By Chris Torres.
The environmental field is at the forefront of some of the most pressing social and environmental problems humans have ever faced. Many environmental groups take on climate change. Others take on wildlife conservation and wilderness protection. And some advocate for protecting communities from contaminated sources of water and polluted air. These problems, however, are a wicked, inter-connected knot, so large and tightly tangled that no one individual group in the field could ever grapple with all these problems at once on all the different scales they happen. To untangle the knot, the field needs to work together. And while the movement has made great strides, there are internal tensions; the field hasn’t worked well together.
That’s the part of the knot I want to talk about: why the field hasn’t worked well together and how the history of the environmental movement that may explain the reasons. Many environmental groups don’t work well together, if at all, is because they have very different answers to similar environmental problems. How an environmental problem is answered is a matter of how the problem is framed. How a problem is framed depends on the perspective brought to the situation. And perspective is often a matter of history. The environmental field isn’t working well with itself because it doesn’t grapple well with its history.
History has the power to explain why the present looks and feels the way it does. But history is tough; it’s heavy; complex. It’s tough to see it all at once, to hold in your head the countless number of people, places, processes, and events that have built up to today. The weight of hundreds, thousands, millions of lives bears on us every day, our daily life infused with meaning and conflict. And history’s complexity comes from that meaning and conflict, born from so many entangled lives and stories being told in so many ways at the same time.
Here’s my attempt at grappling with the complexity of the American environmental movement. I’d describe it in three main strands:
- Wilderness Preservation;
- Toxics and Pollution;
- Environmental Justice.
While each strand has a diverse well of philosophical and ideological sources from which they draw, each one has a dominant narrative: “in wildness is the preservation of the world”; a desire for healthy human environments and communities; and a right to equal protection from environmental harm and equal access to environmental decision-making, respectively. The second and third strands can be read as building upon the previous layers, adding to the movement. Or, they can be read as critical responses to what the previous layers were seriously lacking – perspective. Different experiences and perspectives bring questions. Are only “untrammeled” and “pristine” parts of our environment worth protecting? What about our human environments where we work, play, eat, and live? Of course, no one wants toxic and harmful things in their bodies or backyards. But where does it go instead? Which communities bear a disproportionate burden of our negative environmental habits and decisions? And why?
Moreover, and more to my point, if you take the time to dig into the literary and intellectual history of the first two strands, you will find many problematic ideas (i.e. xenophobia, nativism, racism, sexism, and ableism) all with dangerous social and political consequences into the present. The movement is splintered and siloed, then, not because environmental problems are too different but because different strands of the field don’t even recognize each other as doing the same work. But how did we get here? A lot of people don’t know the murky parts of the history of the environmental movement. They don’t know that thousands of Native Americans were killed and displaced to create “wilderness”, or the bigoted things iconic American nature writers have said about non-white, non-European peoples to justify who does and doesn’t belong in certain places.
But not everyone can blame not knowing. There are those who know, or at least should know, but by effort have a selective memory. No one likes remembering what hurts or what makes us question ourselves. If we ignore parts of our past, we don’t have to feel its weight every day. But it also means we can’t understand our own pain and anger or that of others. Nor can we see the potential irony of our actions. Unlike passively not knowing, selective memory is a choice. It’s a matter of choosing one narrative over another, one set of lives and experiences over others. And in purposefully choosing the version of history we like best and forgetting the rest, it paints an incomplete picture of the past, creating a warped image of the present, never really letting us make sense of the problems.
The environmental groups and organizations in power have at their disposal the resources to know and share this history. So, when they champion one narrative over another, they are deciding which set of lives and experiences are more important. They decide which problems are more important and why those problems deserve the most attention, time, and money. The field, of course, needs to set priorities. But not properly grappling with history distorts priorities. The field must speak directly to these distortions, confront its history in all its weight and complexity. And it’s the agenda-setters, with their power and resources, who need to be the ones responsible for doing this. Only then can the truly interconnected character of our environmental goals be realized. Only then can we begin to untangle the knot together.
Christopher Torres is a 2nd-year public policy and administration doctoral student at Boise State University. He comes into public policy and into the EGA fellowship with undergraduate and graduate degrees focusing on American environmental history and environmental ethics from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Oregon. He hopes to investigate how the language used to discuss environmental issues by legislative bodies in the United States influences how environmental legislation is written and voted on. Chris worked with the Pisces Foundation in San Francisco, helping with their mission to help foster a better future where people and nature can thrive together.