A Disposable Culture: The Environmentalist Problem

The meaning of “environmentalism” is dependent on context, but it is important to realize that environmentalism intersects with race, class, politics, and gender. 

Today’s environmentalist movement can find its roots within the pages of “Silent Spring,” a 1962 book written by experienced marine biologist and zoologist Dr. Rachel Carson about the detrimental effects of pesticides on our planet. The book resulted in the banning of the lethal pesticide DDT and was thus seen as a great victory for the environmentalist movement during this time. Never before in the U.S. had public opinion believed so strongly that industry needed to be regulated to preserve the environment, creating what we know as environmentalism. 

Depending on context, environmentalism can hold many different meanings. The general definition of environmentalism is “concern about and action aimed at protecting the environment.” While this definition is a simple one, there is a lot of ambiguity about what exactly “concern” and “action” might look like. Environmentalist action means something different to people in different places, and it’s important to understand that environmentalism is not the same everywhere you go. Therefore, environmentalism is dependent on context.

Environmentalist action means something different to people in different places, and it’s important to understand that environmentalism is not the same everywhere you go.

Within the broader U.S. context of environmentalism, there seems to be two main ways we view and act on behalf of environmentalism. Within one context, environmentalism is seen as a method to help impoverished communities that lack the resources to be environmentally sustainable on their own. Within the other which most San Diegans are probably accustomed to environmentalism means buying organic groceries, recycling as much as possible, driving an electric car, and overall just changing the way we consume goods to make our consumption less impactful on the environment. According to Dr. Alexander Huezo, a professor of ethnic studies and  currently teaching a course on environmental racism at UC San Diego, there is a major problem within this two-context paradigm. He labeled it as a “false dichotomy” of what environmentalism fundamentally represented. 

A significant portion of the U.S. has largely been oblivious to environmental racism, or “the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color.” Environmental racism means that people of color often face environmental injustice and the more hazardous effects of environmental policy. It is not uncommon for lower-income communities of color to be located near industrial facilities and to be frequently exposed to unhealthy air pollution due to where they live. The connection between race and class in the U.S. means that not everyone has the same picture of environmentalism. 

An example of this is the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which remains unresolved to this day. In 2014, it was found that the residents of Flint were being poisoned by their water supply, which contained abnormally high amounts of lead. This problem began when Flint’s drinking water source was changed from the Detroit system to the Flint River to save the county money. As a poorer community, Flint did not have the financial or political power to resist this drastic change, which resulted in the poisoning of their entire community. Even though complaints were sent by the residents of Flint, they were ignored until the community of Flint, made up of political activists, scientists, doctors, and normal citizens, broke this story. This problem is ongoing and an unfortunate example of the devastating effects of environmental racism. If the community had been more affluent, more white, or had more political power, it would have had more access to resources, in which case, this problem would have been addressed much earlier or more likely would never have occurred at all.

While it is important to understand the story of Flint to help ensure other communities do not suffer the same fate, it must be understood that this case study represents only a single form of environmental racism. Other forms exist in and outside the U.S. and we must be aware of this in order to identify and prevent future catastrophes. 

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Environmental racism is also more complex than it may seem. Environmental racism overlaps with classism, gentrification, and other issues.  

“When we say environmental racism, you also have to be cognitive of the fact that it’s not always just, ‘the rich white people did this,’” Huezo said. “It’s how the U.S. treats the rest of the world. It’s also how people in communities of color can abuse their own power and privilege. It needs to be problematized. I would say a potential pitfall is to see it as purely a racial thing and not see how it intersects with class, gender, and religion. There’s a potential for you to create different hierarchies instead of eliminating them.” 

Environmental racism also overlaps with environmental gentrification. Environmental gentrification is defined as “the process whereby the seemingly progressive discourse of urban sustainability is used to drive up property values and displace low-income residents.” Displacement due to gentrification has become an all-too-familiar pattern in poor and financially weaker communities. Paradoxically, wealthy people working to further “urban sustainability” by providing expensive green amenities actually does more to further environmental inequality than help it. Once poorer residents are no longer able to afford their homes due to the heightened price of living in a gentrified area, thay are driven out of their homes.

