I am volunteering for an environmental justice organization in a large northern city. This group works on environmental health issues with the city’s poor, mostly African-Americans and Puerto Ricans, and has started focusing on how climate change will affect working-class people. Rising temperatures will lead to any number of problems for the economically disadvantaged, including air pollution, higher rates of asthma, greater populations of cockroaches and other unwanted insects, rising food prices, a greater percentage of income spent on energy, and increased mortality rates for people who do not have access to air conditioning.
Climate change has proven difficult to explain to people; scientists’ unwillingness to declare anything a certainty combines with climate change’s complexity to leave people confused. My organization went to its constituents and tried to explain climate change to them. The organizers messaged this campaign in an interesting way: openly attacking the environmental movement’s framing of the issue. They created buttons that featured a crossed-out polar bear. They repeatedly told the attendees that climate change was about people, not bears. And yet, when the question and answer session began, the overwhelming response was, “Why should I care about bears?”
Why should poor people care about bears? That’s a great question. I can’t think of a good reason. Now, I don’t really approve of the anti-bear message. The idea of polar bears going extinct because they lack polar ice makes me want to vomit. However, this scenario demonstrates the horrible job the environmental movement has done in framing climate change.
By focusing on bears instead of people, the environmental movement sends mixed messages. It might reinforce the responsibility humans have to protect other animals and ecosystems, but it also suggests that climate change won’t affect people like bears. Moreover, it creates an image that the poor don’t count in environmentalism, reinforcing the inability of environmentalists to connect with working-class people over the last thirty years.
Environmentalism’s greatest successes came in the 1960s and 1970s. Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon signed a tremendous amount of environmental legislation. Some of it, like the Wilderness Act of 1964, preserved relatively untouched land. But much of this legislation specifically protected human bodies from the ravages of industrial capitalism. Building upon Rachel Carson’s savaging of the chemical industry in her landmark 1962 book Silent Spring, Americans of all classes and races began demanding government intervention in the nature in which they lived, worked, and played.
Johnson signed a landslide of legislation to protect Americans from pollution. The Clean Waters Act of 1966 created federal guidelines to preserve drinking water from bacterial pollution. The Clean Air Act of 1963 set the precedent that government would crack down on industrial pollution. The Safe Drinking Waters Act and the Toxic Control Act added to the Great Society’s environmental legacy that centered humans in nature.
Nixon built upon Johnson’s legacy, not so much because he supported environmentalism but because he saw it as a bipartisan movement not worth resisting. The enormous citizen participation for the first Earth Day in 1970, where nearly 20 million Americans participated in some way, convinced him of that. The Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972 tightened restrictions on industrial emissions while the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 showed the government’s seriousness in enforcing the new environmental regulations.
All of this created an environmentalism that helped people and ecosystems. The Clean Water Act may have been intended to protect people, but it benefited innumerable aquatic organisms and the food chain that depended upon them. An environmentalism centering on the needs of people became the most powerful political movement in the country for a short time, something which mainstream politicians could not ignore.
But by the 1980s, environmentalists turned their attention away from a people-first agenda and toward protecting wilderness that poor people could never afford to visit. This happened for a couple of reasons. Ronald Reagan’s hostility to environmentalism, which cut off the legislative option, had much to do with it. Environmentalists found it necessary to fundraise in order to go to court and protect previous gains from the Reagan administration. This required the centering of cute and charismatic animals to raise money, bringing in a great deal of money into the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, and other leading environmental organizations.
In addition, the rising economic fortunes of the 1960s generation led to a greater emphasis on individualism and consumerism within the environmental movement. Protecting land for recreation became more important than protecting people’s bodies. Environmentalists began demonizing working-class people, something that became glaringly apparent in the overheated rhetoric and sometimes violence between loggers and environmentalists that characterized the spotted owl crisis in the Pacific Northwest during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The idea that individual consumer choices can fight climate change plagues the framing of the issue and helps explain the disconnect between the working-class people and environmentalists. Environmental groups sell climate change to their public by talking about how melting ice will drown polar bears. Polar bears are charismatic and cause people to give money.
While this imagery might attract donors, it hardly builds a mass political movement. Focusing on individual consumption leads us to believe that consumer capitalism helps solve climate change, not understand that it’s the root cause. The rush to buy the Prius and the sanctimonious behavior of many of their owners annoys me tremendously, not only because it is grating but because while driving a Prius is somewhat better than an SUV, it still contributes to climate change. Stopping climate change means not driving and taking public transportation, not buying a slightly better car.
If you want everyday people to buy into fighting climate change, you have to make climate change about them, not about buying expensive new cars and other high-end consumer choices. Environmentalism desperately needs to reconnect to the working classes of the world, focusing on job creation, healthy urban environments, industrial pollution, and disease. This makes sense politically and ecologically.
If humans are part of nature, then protecting our bodies from the horrors of climate change and industrial capitalism will protect the animals, plants, and air that surround us. Centering environmentalism and climate change on people can both create a winning political strategy and protect nature. Ignoring the relationships between human life and climate change helps open the door to indifference, skepticism, and climate change deniers that make the environmental crisis worse every day.