Are Mainstream Environmental Groups Keeping Racism Alive?

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July 26, 2013

by Kat Stevens

Editor’s note: This story is part of PolicyMic’s Millennials Take On Climate Change series this week.

We are living in an age of world-wide energy and financial crises. In Westernized nations like the one I live in, poor rural communities are suffering now: small Appalachian communities ravaged by mountain-top removal mining, rural farms surrounded by frack wells. But what about the communities we don’t hear about?

Here we need look no further than Houston’s toxic East End, a textbook example of environmental racism, where mostly Latina/o children living fence-line to industry are poisoned mercilessly by refineries like Shell, Exxon, and Valero. Environmental racism (ER) is just another form of systemic racism, the ongoing legacy of colonialism, genocide, and slavery. ER is the intentional and systematic targeting of communities of color with respect to environmental hazards and failure to enforce environmental regulations. For businesses which threaten public and environmental health, it is easier to operate near low-income communities of color with less political and economic power to resist.

When we remove the American-centric lens we are encouraged to view the world through, we see that environmental racism is a global phenonmenon. Because of globalization, an ambiguous term that is usually laden with warm connotations of unification, corporations are highly mobile. This makes it easy to travel anywhere in the world to maximize profits through the least government and environmental regulations, the best tax incentives and the cheapest labor (easily exploitable communities). Consequently, we see the destruction of indigenous cultures, livelihoods, and the fragile and unique ecosystems that plant, animal, and human life alike depend upon to sustain.

Some Americans who consider themselves “well-meaning,” “left-leaning,” “liberal,” “earth-friendly,” etc. recognize the corruption and get sad, upset, and restless. If not pacified, they could become a threat to the status quo.

Enter the most powerful tool of the environmental movement: the big green non-governmental organization (NGO).

Big green NGOs present an exciting semblance of resistance that tells Americans that they can make a difference just by clicking here, signing there, sending in monthly donations, watching a flashy video about an adventurous “direct action” that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to pull off, and making bi-annual trips to the White House to really give that darn president a piece of your mind!

These “movements” seem to do everything in their power to placate, pacify and render ineffective their target consumers: white, liberal Americans with a small sense of the hollowness of everyday life in capitalist America. By proposing simple and false solutions inside a framework of “peaceful resistance,” potential disruptors of the status quo are rendered ineffective while believing they are engaged in meaningful resistance.

In reality, the mainstream environmental movement in the U.S. has done almost nothing to counter the political and economic conditions that make participation in environmental movements an impossibility for many people from the very low-income communities of color that are bearing the brunt of the assault.

Tom Goldtooth, the Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, said in a 2011 interview with Africa Report, “If you look at the NGOs, these are European ‘white’ NGOs, and there is tremendous racism and classism woven into that. When an ethnic person speaks up, they get offended they don’t want a solution from the marginalized. They want to devise the solution they feel is best for the whole system — and we have to ask ourselves what the system they actually represent, entails … We challenged the big organizations with environmental racism including Greenpeace and Sierra Club, to bring our voices to the board … They resisted us.

“Look at — we had to challenge them to bring us to stand with them on the pipeline issue. Bill McKibben, the Ivory Tower white academic, didn’t even want to take the time to bring people of color to the organizing.”, just one example of a problematic NGO, has the look and feel of an authentic grassroots movement, but in reality it is a multi-million dollar campaign outfitted with a staff that receives six-figure checks. In addition to placating the public and perpetuating systemic racism, has recieved funding from the Rockefeller family, one of the most elite and nefarious families of all time.

Their most insidious superficial means of appeasement? Promoting divestment campaigns, an easy way to quell would-be radicals on college campuses by exploiting impressionable students to spend vast amounts of time, energy, and resources to divest their schools from fossil fuels, which are arguably not only a waste of time, but overtly counterproductive.

We must refuse to be obedient and passive “movement builders” armed with e-mail lists, invoking the name of Bill McKibben, and marching towards the next carefully calculated, police-approved, staged “action.” The stakes are so high, with 400,000 people, mostly people of color, dying each year from climate-related disasters. Time is running out for countering the damage that has been done to the global environment. We must dismantle not only capitalism and globalization, but the mainstream NGO trope along with them.



  • Kat Stevens on Nov 05, 2013

    Hey there, I’m Kat Stevens and I urge you to read this article if your interpretation of me addressing root causes dividing the environmental movement leads you to believe that I am divisive…

  • tetontom on Aug 13, 2013

    I’m a little curious about the “six-figure checks” the folks receive. Does the author have any proof of these salaries? I agree with Hayduke, something seems a bit funny about this article…

  • Michael on Aug 13, 2013

    And the first strategy of fossil-fuel-foundation-dependent non-profit professionals is to dismiss any critique that gets too close to the reality (and divide off real grassroots activists) by claiming the truth is “divisive.” The Elephant in the Tar Pit?…The real problem here is that the Keystone is actually done! Phases 1, 2 and 3 are done all the way from Alberta to Port Arthur TX (look it up). The fight over the unnecessary Phase 4 is a foundation-funded/Big Green/Democratic Party scam…so Obama can “stop the pipeline” and the “greens” can declare victory. Meanwhile, dilbit is already flowing thru the real, existing pipes and in thousands of rail tank cars…and no one has even figured out how to protest the Tar Sands without USING Tars Sands!..Hint: it’s main uses are jet fuel and gasoline. (90% of retail gas and 100% of jet fuel in the US Midwest ALREADY comes from Tars Sands bitumen!) And the truly necessary “Stop the Tar Sands at their source” has been relegated to ancient history.

  • Hayduke on Aug 01, 2013

    The first strategy of any union buster was (and still is) divide the group. By creating division within any organization, it becomes easier to defeat. I’m have no idea who “Kat Stevens” is but just a quick read of this article leads one to ponder the question “who’s side are you on anyway?” The little crack in cement is the one which allows the ice to penetrate. “Divide and conquer”

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