Environmental Education and the Problem of Privilege

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As a white, North American environmental educator, I frequently find myself sheltering a dirty little secret. It’s this: environmentalism, especially in the U.S., suffers from a host of privilege problems. Teaching environmentalism without anti-racism is a little like teaching social justice without hope: you’ll get nowhere if you skirt questions of legacy and responsibility. Instead, helping students face up to the mighty challenges by understanding them as shared struggles and confronting them both despite and because of their weighty horrors is an imperative.

Educators in environmental studies need to undertake this work as a matter of self-respect, in addition to the continued relevance and survival of the field being at stake. The vast majority of higher education today suffers from the legacies of colonial privilege, Eurocentric epistemologies, class privilege, and racialized inequalities. We in environmental studies aren’t much different, though we all too frequently display an infuriating tendency to uplift Indigenous ways of thinking and knowing while paying scant attention to the names of the very peoples upon whose historical lands we are occupying.

The importance of asking these questions is so weighty that it amounts to an existential crisis upon which the survival of life on the planet as we (more or less) know it depends. Scientific consensus tells us that we have within a twenty-year window to stabilize the climate before irreversible tipping points are reached, which will cause the planet to have wildfires, mega-droughts, massive flooding, famines, and deadly hurricanes beating upon our doors as our new normal. It’s going to take a massive, worldwide, and widespread effort to protect most of life on earth from being obliterated by global warming. But in society as a whole, there is a common assumption that “global climate change is primarily a concern of only upper and middle class whites,” despite the numerous studies that conclude that minorities “often support action to respond to this global threat at levels equal to or greater than whites.”1 Building a broader environmental movement, in other words, depends crucially upon disrupting the conventional history of the environmental movement that is comprised of a first-wave of white pastoralists and a second wave of distinctive environmental justice activism that is led by people of color.

Instead, a more sensitive and inclusive understanding of environmentalism may be achieved by expanding into considering the people who have been colonized, impoverished, and culturally marginalized, bringing them into a conscientiously decolonized and anti-racist environmental movement that narrates both its future, its present, and its history in light of their contributions to environmental thought.2 Those groups frequently never wholly embraced the modernist paradigm that centers on nature / culture dichotomies in the first place, and might conventionally not describe their perspectives as environmentalist.2 Yet they are central to many of the environmental field’s most current and pressing engagements, which include frontline struggles in defense of water, and against fossil fuel expansion, coalitions of protestors defending biodiversity, or legal cases that assert the rights of nature. Understanding such vectors of struggle requires a more explicit foregrounding of the epistemologies and histories of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) experiences. Doing such work will foster a more sensitive understanding of environmentalism. Pragmatically, too, it will manifest in a broader understanding about what environmentalism is, whose interests it serves, and what it can be, which will undoubtedly foster a greater sense of the field’s relevance for its increasingly diverse body of students.3,4

Adopting an anti-racist praxis also helps position students and educators alike with a more cohesive understanding of the system of racial capitalism and the ongoing violence of settler colonialism. Misguided tropes of individual responsibility for environmental harm yield a sort of timid environmentalism, which subtly (and paradoxically) reinforce the very neoliberal and resource-extractive systems that the movement intends to challenge.5,6 Instead, uplifting a more lucid and impactful educational experience that is fundamentally hopeful can be achieved by baking into the curriculum the understandings of the industries and structures of oppression that underpin many environmental problems, rather than shying away from such topics.7 Racism and colonialism have been indelibly etched into the history and practice of conservation, both through the philosophical underpinnings of the field, as well as in its institutions and models.8,9 In challenging such systems of oppression, educators have a crucial opportunity to reveal the ways in which environmentalism is implicated in legacies of forced labor, displacement, dispossession, and disenfranchisement. In so doing, we can begin to dismantle some of the oppression that are built into such knowledge systems and practices, and to rebuild a set of understandings of a more stable big-tent environmental movement.10,11

