By Guest Writer Julia Worcester
I am an Environmental Studies major and I am ashamed of the modern environmental movement.
The mainstream environmental movement, growing out of John Muir’s protectionism, Gifford Pinchot’s sustainable use, and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, is stereotypically white and upper middle class. Unfortunately, these stereotypes are not too far from the truth. I have met too many white environmental activists who think Black Lives Matter marches, fighting for justice in Palestine, or LGBT organizing may be ‘noble’ causes but are ultimately a waste of time if they take someone away from environmental organizing. This is sickening. I believe those who feel this way are motivated by the urgency of issues like climate change but fail to recognize the systemic intersections between environmental issues and all other issues of justice.
In all honesty, I came to Mount Holyoke as a mainstream liberal environmental activist. I now identify as a social and environmental justice advocate, and some would label me as radical. I don’t mind - actually, I take that as a compliment.
The shift in my thinking about the environment was threefold. First, I started thinking about the root causes of environmental problems, and not just the symptoms. I now believe that climate change is a symptom of something larger – the political and economic consequences of capitalism. Acknowledging these connections can be both overwhelming and liberating. For me, the realization was overwhelming because it called into question the realities of broader society that go beyond saving the polar bears. It is also liberating to explore these thoughts because it opens up the possibility for work on other issues which are affected by capitalism. If climate change, capitalism, and justice are linked, there are so many avenues for movement work that all help to address these issues in diverse and beautiful ways.
Second, I now see that environmental problems and injustices are inextricably linked to local, national, and international politics and actors. No environmental issue can be divorced from politics and power dynamics, although the hegemonic narratives about environmental degradation often do just that. Issues like illegal wildlife poaching and desertification are often blamed on the livelihood practices of local people, even though, when investigated, it becomes clear that these problems are really the result of complex geopolitics often involving corporate actors that are truly responsible for the degradation.
And third, I began to realize how connected climate change and environmental degradation are to other social justice struggles. Unfortunately, I think it is easy for environmental activists to pay lip service to social justice when they have not fully grasped the connections. I admit to having once done this. But because of certain conversations, activist trainings, and my own thoughts about identity, I now know that all of these struggles are tied up together because the root causes are all the same – capitalism’s imbalanced power dynamics and dominion and domination over the natural world and over people.
Climate change is a symptom of capitalism, which is the political economic manifestation of the damaging ways in which we treat one another and the natural environment. We cannot confront any of the myriad environmental problems we face as a species, or many of our social problems either, without addressing the crisis in our political economic system. Learning about the two contradictions of capitalism, as described by Karl Marx, helped solidify my views on this. Capitalism is designed to disregard the externalized costs of a profit-driven economy. Its purpose is to produce capital or surplus wealth for the capitalist class. The production of this capital is only possible through the ‘two contradictions of capitalism,’ as outlined by Karl Marx. These contradictions are 1) the exploitation of labor and 2) the exploitation of natural resources and the environment. If people are paid fairly for their labor and provided with safe, pleasant working conditions, and natural resources are used minimally and/or sustainably, no surplus profit is made. If the capitalist class fails to make surplus profit, the fundamental premise of capitalism is defeated. Crises of ecological and social justice arise because capitalism has failed to protect certain populations and ecosystems. This is the way the system is designed to work.
For anyone who thinks people deserve to be treated with dignity and the environment should not be degraded for the monetary benefit of an elite class, it is necessary to study alternatives and work towards a different system. Capitalism is rooted in oppression of all kinds. We cannot address the climate crisis without addressing capitalism.
The environmental movement sorely lags behind other movements like Indigenous rights, the Movement for Black Lives, justice for Palestine, and the immigrant justice movement. It must quickly adopt an intersectional and political analysis of not just “environmental” issues, but all issues of justice around the world. People do not live in silos, and neither do issues. I want to be part of an environmental movement that reflects my values and my politics, and does not perpetuate the same systems of oppression that are themselves responsible for the ecological and climate crises.
There’s a lot we all can do at Mount Holyoke to work on intersectional justice issues. We can read Freedom Is A Constant Struggle (Angela Davis), This Changes Everything (Naomi Klein), and The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander). We can reach out to folks who are working on racial justice, climate justice, LGBT justice. We must talk about these issues with friends and in classes. Let’s be the generation of Mount Holyoke students that makes the interdisciplinary connections in our academic and personal lives and help foster a campus environment that embraces activism of all kinds and that actively breaks down the apathy and competition that is created through the siloing of justice.