Earth Day 2021: A Return Social Justice Roots

Earth Day began in 1970 by organizers who borrowed from the civil rights movement in an attempt to combine social justice with science. However, over the years the Earth Day holiday has strayed into a one-day event that is often more about making people—white people in particular—feel good about small, ineffective actions, rather than addressing systemic inequality such as the disproportionately polluting sectors of the economy like coal, oil, gas, and petrochemical refining.

This Earth Day, 51 years after it was founded, happens to fall on the same week that millions of Americans await the verdict of the George Floyd murder trial. A crackling anxiety fills the air and storefronts in Minneapolis have shuttered in advance, knowing what will follow if Derek Chauvin is not convicted. The world waits on tenterhooks, recalling for some the moment before the Rodney King trial was announced 30 years ago.

What greater urgency is there in the world than the work of identifying and rooting out inequality and lack of equity and inclusion? Regardless of how the trial turns out, and especially if Chauvin is not convicted, this Earth Day gives an opportunity for white environmentalists to reconnect to the original mission of the founders of the holiday with the work that this moment requires of us.

Some might push back and say that climate change is a more urgent threat. As a climate activist, I agree that the climate emergency is indeed the greatest threat facing humanity’s existence, not to mention the incredible biodiversity on this pale blue dot. But I would also say that the urgency of addressing racial equality is inseparable from the climate crisis because they are caused by the same systems of injustice.

These systems of injustice are hard to ignore when it comes to large multinational corporations like the fossil fuel industry polluting in primarily low-income, minority communities, but they can also be perpetuated by individuals whose aggressions play out through misogyny and anti-environmental attitudes. These are often white, climate-denying “bros” whose behaviors have led researchers to study the phenomenon, giving rise to the term petromasculinity.

Learning about petromasculinity reminded me of the first time I heard of the philosophical theory of social ecology, which was introduced by Murray Bookchin in the 1960s. It felt like a needle was dragged across a record halting the music, offering me an appropriate lens for bearing witness to the connection between human conflict and the destruction of nature.

There is a common thread weaving through ecological destruction, racial injustice, toxic patriarchy, and hyper capitalism: a value system rooted in domination, hierarchy, and competition. And a hierarchical relationship to the earth distorts the ability experience a deep sense of appreciation for place and for the source of sustenance, which can also facilitate a deeper sense of belonging, healing, and connection.

Capitalism is not only responsible for producing all of these crises, but it also benefits mightily from injustice, responsible for making natural resources into mere economic inputs without accounting for the cost of polluting the water, air, and land on which we all depend. What’s required of this moment is nothing less than wholesale systemic change. This is why I support the Green New Deal, reintroduced today, which centers racial and economic justice in a transition to a new energy economy.

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