely absent from
their work because it is "not their job." The same mistake is made by every
other progressive movement, including the civil-rights movement. We have
become trapped in narrow categorical definitions of ourselves rather than a
comprehensive understanding of what values we stand for in the world.
I experienced firsthand these narrow definitions when, in the late 1990s,
my organization tried to pass legislation to make it easier to revitalize
"brownfields" -- the thousands of idle and polluted lots in inner cities.
Our legislation would have encouraged the development of brownfields by
clarifying clean-up standards so that developers would know what was required
of them, and then limiting liability for current owners when environmental
pollution had occurred under previous owners. It also would have given cities
and counties more power to go after owners of abandoned and potentially
polluted inner-city sites.
Our legislation should have been an important priority for
environmentalists because developing brownfields would take pressure off
expanding construction to California's rapidly dwindling green spaces,
farmlands and wilderness. And yet the Sierra Club opposed the bill, claiming
that the legislation's flexibility could be abused by unscrupulous developers.
We felt there were adequate safeguards, and that together, civil-rights and
environmental groups would be able to protect inner-city residents from new
risks while accelerating economic development.
We eventually compromised on a watered-down version of the bill that was
signed into law. But because the new standards remained so inflexible, we
haven't seen the kind of economic redevelopment of urban brownfields that low-
income and mostly communities of color desperately need. Contaminated urban
sites remain contaminated, economic development and affordable housing in the
inner city hasn't occurred, and California's green spaces continue to be
developed. The brownfields bill failed because we have failed to construct a
vision for community and economic development that speaks to our shared
aspirations -- from having more urban parks for kids to play in to having
jobs that pay a livable wage to protecting California's natural beauty. Civil-
rights groups, economic development advocates and environmentalists today find
themselves divided by technical policy when we should be united by a common
After last November's election, an essay called "The Death of
Environmentalism" ignited a wide-ranging debate within the entire nonprofit
community. Its East Bay authors, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus,
accused the environmental movement of failing to offer a compelling vision for
America. Instead, they said, environmentalists give "I Have a Nightmare"
speeches and offer technical proposals far removed from the lives of ordinary
Their essay was important not only for those of us who care about the
environment, but also for those who care about any social progress. Consider
this quote: "The environmental movement's incuriosity about the interests of
potential allies depends on it never challenging the most basic assumptions
about what does and does not get counted as environmental. Because we define
environmental problems so narrowly, environmental leaders come up with very
Remove the word "environmental" from the sentence and replace it with
"civil rights," "women's rights," "environmental justice" or "social justice"
and it makes just as much sense. For too long, progressives have created their
identities according to the very specific problems we hope to solve. While I
don't consider myself an environmentalist, I do care about many of the things
that environmentalists work to protect and preserve. I care more deeply,
however, about creating good jobs and affordable housing for my community.
This means that the environmental or post-environmental movement that will
speak to my community must first and foremost promise economic development and
better quality of life.
While many feel sadness and anger that environmentalism is dead, I am
optimistic that in dying, environmentalism might give birth to a new politics
that offers a better future. Those environmentalists who are ready to be
reborn will find many new allies like me ready to join them in building a new
and more expansive movement on the other side.
Orson Aguilar is the associate executive director of the Greenlining Institute.
© 2005 San Francisco Chronicle