“Last week in class we were discussing green gentrification,” Huezo said. “For example, they’ve had to live with pollution in their town, and now that you’ve improved it, they won’t be able to afford it anymore.”

In fact, green gentrification is occurring presently in San Diego. From February to March 2019 the UCSD University Art Gallery featured the exhibit, “Reclaim! Remain! Rebuild! Posters on Affordable Housing, Gentrification, and Resistance.” On the opening night, Feb. 7, of the exhibit, keynote speakers San Diego City Council President Georgette Gomez and Dr. Eric Avila, the UC Los Angeles César E. Chávez department of Chicana and Chicano studies chair, spoke about San Diego’s past and present gentrification problem. Gentrified communities, such as North Park, and rebuilding projects in City Heights serve as perfect examples of the devastating effects of gentrification. Of course, cleaning up neighborhoods, cleaning up water lines, and creating a healthier, more sustainable environment on its own is not a bad thing. The underlying problem is the fact that once these changes occur, the original residents that lived there can no longer afford it. This forces displacement and the movement of poor communities and is a discriminatory consequence of environmentalism.

 “[Classist environmentalism] isn’t new at all … ,” Avila said. “A lot of these environmental discourses erase people.” 

Unequal environmentalism can also play out on an international scale. Garbage collection in the U.S. is the perfect example. The U.S. is an incredibly wasteful country, but as a society we are lucky enough that we rarely deal with the repercussions of our own trash. Once the garbage is picked up or brought to the dump, we don’t have to worry about it anymore. This privilege only exists because, for decades, other countries have been buying our waste, most notably China. But as China’s economy and world position has grown, they no longer need the capital that buying our garbage provides. Recently as of last March, China announced they would no longer be buying our waste. But in the U.S., large amounts of people still have their trash picked up every week. Cities aren’t drowning in their own garbage, so what happened? Simply put, the U.S. just began selling our waste to other countries like Vietnam and Malaysia, creating a short-term, unsustainable solution to the problem.

Environmentalism also has political repercussions. A political repercussion was felt across the world in 2017 when President Trump announced that the U.S. would be leaving the Paris Agreement. Many claim that Trump’s reasoning for leaving the agreement was purely political, but this just reinforces the idea that environmentalism is a political issue instead of one that affects everyone. Because this issue is not agreed upon across both sides of the aisle in Washington D.C., it puts us all at risk. Even though the announcement was a little over two years ago, President Trump was not allowed to officially start the U.S.’s exit on the agreement until Nov. 4 of this year. But on Nov. 4, formal procedures for U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement officially began, making the U.S. the only country to have left the agreement.     

Environmentalism, with all its different contexts, can be approached in many different ways. Huezo emphasized that the question of combating environmental injustice has no single, correct answer. It is important, he argued, to have the motivation to ask questions about environmental injustice, even if a perfect solution isn’t readily available. 

“To do nothing would be just as foolish,” Huezo said. “What we need to do is to keep an open mind and communicate with one another. It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation, and the first step is realizing that.” 

He stated, “The key piece to [environmentalism] is to not see nature as something separate from this room or right outside. If people see environmentalism in some far off rainforest or some turtle that needs to be saved, then they are avoiding the reality that their own habits contribute to climate change.”

Environmentalism is an act of self-preservation, not charity, and until that is understood we all remain at risk.

Environmentalism is not simple. The first step is to come to terms with the fact that the environment and humanity are not separate entities, and to understand that it’s going to take a whole lot more than us all having electric cars to fix the climate crisis we face. It needs to begin with us communicating and discussing with one another the problems we see and face in our communities. And together we can tackle these problems. 

As a potential way to move forward in combating green gentrification, Huezo said, “The key is always including people in the conversation and making sure they have some kind of agency in the conversation.”

Art by Susan Sun.