While it is imperative that a more diverse set of voices be included in order to unearth historical oppressions and inform more equitable responses to our current predicaments, incorporating such changes should not mean mere tweaks within an introductory course syllabus. Tacking on a week of attention here or there on environmental justice in the United States – the Flint water crisis, the Chipko movement, a story about Chico Mendes’s work in the Brazilian Amazon, or Wangari Maathai’s Greenbelt movement in Kenya – is a woefully inadequate approach. This strategy amounts to saying: “Look, see, we’ve mentioned black and brown-skinned people in the Third World, so obviously, we’re inclusive!” Merely adding such curricular nods to diversity is problematically tokenistic, but a recent survey of syllabi from higher education in environmental studies suggests that this approach is fairly common.12

Social scientists have warned that the language of anti-racism and decolonization should not pay lip service to decentering white/settler perspectives; they ask educators to substantively honor the struggles, lived realities, desires, and contributions of the groups they seek to uplift 13,14. This approach presents manifold educational opportunities for the high-impact educational practices of community-engaged learning, participatory action research, and the praxis-based theorization. Such engagements have the potential to go beyond the ivory tower by informing policy, and may contribute robust theoretical and political conversations through which to better understand the ways that disparities in social power are related to the environment.15-17

The problematic canon of environmental studies that I once learned as a U.S. undergraduate student goes something like this: Native Americans and Indigenous peoples have always had a deep ecological knowledge and conscience, but environmentalism really begins as a movement with the nineteenth century transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau, or George Perkins Marsh’s landmark book Man and Nature (1864). Not long thereafter, the conservationist efforts off Teddy Roosevelt, Guifford Pinchot, and John Muir really helped environmental protection take off, becoming entrenched in policies that created national parks and wilderness areas.8,18Thinkers like Aldo Leopold (1949) grounded the field in conservation ethics, and subsequently, a global movement takes off around Rachel Carson’s publication of Silent Spring (1962).19 Since the first Earth Day in 1970, environmentalism has become a well-recognized global movement.20 We’ve been working primarily to save the rainforests – and the whales and the bees and so on – ever since. The canon, in other words, and the movement of environmentalism by extension, is all white, and centered in the U.S. It’s male-dominated. Its nods to non-U.S. social movements concerned with the environment are tokenistic at best. Its concern is largely for people in far-away places or other species, even more than other humans, in such a way that problematically positions humankind as entirely separate from nature.

Let’s revisit the canon, this time through a lens that unsettles the triumphalist colonial narrative and challenges the racist underpinnings of our field’s historical inheritance. The origin story of the environmental conservation movement is premised upon the elision of Native American populations from the landscapes that eventually became American national parks, instead privileging the narrative of white male triumphalism over a pristine wilderness when we talk about conservation efforts. Certainly, the pre-colonial Indigenous tribes be written back into our history, while from the get-go, educators could be challenging the notion of a pristine wilderness, explaining through various texts how Indigenous North Americans tended land for centuries, while also experiencing a violent displacement from it.21,22 Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is widely taught as a generative text of the American environmental ethos, while the Black residents that lived in the Walden Woods prior to Thoreau’s homesteading there were historically erased from the narrative about Walden Pond. John Muir’s legacy, too, is actively being called into question, given his track record of racist remarks; even the Sierra Club, which he founded, has called out Muir’s racism with regret. Instead of teaching the American landscape as a pristine, innocent wilderness, it is important to acknowledge that Black Americans thought of the land in which they were enslaved as in need of redemption,23 while urban elites’ concerns were a driving force behind protecting nature elsewhere 24.

