Written by Vanessa Chavarriaga

Origins

The original Earth Day was created from a social awakening that followed the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In this book, Carson translates scientific jargon into a narrative book that is accessible to everyday Americans. She talks about the known dangers of DDT, a chemical that was being used at alarming rates to kill insects on crops. Carson targeted her book toward suburban Americans, who responded by organizing and creating the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. More than 20 million Americans marched for the protection of our environment and our communities. 

Environmentalism is rooted in social justice. It was created on the basis of achieving economic and racial justice. Environmentalism simultaneously includes protecting health conditions, empowering workers, fighting for Indigenous sovereignty, and protecting landscapes. 

Care for the Earth and for human communities belongs together.

The movement for Black Lives has called for a divestment from fossil fuels. 

We are all indebted to the BIPOC communities who have carried the burdens of environmental racism. We are all indebted to the nonhuman world that we keep breaking beyond her power to heal herself.

Ways to hold environmentalism accountable:

Question the ways in which environmental harms and benefits are distributed

There is a stark inequality when we consider who receives environmental harms and who receives environmental benefits. Whether it is a toxic waste site, proximity to a highway, or a food desert, environmental harms disproportionately affect BIPOC communities. 

This is because white, affluent people have the political power and generational privilege of not feeling the consequences of their environmental impacts. This form of environmental racism is often called NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard). 

Break down the binary of “pristine” wilderness that we visit vs the places we live and work.

Most environmental efforts go toward preserving spaces that are designated exclusively for recreation, such as national parks and other public lands. Although it is important to preserve natural ecosystems, why should we only fight to protect the “wild” places people escape to? Most of the time, those are white spaces. BIPOC communities who are struggling to meet their basic needs often do not have the privilege of visiting these. 

Our relationships with nature do not only exist inside this false narrative of wilderness. We need to advocate for clean and safe living conditions for everyone; clean water, air, and food are nature too. That is true intersectional environmentalism.

Celebrate hood environmentalism just as much as white environmentalism

We overvalue elite forms of advocacy such as litigation, lobbying, academia. We are often taught that these avenues are the only ways to inspire social change.

We undervalue grassroots efforts such as BIPOC community gardens, fights for clean water, neighborhood clean-ups. We practice environmentalism daily but are taught not to see it: your abuela reusing the butter container for leftovers, your brother repurposing clothes, your mother hunting, your uncle talking to your neighborhood about the drought during a cookout. All of these are beautiful and organic forms of advocacy. They can be more powerful than the elite ways because they are accessible. They call people in rather than pushing them out.

Challenge who Belongs

Everyone belongs outside. Everyone can be an advocate. Capitalism tries to tell us that there is a limited amount of space because it operates from a model of scarcity. We must reject this notion and begin to see that there is space for us to create new and better relationships with nature. We can embrace a model of abundance.

Recognize and fight for Indigenous sovereignty

Environmental justice and conservation have historically excluded and erased Indigenous knowledge. Fights for food sovereignty, water rights, and stewardship of land are a crucial part of creating a more just world. The environmentalist world has often failed to acknowledge the harm that colonization has caused on the human and non-human worlds.

A lot of the ways in which we have relations with the outdoors are forms of modern-day genocide for Indigenous peoples. When we visit a national park or a wilderness area and believe it to be a place where “no human remains” we are erasing entire peoples that call these places home. When we educate first-time hikers on the myth of “not leaving a trace on the land” we are erasing communities that do not see a separation between people and nature and leave meaningful and respectful traces all over the land.  

We must continue to lift up Indigenous leaders by staying informed and using our voices. As non-Native BIPOC or White folks, we need to acknowledge how we contribute to modern-day genocide. We must also actively work against erasure by educating ourselves and others on concepts such as land acknowledgments, repatriation, and Land Back. 

Honoring the past, building a future

We live in a shared world where we have more in common than we do differently. We share education, food production, housing, medical care, public lands… What this means is we have the opportunity to build something together – something that works for us all. 

We should make this shared-world belong to everyone. 

Another important aspect of decolonizing environmentalism is to reject the notions of linear time. A strategy of capitalism and colonialism is to alienate individuals from their communities, their selves, and their environment, and their ancestors. We must reject the capitalist alienation from self and ancestors; we are simply not alone in this fight. Our past and future ancestors walk with us too. That makes our individual impact longer than just our lifespan and creates true radical change. 

How do we continue to build this fire?

I recommend surrounding yourself with BIPOC folks who understand the necessity of environmental justice. I continue to advocate for safe, affinity spaces in the outdoors. When we are freed from the violence that white spaces in nature can sometimes be, we are in a headspace that allows for creativity and community. 

I suggest embracing the discomfort of decolonizing one’s own life — personal, professional — all of it. Indigenous scholars such as Dina Gilo-Whitaker, Kyle Powys Whyte, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith have helped me immensely. 

Lastly, I recommend self-preservation. Being a woman of color in academia and the outdoor industry can lead to being treated in predatory and extractive ways. I am still learning to be less apologetic about addressing my needs. My health, happiness, and presence will always be more important.