Redefining environmentalism

In my experiences attending a predominantly white university in the Western world, environmentalism is often presented as a western concept. My professors frequently cite Henry David Thoreau as one of the first environmentalists, who lived in a secluded cabin in New England and wrote about nature. They also mention Rachel Carson, who wrote about pesticide use in the early 1960s and its impact on wildlife in the U.S.

But mainstream environmentalism, as it is often presented to students at a Western university like Tufts, sometimes ignores the ways that the movement has perpetuated colonialism in the past and still does. One of the largest environmental organizations in the world, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), began as an imperial endeavor to protect wild spaces in Western countries’ former colonial empires. Colonial officials in the recently postwar and postcolonial world worried that as development became a priority for newly independent states, these states would neglect to care for their wild spaces.

Furthermore, though the WWF and similar organizations today are theoretically international, they often draw heavily from Western ideas. Many mainstream environmental organizations are just beginning to acknowledge the importance of environmental justice; the Sierra Club gave their most prestigious award to Robert Bullard last year, marking the organization’s first recognition of environmental justice, and Bullard was the first person of color to receive this award since they started giving it in 1961.

Hunting of endangered species and deforestation are often discussed as developing-world environmental problems. But deforestation is prevalent in a variety of countries, including Sweden, Finland and Portugal. Countries with the highest number of species at risk of extinction are Ecuador, Malaysia, Indonesia, Mexico and … the U.S. Too often we forget that the developed countries often contribute to the same problems, and to many additional problems (i.e. climate change), too.

Furthermore, when we talk about environmentalism as yet another concept that the developed world must “teach” to the developing world, we are ignoring the many environmental ideologies and movements that colonialism and neocolonialism has silenced. When European settlers colonized the “New World,” they ignored the ecological concerns that many Native Americans already had built into their lifestyles and belief systems. They sent many species into extinction and polluted bodies of water that Native groups often depended on. It’s important not to lump Native groups together or to exploit the trope of the “Ecological Indian,” but it is undeniable that indigenous peoples as a whole were and still are ahead of Westerners in terms of their understanding of sustainability — in all senses of the word.

How can mainstream environmentalists today address this messy, and in many cases, ongoing, history of environmentalism? How can we redefine Western environmentalism?

Acknowledging that mainstream, Western environmentalism isn’t the “only” environmentalism is a good first step. We also must honor a broader range of environmental perspectives and voices, recognize the importance of environmental justice and environmental rights for all and criticize the ways in which environmental goals have been used to justify neocolonialism and oppression. Here at Tufts, the administration recently attempted to justify firing janitors by ‘greenwashing’ the issue.

Mainstream environmentalists in the U.S. also must not prioritize animal or plant life over human life, nor should they prioritize some people’s rights to a clean and safe environment over others. A lot has changed since Thoreau. Like any other movement, such as the feminist movement, Western environmentalism must learn from and repent for the oppression it has ignored and sometimes helped perpetuate throughout its history.


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