This week: a different kind of environmental news round-up. It’s World Environment Day tomorrow. Does that have anything to do with racism? Yes. And so does the climate crisis. How? Let’s talk about it.
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Since 1974, we’ve celebrated World Environment Day every year on 5 June. According to the official UN website, it’s “the most renowned day for environmental action”. This year, they say, it’s time for nature. Contrasting nature’s service to human’s demands, it highlights that “[l]ife on earth would not be possible without nature’s services. It is our greatest common good. […] We are intimately interconnected with nature.”
The UN is right to focus on biodiversity for this year’s World Environment Day. With some companies and governments prioritising profit and economies over sustainable development and recovery, and with the knowledge that environmental destruction is linked to greater risk of pandemics (like COVID-19), protecting biodiversity is more important than ever. But when we talk about being connected with and protecting nature, we cannot forget that key communities have been punished for doing so. Indigenous groups, for one, comprise less than 5% of the world’s population but protect 80% of global biodiversity. Yet, they continue to be murdered, discriminated against, disrespected and unappreciated (even within the climate movement). Guess who else is punished too?
Black people. (So yes, we have to talk about racism on World Environment Day.)
1. #BirdingWhileBlack, Christopher Cooper and #BlackInNature
We’re in the middle of the inaugural #BlackBirdersWeek. Why was it created? To celebrate and encourage the inclusion of Black people in science and nature communities, which are traditionally dominated by White people. It was also created to stand in solidarity with Christopher Cooper. His story may or may not be familiar to you by now. Here are the facts: Christopher Cooper was birding in New York City’s Central Park. He politely asked a White woman to obey the posted signs about off-leash dogs. She then called the police, claiming that an African American man was threatening her life.
This story is one of many. Birding, the practice of watching, feeding or photographing birds, is a way of connecting with nature. But it is a racialised hobby, “where whiteness and white privilege work together to keep it non-Black.” Worse, Black people are unsafe in nature. Author and Black birder Drew Lanham says: “I want to go, to just sit and soak it up, but I can’t because I am afraid of the unknown – not of nature’s unknown, but of the unknown of what humans [might do to me].” Lanham even wrote an essay on the rules for the black birder in 2013, and one of the rules is: “Don’t bird in a hoodie. Ever.” (Which should tell you enough.)
More broadly speaking, the study of nature too is a racialised one. Which makes movements like #BirdingWhileBlack and #BlackInNature so important. But beyond these movements, does the climate crisis have anything to do with racism? (Spoiler: yes. Read on.)
2. What climate leaders say
Take it from a Black climate expert herself. Dr. penned for The Washington Post this week: “How can we expect [B]lack Americans to focus on climate when we are so at risk on our streets, in our communities, and even within our own homes? How can people of colo[u]r effectively lead their communities on climate solutions when faced with pervasive and life-shortening racism?” If it isn’t obvious enough that racism derails our efforts to save the planet, she points out that Black people are significantly more concerned about climate change than White people. Climate correspondent Eric Holthaus adds that at the same time, the climate crisis disproportionately affects Black people. “Climate change is racist,” he writes, “because the system that caused it is racist.”
You would think that climate groups would have long acknowledged this fact. But journalist Emily Atkin notes that the mainstream environmental movement has been and continues to be racist. Recently, we’ve seen high-profile environmental groups and activists speak out against racism, but others have remained silent. “Neither Al Gore, Bill Nye, nor Leonardo DiCaprio,” she highlights, “have made statements”.
And if you think making statements isn’t important, check this out.
View this post on Instagram
Hello. A lot is going on, and I felt the need to say something. Again I wish to reiterate, people aren’t obligated to post on their social media what they’re doing to help the cause – but i know a lot of people who hide behind their excuses because they are uncomfortable. You’re not a bad person for not sharing these things but now more than ever, if you are in a place of privilege, please reconsider using your voice and platform, however small it may be, to help. Educate. Have these uncomfortable conversations with the people around you. Teach yourself to erase the racism that is built deep inside of you, inside of everyone. Do not be ashamed. Black people are dying. And their lives matter. #BLM #justiceforgeorgefloyd I have tagged some great people on Instagram that have done a really good job at educating and showing us what’s going on. There’s no excuse! (EDIT: link in my bio with a full list of resources to educate yourself on how to be a white or non-black ally, and how to actively be non racist, among other helpful readings) // Title page illustrated by the lovely Emmy Hamilton of @cowpetter and @m0mzines.
3. How not to make a statement: Munroe Bergdorf, L’Oréal, and performative activism
Facilitator and coach Andréa Ranae explains clearly what performative activism is in her Instagram post. Basically, it’s activism “rooted in maintaining or preserving status, capital, belonging, image and comfort.” And that’s exactly what brands are doing right now. Writer and consultant Aja Barber calls out H&M, Amazon, Zara, Urban Outfitters, Lululemon, Nike, and more in a slew of Instagram stories (now saved in a highlight named “Support Fakers”), for being performative, “capitalising on the death of yet another black person. Using it to pad your social media and keep yourself relevant in the algorithm.” While at the same time, abusing and mistreating garment workers, and mostly working with white influencers (among other horrible actions, like supporting Trump).
