The Future of the Environmental Movement Looks Good, But It’s Not What You Expect

by Annika Sampson, Intern at the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness

On a blustery April day in St. Paul, two Brower Youth Award winners arrived at Macalester College to lead a discussion on the future of the environmental movement. Kate Weiner and Ryan Camero both won the Brower Youth Award in 2015 for their roles as environmental leaders in their communities. With the help of the Friends’ Science & Conservation Director Betsy Daub, Kate and Ryan engaged in meaningful discussion with an enthusiastic group of students.

The forum sought to answer the question: What is the future of the environmental movement? At the root of this inquiry is a deeper fear: What is the future of the environment? Our planet? With the inescapable realities of climate change looming, especially for vulnerable populations, the loss of land to corporate interests, and a lack of inclusivity in the movement itself, the answer is not clear. However, this community of youth leaders was filled with optimism, critical thinking, and creativity. Coming from Detroit, Wisconsin, California, Maine, and beyond, and from backgrounds in studio art, biology, and environmental science, they represented the next generation of global stewards.

Ryan Camero works with Restore the Delta in Stockton, CA to advocate for a community facing both a drought and water privatization. With the help of the Beehive Collective, an activist arts collective, he has created an interactive presentation that draws parallels between corporate efforts to privatize California’s water and peoples’ struggles against large-scale infrastructure projects throughout Mesoamerica. At the forum, he talked about his own experience in the environmental movement. Ryan’s work has taken him to Paris and around the country, but it grew from a desire to help his hometown. Being an artist and an organizer, he used his tools, gifts, and connections to support an intersectional environmental equality movement that draws parallels between indigenous struggles in the Amazon and California’s water privatization. And, he does it all with a sense of humor, an earnest empathy, and a beautiful voice. He concluded our forum with a song: “There is one question with a thousand answers / or perhaps only one answer to a thousand things to ask. / But hey, don’t you know there’s no need to feel dejected / because all of our grievances are connected.”

Kate Weiner is a graduate of Wesleyan University and explores collectives as a tool for impactful engagement in sustainable living and social change. In 2014, she founded LOAM, an environmentally-themed magazine, and Wild Walls, low-cost wall gardens built and maintained by students. Kate spoke eloquently and deliberately on the dangers of catastrophic thinking, the power of self-sufficiency, and the importance of taking action for this world, this moment. Of her journey, she said, “I started LOAM as a junior at Wesleyan. I felt despondent in a lot of my environmental studies classes. For myself, as someone who was an artist and a dancer, I understood best through creativity. That was how I grasped these environmental issues. And I thought, there must be a lot of people on campus who feel the same way.”

As both a poet and an environmentalist myself, I understood exactly what she was talking about. Other students chipped in with their own stories of feeling excluded from conventional “environmentalism.” It’s no secret that the current environmental movement has a diversity problem. Environmentalism needs to speak to all people, and be as diverse as America in order to survive and thrive. And although it has achieved many victories and pursued its goals with tireless dedication and passion, the emphasis on higher education, intensive scientific study, and the rugged individualist archetype has left many non-white, non-male, and/or younger environmentalists out of the conversation.

“How do you engage with the environment?” we asked each other. For some, it was through public health. For others, through gardening. Many engaged in community organization and activism. The forum began to collect answers to that pivotal question: What is the future of the environmental movement? First and foremost, it will be a place of inclusion. It will be a space where binaries are blurred, where closed-loop cooking is as valued as conservation, where non-white environmental leaders are acknowledged and honored for their commitment to their land and communities. Where all voices are respected, though they may not be saying familiar things.

The environmental movement has a powerful and important journey ahead of it, and these students are a few of its many pioneers. Currently, mainstream environmental organizations suffer from a lack of diversity. The percentage of non-white members of America’s “Ecological Base” is vastly lower than America as a whole. In Diversity and the Future of the Environmental Movement, a collection of essays and studies compiled by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Management, Emily Enderle writes that “study results presented in Toward a New Ecological Majority indicate that, of the nation’s Ecological Base (10% of the population and 15% of the electorate), 89% of members are white, 82% are older than 35, 78% have attended at least some college and 26% earn more than $80,000 year. According to United States Census Bureau, in 2000 more than 31% of people in the U.S. were not white (12.7% Black, 12.6% Hispanic, 3.8% Asian and 2.5% Other).” And with a range of environmental problems affecting every human being on this planet, this exclusivity poses a threat to thoughtful, urgent, and lasting change.

