Climate change activism has a whiteness problem and a class problem.
Climate change is inextricably linked to other systems of oppression, like neoliberal capitalism and colonization. But mainstream environmental movements have historically failed to recognize the roots of the climate crisis; and partly because of this, climate change activism has a whiteness problem and a class problem.
The movement's hypocrisy has grown harder to ignore as the climate crisis has intensified. Environmental racism has left poorer communities on the frontlines of unclean air and dangerous pipelines, while largely shutting their voices out of the decision and policy-making aspects of change.
The problem is rooted in the way environmental activism has traditionally been defined. Early environmental efforts (at least the ones that received the most funding) often focused on preservation and conservation of untouched land. These efforts existed in silos, painting the Earth as a childlike entity—as if the planet was separate and somehow lower than humans. This Earth was treated like an entity that required saving, and the saving was to be done by corporate firms and guilty consumers.
Even during these early times, many groups were actively fighting systemic oppression in conjunction with environmental activism, from Latino farmworkers protesting pesticides to Black students in Harlem fighting to oppose city garbage dumps in their communities. Still, over the next several decades, the mainstream environmental movement failed to realize that the climate crisis was not merely a matter of spoiled rivers and suffering polar bears. The climate crisis was seen as something separate from human life and separate from other social issues. Large "big green" corporations focused on promoting small changes that people could make on individual scales, as if "going green" could save us. We could all take shorter showers, take the bus instead of driving, purchase expensive organic products, and shut up—nevermind that the super wealthy have always used up far more resources and energy than their fair share.
A Crisis of Understanding
"Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war," writes Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. the Climate. "Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity's use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it's not the laws of nature."
The climate movement will absolutely fail if it does not recognize the importance of its relationships with other social movements. The climate movement must stand in solidarity with organizations fighting for racial and class equity, for an end to the prison industrial complex and for reparations. It must stand in solidarity with people of color and particularly with Indigenous people, who have always been leading in the fight, and all climate movements must defer to leaders who are living on the front lines of the crisis.
If the climate movement continues to prioritize "an end to the climate crisis" over an end to capitalism, if the movement continues to languish in apocalyptic fears rather than paying attention to how climate actually affects people's lives, if the movement remains disconnected from actual life and the way that the climate crisis is already here for so many people around the globe, it will fail.
Just as we humans cannot survive if we view ourselves as separate from the earth, we can't view the climate crisis as unrelated to other issues of inequality and systemic violence. We need to understand that, just as everything in nature relies on everything else—rivers flow into oceans, tree roots create an underlying network of communication that stretches through an entire forest—the movement to stop climate change is the movement to end relentless capitalism, which is also the movement to actually address the monetary inequalities that still exist because of America's legacy of colonization, slavery, and other violences.
The Future of Environmental Justice
Activist groups are waking up to this, at least theoretically. Groups like the youth organization Sunrise Movement have rallied around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal, a movement that aims to combine a massive reduction in carbon emissions with reforms that will make safe housing, affordable food, and health care available to everyone.
In some ways, Sunrise still suffers from the problems that have always plagued environmental groups: a pervasive level of whiteness and classism. But the movement has been discussing how to change this, initiating a hub restructure program and encouraging the development of smaller, more local groups that will facilitate local outreach. The next step is to put the voices of people who are already fighting for justice into power, people like the Indigenous climate activists who have been protecting the earth for centuries, often at great personal risk.
These are complex tasks that require deep thought and challenging conversations, but they are of the utmost importance. The environmental movement will fail unless it embraces its interconnectedness with all things–Embracing interconnectedness will only ever make us all stronger.
Climate change will inevitably result in tremendous change. If we somehow succeed in pulling the world back from the brink of climate disaster but fail to address other systems of oppression—if we merely keep the world as it is, favoring only the super-rich, allowing suffering on a massive scale despite the fact that we have the resources to address it—would the movement be a victory for anyone except those who were already winning?
It's much easier to certify the free-range, grass-fed provenance of a hamburger than it is to guarantee that tourmaline gemstone is conflict-free.
"Knowing the lineage of a crystal is somewhat akin to knowing where the meat you're eating came from," LA-based energy healer Colleen McCann told Goop in an article on the eight crystals every follower of the new New Age should know.
But there's a hitch. It's much easier to certify the free-range, grass-fed provenance of a hamburger than it is to guarantee that tourmaline gemstone is conflict-free. Crystals aren't just shrouded in mysticism; often their source is shrouded in straight-up mystery, as the New Republic recently reported.
"Imagine if someone who owned a burger joint had to figure out the entire agriculture meatpacking industry," Julie Abouzelof, owner of Hawaii's Moonrise Crystals, told the magazine. "Except there's 1,000 different meats, and nobody's farm is listed online, and even when you meet the farmer in person, they don't want to talk to you."
Crystals and gemstones are mined on every continent on Earth, and the process isn't universally bad news. In the U.S., you can dig-your-own crystals, just as you can pick-your-own strawberries. There are also small family- and state-owned mines with environmentally friendly operations. Among crystal sellers online, some are transparent about where their rocks are from.
Others just don't know.
"It's not like this is some big conspiracy cover up," Abouzelof told the New Republic. "The sellers just don't always know."
What they don't know could hurt many people. Some crystals come from large-scale industrial gold, copper and cobalt mine; the crystals aren't what miners are after, they're the profitable byproduct on the hunt for gold. In the US, these mines have had a deleterious effect on the environment, including groundwater contamination. In New Mexico, both the State and U.S. Department of Justice have filed natural resource claims against the Tyrone Copper Mine for damages to water and wildlife. It's the same mine that produced this large blue chrysocolla—a "supportive goddess energy stone," reported The New Republic,
And that's in the United States where the industry is regulated. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, children as young as seven work the cobalt and copper mines in the country's Katanga region that contain deposits of minerals like tourmaline, amethyst, citrine, blue and smoky quartz.
At the annual Gem, Mineral and Fossil Showcase in Tucson, Arizona, Abouzelof chose not to buy a relatively cheap supply of jade when she learned it had been mined in Myanmar. The New York Times has compared Myanmar jade to blood diamonds; its extraction has "helped finance a bloody ethnic conflict and unleashed an epidemic of heroin use and H.I.V. infection among the Kachin minority who work the mines."
Those are the kind of bad vibes that can't be cleansed from a gemstone bathing in the light of the full moon.
But should the murky provenance of crystals keep you from getting your goddess on with the stones? If it's human rights your worried about, your cell phone is probably a bigger ethical dilemma than your crystal collection, writes crystal healer and seller Hibiscus Moon. The so-called "conflict minerals" in our electronics fund human atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, she writes, and "are the ones we need to concern ourselves with." Tony Nikischer, president of Excalibur Mineral Corporation, told Emily Atkin at the New Republic that crystal mining "certainly is not a 'despoiler of the earth' activity as some large scale mining operations in foreign countries may be."
Maybe your rose quartz really will help usher in true love. But if you can't be sure you're not causing suffering of another human spirit to praise something pretty in pink on your altar, it might not be worth it.
"You could give up the habit and leave those pretty rocks where they belong," writes Katie Herzog at The Stranger, "in the earth."