Summer of Reckoning

The environment doesn't exist in a vacuum. Those of us working to protect our natural world need to be mindful of that.

It is nearly midnight as I write this. Other than the occasional clattering of police helicopters overhead, the City of Berkeley, California, where I live, has been mostly quiet tonight, under curfew for the third night in a row because, according to the county sheriff, “conditions of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property have arisen within the [Alameda] County.”

photo of climate protest
We need to commit to actions that will move the needle on racial and environmental justice further, including, working to make all levels of the environmental movement, which has long been overwhelmingly White, more accessible to people of color. Photo by Claire Foran.

Conditions of extreme peril. Less than two weeks ago, that phrase would have referred to the public health crisis set off by the Covid-19 pandemic that has claimed more than 100,000 American lives since February. But now it refers to the conflagration of anguish and rage sweeping across this nation since May 25, when we all watched (via a video recording) a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of a 46-year-old Black man, George Perry Floyd, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until he suffocated to death.

Coming in the middle of the pandemic — which has killed a disproportionate number of Black and Indigenous people and destroyed the livelihoods of the most economically depressed among us — and on the heels of the recent killings of two more unarmed African Americans, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, Floyd’s murder has plunged this nation deeper into crisis. Millions have set aside their fear of the deadly virus and taken to the streets to criticize police violence and racism.

The response by law enforcement agencies — egged on by a head of state who has chosen to sow further discord instead of offering words of comfort and unity — has been brutal. And given Trump has pretty much declared war on those protesting, it seems the worst is yet to come.

Why am I writing about this instead of focusing on environmental issues, some of you might ask?

Because our democracy is in extreme peril, and our people are in extreme pain, and we need to take the space and the time to recognize that. Because the “environment” doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Because, as our ongoing climate and ecological crises have been showing us over and over again, nature and society aren’t separate, unconnected realms. What happens in one impacts the other.

Remember that oft-quoted line by John Muir?

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

As environmentalists working to protect our natural world, it is our job to pay attention to these connections. (Even Muir, who has been widely criticized for his racist remarks about Native Americans, got it.) We need to understand how, across the globe, oppression, colonialism, racism, and exploitation of the marginalized have been among the key drivers of environmental destruction. And how, at the same time, it is the marginalized — including the economically poor and people of color — who are most impacted by environmental problems.

As environmentalists, opposing and ameliorating these entrenched social malaises, which the environmental movement hasn’t been immune too either, is part and parcel of the work we have to do if we are to ever achieve a sustainable living world.

Which is why, in this moment in time, we need to publicly decry the killing of George Floyd. Which is why we need stand in solidarity with Black communities as they demand justice.

But we also need to move beyond mere expressions of solidarity. We need to commit to actions that will move the needle further, including, for starters, working to make all levels of the environmental movement, which has long been overwhelmingly White, more accessible to people of color (who, incidentally, are more concerned about the environment than White folks).

The good news is, many movement leaders, especially youth leaders, already get this. We just need those who are still holding on to outdated notions of what it means to be an environmentalist to join us on the right side of history.

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PS: While we have managed to sustain the Journal’s daily operations during the pandemic and pivoted a significant amount of our small publication’s resources to covering the many links between Covid-19 and the environment, we have also suffered some setbacks. So, for the first time in the Journal’s nearly 40-year history, we are offering you a digital-only Summer magazine. We plan to resume our print publication with the Fall 2020 issue. We will keep you posted if anything changes on that front.

In the meantime, I would appreciate it if you took a few minutes to fill our very short reader survey. Your feedback will help us learn how to serve you better.

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We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

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