In 1970, Nathan Hare wrote about Black ecology, which he delineated as fundamentally entangled given that it seeks out responses to urban air pollution in over-crowded ghettos alongside intertwined social and psychological pathologies. Black ecology requires economic correctives in addition to political self-determination for the Black community as a response, Hare argued. This is in stark contrast to white ecology, which Hare viewed as seeking clean water for recreation and aesthetics, while planting trees and saving species were focused upon for the sake of “redeeming terrestrial beauty.”25 Hare’s call-out of white ecology is resonant at present, as widely-publicized studies regarding conservation policies continue to be blind to issues including researchers’ positionality and global inequalities, while ignoring the need to engage frontline stakeholders.26,27 His call to action is one involving embracing the intersections of health, political power, social well-being, and environmental concerns as integral to each other. Doing such work not only presents a ripe opportunity for environmental studies to show its strength as a fundamentally interdisciplinary field.  Moreover, it offers a chance to share with students the ways in which social justice struggles and environmental concerns are interconnected, and to help them consider the reality that the environment is not simply somewhere else that is polluted, but actually is a world through which we are constantly moving, being absorbed by and also absorbing in toxicity and beauty alike. Trebbe Johnson writes:  “I move through and around my environments as they move through and around me. The environment is both a collective noun and an infinite number of particular ones.”28

There are a number of heterogenous strategies that could achieve a more genuine and integrative job of embracing epistemological plurality and defining strategies for action in partnership with, or even led by, the communities that are most affected by environmental hardships without erasing, co-opting, or institutionalizing the vulnerable or conquered people they purport to protect.29,30 Indeed, just as so many other institutions in contemporary society were informed by racism, classism, patriarchy, and nativism, the environmental movement in North America was also marked by a backdrop of oppression. Ignoring such legacies would not only be disingenuous to the shared values scientific and historical accuracy that are at the heart of environmental concern.31,32  It would also be perilous to the relevancy of a field that urgently aims to include a broader spectrum of concerned individuals within its tent.

Here’s an illustration. In my own classes, I have begun situating Rachel Carson’s historically ground-breaking advocacy against pesticides alongside figures such as George Washington Carver, Ben Chavis, and the civil rights and farmworker movement leaders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Adding their contributions help focus conversations about labor and social equity concerns alongside articulations of concern for nature. It additionally offers an inspiration to students through modelling the intersectionality of contemporary climate justice and food justice activism. These heroic leaders can also be coherently situated alongside the present-day activism of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and pesticide researchers such as Dr. Tyrone Hayes to give students a deeper sense of the continuity between historical struggles against pesticides and current realities. Explicitly, in making such curricular curation choices, labor justice issues can be framed as woven from the same cloth as environmental protection and environmental health concerns, rather than being taken up as an afterthought.

Dismantling white supremacy in environmental studies, as with any discipline, should involve an ongoing cycle of praxis, that is, reflection, theory, and action that looks both inward and also outward, taking steps to be manifested in practice. Popular calls to decolonize the academy and to integrate racial justice into society will inevitably fall short if such efforts do not also permeate syllabi, classroom dynamics, and curricula. Certainly, each discipline faces its own unique epistemological, historical, and social legacy of white supremacy. As an educator, our disciplines and our classrooms are as impactful a venue as any within our control. In my own field, interrogating and confronting the question of who environmentalists are, alongside the question of who is affected by the efforts of environmentalists is helpful in unveiling the larger structures underpinning white supremacy. Asking those questions allows us to begin dismantling those structures that oppress us, and allows us to begin building toward a freer, more equitable society.

Broadening our epistemological and ontological focus is a necessity, and in so doing, there’s a ripe, welcome opportunity to acknowledge, accept, and embrace differences while embracing dignity and respect as core values.33One of my own teachers, David Orr, introduced me to the canon of environmental studies (such as it was back in the late 90’s). He wrote that “hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up”34 and was right on that count. It’s hard work, with failures along the way a near certainty. But complacency, ignorance, and hopelessness go hand in hand. We have no alternative but to collectively get to work to gain the inspiration, empowerment, and begin trying to make the changes we so desperately seek.



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2          Ybarra, P. S., Wald, S. D., Vazquez, D. & Ray, S. J.     (Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2019).

3          Taylor, D. E. Racial and ethnic differences in the students’ readiness, identity, perceptions of institutional diversity, and desire to join the environmental workforce. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 8, 152-168 (2018).

4          Lloro-Bidart, T. & Finewood, M. H. Intersectional feminism for the environmental studies and sciences: looking inward and outward. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 8, 142-151, doi:10.1007/s13412-018-0468-7 (2018).

