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  • Writer's pictureJenni Foshey

Four Things Every Environmentalist Should Know

INTRODUCTION


I’ve considered myself to be an environmentalist since elementary school, but it wasn’t until my junior year of college that I learned how environmentalism came to be and what issues are associated with it. The purpose of this article is to quickly inform you of four important things that I learned in a class this semester called “Social Justice in the Anthropocene”. For those who are unfamiliar, the anthropocene is the current time period we are in. “Anthro” means “human”. It's called the anthropocene because it refers to a time where humans have had a significant (mostly negative) impact on the surrounding ecosystems.


Throughout this course, I have learned a LOT of new concepts, but what stuck out to me the most are the ones I will discuss in this post. I found it very surprising that it took me so long to even hear about these issues considering how much they have negatively influenced people all over the country. By the end of this post, I hope you learn something new and are able to think in a new perspective.


Here are four things you should know as an environmentalist:


1. THE EVOLUTION OF “NATURE" / "WILDERNESS”

  • In biblical times, wilderness was deemed bad because it was full of beasts and the unknown. Nobody ever went into the wilderness because of this.

  • People used to think of themselves as separate from nature. Even old paintings did not focus on nature; people were the forefront focus and nature was always just in the background. Eventually this changed and artists, like Monet, strictly painted landscapes only.

  • Being in nature allows you to physically smell, touch, and heart things. It creates an experience that draws you to the beauty of nature.

  • Wilderness was thought of a barren place with no biological importance. This made it easy for people to drastically change landscapes by over-harvesting, over-exploiting species, or encroaching into them to settle down.

  • People started to value nature in its untouched beauty. You have probably encountered this. Imagine you’re at the Grand Canyon. You take out your phone to take a picture. You try to aim it so that there are no people “photobombing” your picture, right? This is you trying to capture a landscape image that will look pristine; untouched. We know there are people around, but why would you want them in the photo?

An "untouched" photo I took at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

2. MANIFEST DESTINY

  • Environmental racism and white supremacy was present during westward expansion by the European settlers.

  • White European settlers essentially kicked many Native Americans out of their lands so that the Europeans could expand and make “good use” of the land. Apparently, the Native Americans were “doing everything wrong” and “didn’t know what was best."

  • The Trail of Tears and the Indian Removal Act are some of the outcomes from westward expansion.

  • The Trail of Tears and Indian Removal Act refer to the time where Native Americans were being pushed out of their homes and forced to move across country.

  • To this day, Native Americans still face problems and have to fight for their land rights.

When I learned about westward expansion in grade school, the content my teachers taught me was very different. All I was taught was the white supremist perspective. I was taught that westward expansion was a good thing. A successful event. We as a society completed a “great task”. Not once in my education experiences prior to college did I know about how unfair the Native Americans were treated by white European settlers. I hope curriculum in the future changes to include perspectives from all angles and not just one (if it hasn’t already). Something YOU can do to make a difference is to educate yourself about the topic. Watch a YouTube video on it. Read about it. Tell your kids and family members who may not have learned about it either. Simply opening your mind to new ideas can be a great starting point to create positive change.


Watch this 5 minute video below to learn more!


3. ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM

  • Native Americans were overpowered by white Europeans’ military forces and diseases they brought over.

  • Latinos became low wage laborers that were forced to live in segregated mining and railroad towns.

  • Race affects one’s experiences and identity.

  • White people are associated with being clean. They are “racially pure”.

  • People of color (POC) are/were associated with being dirty because they work/worked in the sanitation industry, which was “gross”.

  • Landfills and other toxic waste locations are purposefully placed in communities of POC. This is called racial zoning, which is essentially housing segregation.

  • “Redlining” splits up areas based on their desirability. POC are typically located in areas of low desirability. This is systemic racism. Yes, this is still a problem today.

  • POC are more at risk (of injury, harassment, death) than whites for simply spending time outside. Many whites think they are “up to no good” and that it’s “unnatural” for POC to be outside without causing trouble.

  • Writer, Latria Graham, wrote an article about the anxieties POC face every time they even consider engaging in outdoor activities. Here are some:

    • Carry your ID (or more than one form of ID) in case someone asks what you’re doing.

    • Do you carry a weapon for self defense? Or will that possibly be used against you?

    • What areas are safe for POC? How close is this area to other people?

    • What do you do if you see a confederate flag hanging at a recreational area?

    • What do you do if a police dog approaches you? (There is anxiety with dogs because in the past, dogs were trained to chase slaves).

Just the thought of these being legit anxieties for so many POC makes my heart drop. It’s so insane to me that this level of racism is still happening. If you can, please take your part and stand up to any racist comments you hear. Sometimes people don’t know what they’re saying is racist. That doesn’t make it okay, however pointing it out could make a huge difference in the future.


Here is a video of Christian Cooper explaining his experience birdwatching in Central Park when a white woman falsely accused him of being threatening towards her. Latria Graham also mentioned this event in her article.


4. THE ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT

  • An overwhelming increase in the human population and waste accumulation led to an environmental movement. The steps to this process can be displayed as a positive feedback loop.

  • When unsanitary conditions become a threat to human health, people demand change.

  • POC engage(d) in scrap collecting, recycling, and dumpster diving due to the over-abundance of waste accumulated by wealthy white people who can afford to be wasteful.


  • In his letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This refers to racial injustice, however it can also be applied to environmental injustice because racial justice IS environmental justice. They go hand in hand.

We hear about racial injustice almost every day now. Does that mean it’s occurring more now than in the past? We don’t know. It could be. But, in the past people didn’t have their phones with them to record racial discrimination for others to see. It could be that it’s the same or worse, but the media makes it quicker and easier to spread. Either way, it’s an issue that has been around far too long. It’s all over the news, social media, and it’s even worked its way into new songs. For example, Justin Bieber’s latest album, Justice, is a collab-packed album featuring many black artists and two tracks that are a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. . These tracks are: 2 Much and MLK Interlude.


CONCLUSION

To be an environmentalist, you must care about the environment- duh. However, an environmentalist should also understand the history of environmentalism. This includes how the “wilderness” and “nature” meanings evolved, the problems associated with manifest destiny, the ongoing issue of environmental racism, and the continued environmental movement. By understanding how things became what they are today, you can better understand modern issues and offer guidance to those who may not know what you do.


 

References:

  • UW-Madison Course: Social Justice in the Anthropocene; Professor Diran

  • “Walking” by Henry David Thoreau

  • “Framing the View” and “Spectators” by Rebecca Solnit

  • “The Trouble with Wilderness” by William Cronon

  • “Bamboozled” by Carolyn Finney

  • “Out There, Nobody Can Hear You Scream” by Latria Graham https://www.outsideonline.com/2416929/out-there-nobody-can-hear-you-scream

  • “The Rise of the American Conservation Movement” by Dorceta Taylor

  • “How Do You Make Them So Clean and White?” by Carl Zimring

  • Letter from Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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