Barber highlights L’Oréal’s racial hypocrisy in particular—for good reason. L’Oréal is one of the brands who spoke out recently, posting a black square with the words “SPEAKING OUT IS WORTH IT”. But in 2017, the same L’Oréal dropped model and transgender activist Munroe Bergdorf from a campaign… for speaking out against racism and white supremacy. In response, Bergdorf posted on Instagram: “Fuck you. Fuck your ‘solidarity’. Where was my support when I spoke out? Where was my apology? I’m disgusted and writing this in floods of tears and shaking. This is gaslighting.” (Here’s a helpful post on what gaslighting is.)
It’s been two days since L’Oréal posted its “anti-racist” statement. Bergdorf has yet to receive any apology. So this is what she said.
View this post on Instagram
I wanted to give @lorealparis 48 hours before writing this to see if a public apology was possible. But their choice to ignore me and not acknowledge the emotional, mental and professional harm that they caused me since sacking me in 2017, after speaking out about white supremacy and racism, speaks volumes. So does their choice to not engage with the thousands of black community members and allies who have left comments of concern on their last two posts, in response to their claim to support the black community, despite an evident history of being unwilling to talk about the issues that black people face globally because of white supremacy. Black Lives Matter is a movement for the people, by the people. It is not here to be co-opted for capital gain by companies who have no intention of actually having difficult conversations regarding white supremacy, police brutality, colonialism and systemic racism. It cannot be reduced to a series of corporate trends by brands like L'Oréal who have no intention of actually doing the work to better themselves or taking ownership of their past mistakes or conscious acts of racial bias. I would not have been sacked if I had said what I said and was a cisgender, straight, white woman. It just wouldn't have happened. If you want to stand with black lives matter then get your own house in order first. This could have been a moment of redemption for L'Oréal, a chance for them to make amends and lead by example. We all get things wrong, we all make mistakes, but it's where you go from there that is a signifier of who you are. L'Oréal claiming to stand with the black community, yet also refusing to engage with the community on this issue, or apologise for the harm they caused to a black female queer transgender employee, shows us who they are – just another big brand who seeks to capitalise from a marginalised movement, by widening their audience and attempting to improve their public image. Brands need to be aware of their own track record. It's unacceptable to claim to stand with us, if the receipts show a history of silencing black voices. Speaking out can’t only be “worth it” when you’re white. Black voices matter.
4. How the climate movement can be anti-racist
The moral of the story here, if you haven’t picked up yet, is that the climate movement has to be anti-racist. How? The New York Times interviewed three Black activists for what they think can be done—here’s what they said. Sam Grant, executive director of the 350.org chapter in Minnesota, said that “police violence is an aspect of a broader pattern of structural violence, which the climate crisis is a manifestation of. Healing structural violence is actually in the best interest of all human beings.”
Dr. Robert D. Bullard, professor at Texas Southern University, emphasised the importance of “justice, fairness and equity”. He urged the movement to “address the underlying conditions that make for despair.” “Climate change is more than parts per million and greenhouse gases,” he added. “The people who are feeling the worst impacts of climate, their voices have got to be heard.” In that regard, academic and author Heather McGhee’s words are especially relevant. We need “a real multiracial coalition that endorses environmental justice principles”, she advised.
“We’ve got to divest from systems that are killing us and costing us, and invest in our people and our planet.”
5. What can you do this World Environment Day?
Thankfully, there’s been a wealth of resources, some of which we’ve highlighted. Start by listening to Black voices (and more broadly speaking, voices of BIPOC communities: Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) and amplifying them. Learn about the intersection between environmental and racial injustice: watch and read, and get smart on the facts. Begin to understand the interconnectedness of all these issues, and remember to do the unlearning and re-learning, and self-education. Like we said: there are so many resources out there. Here’s an image and a particularly enlightening thread to start.
It’s all connected. pic.twitter.com/0Cih2xn1ty
— Chief Lady Bird 🦅 ᐅᑮᒪᑫᐧᐱᓀᐢ (@chiefladybird) October 21, 2018
Racist violence and police murder are inherent to capitalism. It will be around until we get rid of capitalism.
Knowing this is also key to finding short term ways that we can collectively get some semblance of more immediate reprisal 4 these injustices
Follow me for a second
— Boots Riley (@BootsRiley) May 30, 2020
And take the conversation about racism offline too: talk to your circle of influence, spend some time questioning within on your own. It begins with you. (PS: don’t expect BIPOC to do the work for you. Which means you shouldn’t be contacting them—Google exists for a reason.)