Environmentalism With a Social Conscience

The face of the environmental movement is changing. No longer strictly the domain of nature enthusiasts, a new socially conscious environmentalism is becoming mainstream. In Oakland, teenagers from poor neighborhoods are learning to install solar panels. In the Bronx, gardens are sprouting up on rooftops. Indigenous Americans in Hawaii, New Mexico and Minnesota are collaborating to keep their traditional food supplies free from genetically modified inbreeding. Social justice and environmental movements are creating alliances that broaden the possibility of who will benefit from the greening of America.

Building bridges between social justice activists and nature freaks isn't as hard as it sounds, as demonstrated by the eighteenth annual Bioneers Conference October 19-21 in San Rafael, California. Since 1990, pathbreaking Bioneers--biological pioneers--have provided a forum for activists from around the globe to share visions of combined social and environmental sustainability. Farmers, scientists, educators and others gather to connect their issues and create solutions.

"When you take care of nature, you take care of people. And when you take care of people, you take care of nature," Bioneers founder Kenny Ausubel said. From this vantage point, it makes sense to think about sustainability not only in terms of depleted natural resources like timber or fossil fuel, but also in terms of depleted human resources--such as the disproportionately high number of young black men who are imprisoned in America. It's possible to talk about preserving the oil-rich wilderness of Alaska in the same breath as we talk about preserving the heart and soul of New Orleans.

Van Jones, founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, calls this "social uplift environmentalism." To counteract what he perceives as twenty years of racial segregation in the environmental movement, Jones said he envisions a world in which "a green wave lifts all boats." His organization's Green for All campaign aims to secure $1 billion in funding for "green-collar" job training across the country. Weatherizing buildings, harvesting solar power and constructing wind farms are jobs that can't be outsourced overseas. Training a green-collar workforce can help lift people out of poverty while improving the ecology of our cities.

Majora Carter is the founder of Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx), an organization working for environmental justice in that low-income neighborhood. She believes no community should have to bear the brunt of environmental toxicity. Carter lives and works in a place where nearly one in four children has asthma as a result of diesel trucks idling for hours on their way to Manhattan. SSBx is developing the South Bronx Greenway to provide safe public outdoors space and to create better transportation policy. Another project, to remove a 1.25-mile stretch of unused highway running through residential neighborhoods, will make space for the things residents really need, like parks, housing and businesses. "You shouldn't have to have a lot of green to be green," she says.

The new environmentalism also means recognizing the direct link between cultural diversity and biodiversity, a connection that indigenous activist Winona LaDuke is trying to bring into the public discourse. "Wherever Indigenous peoples still remain, there is also a corresponding enclave of biodiversity," she writes, and that variation of life-forms is vital to the health of any ecosystem. For twenty years she has fought to protect Manoomin, a wild rice that grows on the lakes in Northern Minnesota and is a sacred food to the Anishinaabeg people, from genetic engineering. Changing the DNA of traditional foods upsets the ecological systems in which they grow and impacts the people whose cultures depend on their cultivation. At the Bioneers conference LaDuke said: "I didn't know what seed slavery was until I met up with Monsanto." Keeping agri-giants like Monsanto away from traditional seed supplies and keeping Manoomin wild are two ways indigenous Americans are working to preserve native lands and cultures.

That the environmental movement has gone mainstream is a good thing because it creates the possibility of solving multiple interrelated problems at once. But this opportunity will be missed if the emerging eco-consciousness is co-opted by corporate sellers of hybrid cars and organic cotton Levi's. Integrating more diverse voices into the environmental justice movement helps ensure that it is truly a people's movement instead of a consumer movement. Bioneers are leading the way with their vision and willingness to forge alliances. After all, if green is the new black, everyone should be invited to the party.

Joliange Wright is a writer based in Brooklyn. She spends her time making herbal medicine and writing about the relationship between sustainability and social justice.

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