Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Is Green the New White?

By Sarah Kozel Silverman, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

Last week, environment and climate change were second only to the world economy on the G8 Summit agenda. As I considered the implications of this focal attention to the environment, I wondered how the United States' shift from the not-so-distant rejection of the Kyoto Protocol to environmental fanaticism came about. Maybe it was Al Gore. Maybe the will of the people finally influenced democratic leaders. But this wholesale embrace of environmentalism merits some thoughtful reflection. Environmentalism sure seems like an innocuous sort of cause--the kind that makes everyone feel good and induces the otherwise oblivious to contribute $5 toward saving baby polar bears. But it has also taken on an implicit agenda often either overlooked or ignored. The truth is, many people of color are left out of the dialogue on environmentalism. The work of saving the environment is left to those who can afford bamboo floors and hybrid cars--not to mention organic foods and high efficiency heaters. As a result, low-income families in particular are silenced.

It is certainly no secret that issues of environment, race and social class are deeply intertwined. Environmental reports have consistently demonstrated that air and water quality are lower in neighborhoods where residents are predominately poor or people of color than in comparable middle or upper-class, white neighborhoods. But the new movement toward sustainable living and alternative energy sources (known as 'the green movement') widens the gap between social groups in new ways. Consider the implications of high-priced, eco-friendly materials over 'eco-unfriendly' goods. As the prices of fossil fuels continue to rise, those who cannot afford more efficient vehicles, homes and appliances will be forced to find ways to make up the cost differences. The increasing availability of certified organic goods does not decrease the cost of producing and certifying such goods, so healthy foods may be more difficult to access. Even a well-intentioned movement is faced with the challenge of overcoming bias. But there is some promise in environmentalism.

Attention to global warming has grown at an astounding rate over the past few years. It seems people suddenly realized their habits were bringing about an uninhabitable future world of flooding and pollution. Yet I am troubled this sort of energy is not devoted to the equally concerning inequitable existence among social groups. The incredible force of the green movement is one that can provide some insight into how we might go about gathering momentum for a different type of change in habits, processes and structures. Clearly there continue to exist inequalities--even within the green movement itself. But consider the possibilities of pursuing social justice with our tenacity for environmentalism.