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From the Editor

Unboxing Environmentalism

Right as we were wrapping up this issue, our memberships director forwarded an email from a subscriber who said he had decided to terminate his support of Earth Island Institute because he had “a philosophical difference with the political direction” the Journal was going.

“I do not agree with the social activism of some of your articles,” he wrote. His primary support for Earth Island was our founder David Brower’s legacy of “environmental conservation,” and the Journal, his politely-worded email implied, was guilty of mission creep, i.e., the gradual broadening of the original objectives of a mission or organization.

The good gentleman’s words couldn’t have made me more proud of the work we do at this magazine, and at Earth Island Institute, which publishes the Journal.

I’m glad that our readers and supporters are beginning to see more clearly what we stand for – an environmental movement that’s broad and inclusive, that acknowledges that environmental and social justice issues are inextricably linked.

To set the record straight, this is the kind of environmentalism we have always advocated. Brower envisioned Earth Island, from the start, as an organization that encourages people to take inspired action to safeguard all life on Earth; as a place that helps incubate creative solutions to the interconnected challenges and threats facing this planet and its people.

If there’s any doubt about that, take a look at the sheer diversity of issues Earth Island projects cover – from wildlife conservation to food security to climate justice. Even some the earliest projects the Institute adopted back in the 1980s, such as the Environmental Project on Central America, worked to highlight the connections between poverty, war, and the environment. As Dave Henson, cofounder of the now-decomissioned epoca recalls, Brower took in the project when no other environmental organization would give them “the time of day.”

And as we do now, Journal articles from back then also covered issues like ecology and justice in Central America (Summer 1987), the connections between economic and environmental violence (Spring 1988), and Native peoples’ struggles to save their homelands (Spring 1989).

In all the work we have done over the past 35 years, we have seen time and again that communities subject to environmental exploitation are often the same ones that are disproportionately impacted by economic inequity and structural racism. It’s impossible to box off the fight to save our wildlands and their nonhuman inhabitants from the many struggles for social justice, human rights, and democracy taking place across the world.

We don’t work in a vacuum. If we wish to create just and enduring solutions to preserving life on Earth, we need to open our hearts to the diverse communities of our planet, both biological and human.

To do any less than that – especially at this critical moment in time where the very fabric of democracy and our ability to speak up for the voiceless is under threat the world over – is to invite peril. And we simply refuse to stand by and let that happen.

Maureen Nandini Mitra signature graphic


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An important point underlying the conflict between those who see the trajectory of Earth Island’s work as deviating from the ‘original’ intent by addressing social/environmental justice, and the editorial stance that justice was and must be integral to a viable environmentalism is this:

The only reason why any ‘conservationism’ is needed in this world is that the spread of industrial-consumer society across the globe has created, to borrow Karl Polanyi’s words, a “Great Transformation,” not only of society, but of the very ecosystems and climate upon which humanity’s rise to power over the past 10,000 years has depended.

The power of science as applied to the world with industrial technology and driven by market liberalism has already disturbed ecosystems worldwide to the extent that many may not be restorable. Yet, we must restore them for humanity to avoid becoming a victim of the sixth great extinction.

Environmental justice cannot advocate bringing the world’s population up to industrial-consumer standards. Instead, it must focus on bringing all people into harmony with the living Earth systems we all need to survive. Otherwise, it devolves into a crass environmental “business-as-usual” failure. That is what I call “Hopeful Realism” and argue for at

Hope will fade if we do not ‘get real’ about the massive New Great Transformation we must now engage.

By Robert MacNeil Christie on Sun, January 07, 2018 at 8:38 am

I came to this website specifically to find out how entangled in social justice campaigns Earth Island Institute is and seeing this article tells me all I need to know. Why is it so difficult for environmental organizations to stay focused on environmentalism? Humanism is destroying the movement.

By Brandon on Tue, April 04, 2017 at 11:12 am

As a former editor of Earth Island Journal, I can attest to the fact that David Brower supported coverage of social justice issues in the pages of the Journal. Readers who claim that the journal is somehow straying from his vision are, simply, mistaken.

I too received letters much like the one my highly talented successor quotes above. She’s right: letters like that prove you’re doing it right.

By Chris Clarke on Mon, April 03, 2017 at 1:35 pm

Those who would withdraw support for EIJ based on the reason stated in the article above, I urge you to reconsider.

The late Doug Thompkins, inheritor of the Brower model of environmentalism, even argued, “that without sustained systemic analysis there will be no fundamental social change and historical redirection—just shallow, piecemeal, technologically-mediated ‘Band-aid reforms.’” 1

Although, I do tend to disagree with the mindset of some individuals and groups that we must first work to lift every one up to first world living standards in order to achieve both environmental conservation and greater social equity. In a world heading for 10 billion humans living industrial supported lifestyles, the former will necessarily be sacrificed in the attempt to achieve the later.

There is a “them” out there that needs to be confronted, even if often times the “them” is “us”.

1 Crist, E. 2016. “The Legacy of Doug Tompkins”. The Trumpeter. Volume 32, No. 1.

By Dominic on Mon, March 06, 2017 at 1:55 pm

I tend to agree with the fellow withdrawing support. Getting pretty tired of framing so many issues as us vs them. advocating for a cleaner and simpler ecosystem without getting dragged into politics seems a higher road. You drive people like us away.

By Grail on Sun, March 05, 2017 at 6:50 am

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