Marcelo Bonta, a conservation biologist and philanthropist, notes, “We are not making a conscientious effort to be inclusivediversifying the environmental movement needs to include every organization, business, agency, foundation, and academic institution that is working on environmental issues.” After all, as the gathering of young environmental leaders proved, the change needed to protect our planet and human communities demands all voices, all skills, all perspectives and passions. Bonta adds: “The environmental space is heady — it’s full of data, numbers, and acres saved. But change can only happen when you engage the head and the heart.”

And the environment does not end at the boundary of a Wilderness Area. Places and spaces are often subjective to our own experience within them. These personal, human elements of the environment are often overlooked in major environmental organizations and media outlets. And this is a problem. Carolyn Finney, author of Black Faces, White Spaces, writes extensively on her experience as a non-white outdoorswoman and scholar. She calls for inclusion, recognition, and redefinition of environmentalism. Framing the environment as a space for stories, legacies, and infinite futures is essential for incorporating all voices into the conversation and movement. As Finney says, “Specifically, for African-Americans memory, both collective and individual, allows us a way to name and re-create a place, which gives us (or reaffirms) the power to recreate ourselves and the places we live in. This allows us to construct environmental spaces in our own image. Focusing on preserving a piece of the past is a way to say ‘we were there’ and indirectly allows for more control and power in deciding who we were and who we are. Consequently, memory, as a way of evoking the past, becomes an important vehicle for involving the community in environmental preservation, conservation, and participation.”

“The environmental space” a whirling, interconnected, vibrant system. Watersheds, seasonal cycles, wildernesses, suburban sprawls, highrises, farmland, taigas, deserts, and seas. Macro and micro, heads and hearts. Bacteria and belugas and Boundary Waters. And in many ways, it is also a space for our stories, the stories of those who have come before, and even paths for the stories yet to come. The BWCA remembers those whose feet and paddles passed through long before it was known by an acronym at all. The birchbark hulls of Ojibwe canoes slipping through glacier-carved lakes. Voyageurs heaving pelts over portages. Sigurd Olson teaching and writing amongst the pines. We are reminded of these stories when we return to this land, and other lands, that we love. We build upon them with our children and friends and family. We make our own, and honor those of others. We will stop at nothing to sustain these spaces for all those yet to come.

The environmental equality movement fights for the protection and celebration of all sentient beings and the right of ecosystems to exist regardless of their economic value. It will continue to do so as people find their own ways of loving and supporting each other and the Earth. But as we move forward, into increasingly complex, diverse, terrifying, thrilling futures, the environmental movement should and will make conscious efforts to expand traditional notions of “environmentalism” and “environmentalist”. Is this too idealistic? Should we abandon our values and communities under the banner of despair, disguised as realism? Fear is a paralyzing force, and all too powerful. We all share in the beauty of this Earth and wild places like the Boundary Waters. We will all share the coming days of uncertainty. But Ryan Camero and Kate Weiner embody hope through their purposeful and inclusive work. They, as well as the students present at the gathering, answered the questions of a suffering world with more questions. What do you care about? What can you do? What is your story? If you love the Boundary Waters, stand up against PolyMet and Twin Metals with whatever tools and gifts you have, even if it’s simply your voice or a signature on a petition. Prove the dangers of sulfide mining if you’re an engineer or a scientist. If you care about education equity in your neighborhood, bring your skills. Build a vertical garden, like Kate has done across America. Act. Take small steps. Teach. Write. Go to meetings and protests, gatherings and shared meals. Learn. Discover, or relearn, the stories of environmental activists like Charles Young, Winona LaDuke, John Francis, Betty Reid Soskin, maybe even your own grandparents or children. Listen. When we live in these answers, then the true movement begins. Then the power shifts. Then there will be song.

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    1 comment to The Future of the Environmental Movement Looks Good, But It’s Not What You Expect

    • Elisa Wike Hurley

      Change is a constant, and with creative folk like these
      young people embracing the new with eyes and heart awake,
      I am encouraged. Thank you.

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