5          Fang, C. C. The Case for Environmental Advocacy. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences January, doi:doi.org/10.1007/s13412-020-00650-5 (2021).

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7          Ray, S. J. A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep your Cool on a Warming Planet.  (University of California Press, 2020).

8          Kashwan, P., V. Duffy, R., Massé, F., Asiyanbi, A. P. & Marijnen, E. From Racialized Neocolonial Global Conservation to an Inclusive and Regenerative Conservation. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 63, 4-19, doi:10.1080/00139157.2021.1924574 (2021).

9          Chapin, M. in World Watch Vol. November/December   (Worldwatch Institute, Washington, DC, 2004).

10        Baldwin, W. A. Decolonising geographical knowledges: The incommensurable, the university and democracy. Area 49, 329-331 (2017).

11        Wright, W. J. As Above, So Below: Anti-Black Violence as Environmental Racism. Antipode 53, 791-809, doi:10.1111/anti.12425 (2021).

12        Bratman, E. & De Lince, W. P. Dismantling white supremacy in environmental studies and sciences: an argument for anti‑racist and decolonizing pedagogies. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences (2022).

13        Tuck, E. & Yang, K. W. Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, education & society 1, 1-40 (2012).

14        Zaragocin, S. Gendered Geographies of Elimination: Decolonial Feminist Geographies in Latin American Settler Contexts. Antipode 51, 373-392, doi:10.1111/anti.12454 (2019).

15        Sze, J. Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger.  160 (UC Press, 2020).

16        Sze, J. & London, J. K. Environmental Justice at the Crossroads. Sociology Compass 2, 1331–1354 (2008).

17        McIntyre-Mills, J. Critical Systemic Praxis for Social and Environmental Justice: Participatory Policy Design and Governance for a Global Age.  463 (Springer US, 2003).

18        Agrawal, A. The Politics of Development and Conservation: Legacies of colonialism. Peace & Change 22, 463-482 (1997).

19        Stoll, M. Legacy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, <www.environmentandsociety.org/exhibitions/rachel-carsons-silent-spring/legacy-rachel-carsons-silent-spring&gt; (2020).

20        Rome, A. The Genius of Earth Day. Environmental History 15, 194-205, doi:doi-org.ezp.fandm.edu/10.1093/envhis/emq036 (2010).

21        Anderson, M. K. Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources.  (2013).

22        Dunbar-Ortiz, R. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.  (Beacon Press, 2014).

23        Smith, K. Reading the land: on the ethical foundations of environmental studies’ signature pedagogy. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 8, 351-356, doi:10.1007/s13412-018-0488-3 (2018).

24        Taylor, D. E. The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, privilege, and environmental protection.  (Duke University Press, 2016).

25        Hare, N. Black Ecology. The Black Scholar 1, 2-8, doi:10.1080/00064246.1970.11728700 (1970).

26        Agrawal, A. et al. An Open Letter to the Lead Authors of ‘Protecting 30% of the Planet for Nature: Costs, Benefits and Implications.’, <openlettertowaldronetal.wordpress.com/&gt; (2020).

27        Kashwan, P. American Environmentalism’s Racist Roots have Shaped Global Thinking about Conservation. The Conversation (2020).

28        Johnson, T. You are Now Entering the Environment. Humans and Nature (2018).

29        Álvarez, L. & Coolsaet, B. Decolonizing Environmental Justice Studies: A Latin American Perspective. Capitalism Nature Socialism 31, 50-69, doi:10.1080/10455752.2018.1558272 (2018).

30        Bradley, K. & Herrera, H. Decolonizing Food Justice: Naming, Resisting, and Researching Colonizing Forces in the Movement. Antipode 48, 97-114, doi:10.1111/anti.12165 (2016).

31        Clark, J. L. in Prologue Magazine Vol. 18   (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, 1985).

32        Abruzzi, W. S. The Myth of Chief Seattle. Human Ecology Review 7, 72-75 (2000).

33        Lorde, A. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches.  (Crossing Press, 1984).

34        Orr, D. Hope is an Imperative: The Essential David Orr.  (Island Press, 2010).

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