Thus far, it's obvious that many who are most active in environmental politics and activism are the ones who ultimately also reap the benefits. And just who are those people? White, affluent, college-educated progressives. Such exclusivity isn't new — it's been going on for decades, since the environmental movement began — yet it threatens to derail the efforts of everyone who has worked toward a greener world.
That doesn't mean there aren't Americans of color out there working hard to protect their communities and children from pollution, to demand healthier food or cleaner water. There are plenty of them, from Irma Muñoz in Los Angeles to Majora Carter in the South Bronx. They're creating green space, forcing polluters to account for their actions and inspiring their communities, yet they don't get nearly as much press as, say, Leonardo DiCaprio and Daryl Hannah.
This lack of coverage and a failure to engage blacks, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and other minorities breeds a sense that environmentalism is a white thing. But the poor minority communities of America are the ones that bear the brunt of pollution, and they're paying for it with their lives. Low-income communities are too often situated near polluting businesses and toxic cleanup sites, leading to high rates of cancer, asthma and other health ills.
No one has been more vocal about the need to desegregate the environmental movement than Van Jones. Jones, a civil rights and environmental activist, has been decrying "the unbearable whiteness of green" for years, warning that we must work together if we're going to accomplish our goals on a wide scale. Through his work with Green for All, an organization he founded, Jones promotes green collar jobs and opportunities for the disadvantaged with the goal of building an inclusive, green economy.
Jones points to the failure of California Proposition 87 as a prime example of why excluding the poor and nonwhite communities simply doesn't work. Prop 87 aimed to tax the oil and gas that we extract from our soil and shores, and put that money into an ambitious clean-energy research and technology fund. The measure was hugely popular at first — until the oil and gas industry began targeting low-income Californians with ads claiming that the tax would be passed on to them in the form of higher gas prices.
Prop 87 failed to pass, and Jones believes it was due to the failure of the 'eco-elite' behind the campaign to reach out to these communities on how the measure would benefit them — through new jobs and better health. Ads by the campaign focused solely on energy independence, a concept that didn't connect with people who are more worried about how they're going to feed their families.
"The defeat of Prop 87 should sound a clear warning for all of us in the effort to birth a green, post-carbon economy." Jones says. "The eco-elite cannot win major change alone, not even in the Golden State.
"To change our laws and culture, the green movement must attract and include the majority of all people, not just the majority of affluent people," he adds.
Luckily, Green for All is working to change all that. The organization fights poverty and pollution simultaneously, providing training for green jobs so people can improve their circumstances both environmentally and financially. It also advocates for local, state and federal commitment to green jobs and opportunities. Ultimately, Jones and Green for All wish to make environmentalism an issue that encompasses all Americans, not just well-off whites.
If more organizations looked to Green for All as an example for engaging Americans of all races and classes, the environmental movement would be stronger and more effective as a whole. Only through unity and equality can we move beyond the age of pollution into a new, green economy that preserves the Earth and improves the lives of millions of people across the globe.