Environmental racism is nothing new
A look at why racism must be addressed in the environmental movement
To understand how we’ve arrived at this moment in time—with climate change disproportionately impacting non-white populations and the outdoor and sustainability industries being overwhelmingly white—we must take a good look at history. The world has drastically changed in the last few months, with new spotlights now shining on systemic racism, diversity problems, and inclusivity challenges everywhere you look. But these issues are nothing new. What is new are the public conversations about such problems and their potential solutions. New phrases like “environmental racism” and “intersectionality” are making their way into the debates about what a sustainable future looks like, and here we’ll examine what these terms mean, why they’re vital to the environmental movement, and how Geartrade is helping diversification efforts in the outdoors by busting barriers to accessibility. This is Part I of II in the series.
Racism does not exist in a vacuum, and while many may want to “keep politics out of parks” or sidestep the ways racism impacts recreation and conservation movements, it’s important to remember one thing: the population of people who spend time outdoors is overwhelmingly white and privileged. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, 75% of outdoor recreators in 2018 were caucasian, and levels of non-white participation have only increased incrementally in the past decade. There is an outdoor diversity issue at hand, as Teresa Baker, founder of the In Solidarity Project, has extensively documented.
Accessing and enjoying the outdoors requires free time, financial resources, education, feelings of safety, and much more—so it’s no surprise a confluence of these privileges is most likely to occur in white households, where there (on average) exists more wealth and vacation-compatible careers when compared to households that identify as Black, Latino, or Indeigenous.
But it’s not just outdoor recreation levels that reflect a major racial and ethnic imbalance. When it comes to the environment and everyday living, people of color are more likely to live in places with greater environmental risks, like air pollution, heat, and climate change.
An important look at the present, and the past
Examples of environmental racism are plentiful, and it’s legacy dates back centuries to when colonizers forcibly removed and consolidated indigenous peoples in North America, implementing new systems of land control, most of which have since been proven harmful to the environment (monocultures, pesticides, mass harvests, etc.). Today, western science continues to subvert and ignore indigenous knowledge and their understanding of ecological health, as Robin Wall Kimmerer extensively covers in her award-winning book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indiginous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants.
Looking at residential areas today, both urban and rural, there’s a growing body of research showing non-white communities are mjuch more likely to live near polluting industries that can cause chronic illnesses, and in “heat islands,” which have hotter temperatures than surrounding neighborhoods and can spawn health issues like asthma, heart disease, increased pregnancy risks, and greater odds of viral and bacterial infections—all of which is particularly concerning in the wake of Covid-19.
This phenomenon—that minorities are more likely to live in worse environmental conditions when compared to white counterparts—can be traced back to old segregation policies, as explained in a recent Scientific American article “Past Racist “Redlining” Practices Increased Climate Burden on Minority Neighborhoods.” Living in these conditions, the article explains, means communities of color “also may suffer from higher energy bills [and] limited access to green space.” This, of course, in contrast to “more affluent and historically white neighborhoods where ‘decades of intentional investment in parks, green spaces, trees, transportation and housing policies’ provide ‘cooling services.’”
These examples illustrate how race, health, and the environment are connected, but they’re not the only ones. Also known as intersectional environmentalism, there’s an entire field of study devoted to the many ways that the environment, economics, and many aspects of culture, intersect and affect one another.
The bottom line: solving community health and accessibility issues will require addressing race issues, too. As the environmental movement strives to protect the planet from ecological harm, it too should strive to protect its people from environmental harm. As the outdoor industry wants to widen its participation base, it should be actively tearing down the barriers that prevent many people of color from accessing trailheads, gear, and knowledge.
An anti-racist outdoor future
One of the biggest hurdles people face when wanting to recreate outside is proximity and gear.
Black people are more likely to face transportation issues with greater average distances to trailheads and they’re also prone to feeling excluded as participants in an overwhelmingly white hobby. As outdoorist Tara Cooper said in a recent interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting: “No one’s saying anything, no one’s being overtly negative or mean towards you but just the way they’re staring at you lets you know there’s something wrong, you don’t belong here — ‘Who are you and why are you here?’ … And it’s not like they are looking at all strangers that way, they are looking at me and my son that way.”
Access and belonging disparities exist in urban greenspace areas, too. As the New York Times recently reported, “In a city with some of the most famous green spaces in the world, many low-income New Yorkers live in virtual park deserts and are largely shut out of a sprawling network of more than 2,300 parks that has become more important than ever for physical and mental well being.”
When it comes to gear, the biggest barriers are financial, but a lack of knowledge or mentors can be highly detrimental, too. As a platform for selling used gear, Geartrade is helping tackle the financial barriers that prevent many from trying out or participating in new hobbies or sports.
When you participate in and support the used-gear movement, it helps lower a variety of financial hurdles many people face. Weed your closet, gear room, and garage of items you don’t use enough; your under-used gear will likely find more utility and help other people break into sports or hobbies that they might not otherwise have been able to afford.
Decluttering, giving someone else a deal on gear, and reducing the need for new-product production is a win for you, a win for the expanding outdoor community, a win for the planet.
With this blog, Geartrade strives to make how-to knowledge as easy as possible to access. Covering topics that range from gear care and maintenance, to sustainability insights, to expert recommendations, Geartrade provides insider tips and background information that can help everyone feel equipped enough to recreate responsibly.
So, now knowing about environmental racism and inclusivity needs, what’s left to do?
1. Continue to educate yourself. First and foremost, an intersectional environmentalist must be aware of ignored histories, past and present injustices, and what options exist for future paths forward. A good place to start is with these resources:
- “A Brief History of Environmental Justice,” a short documentary created by ProPublica
- “What is Intersectional Environmentalism?” a conversation with Leah Thomas, produced by the World Surf League exploring “how race, gender, and class intersect to affect environmentalism.”
- “Racism Is Killing the Planet: The ideology of white supremacy leads the way toward disposable people and a disposable natural world,” published by Sierra Magazine
- “Here’s how national parks are working to fight racism: Efforts are underway to make the outdoors more inclusive. But many Black travelers are still cautious to embrace America’s ‘best idea,’” written for National Geographic by James Edward Mills
- “Lions and tigers and black folk, oh my! Why Black people should take up space in the outdoors,” written by Joshua Walker for Melanin Base Camp
- “The Good Fight for our Humanity, Mother Earth and our Uni-verse,” written by Taishya Adams for Outdoor Afro’s blog
2. Sign the Intersectional Pledge compiled by Leah Thomas, which you can find and review here: “Social justice cannot wait. It is not an optional “add-on” to environmentalism.”
3. Then encourage your employers to sign the Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge, created by Teresa Baker, and found on the In Solidarity website, here: “The Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge connects leading outdoor brands with inclusion advocates to advance representation for people of color across the industry.”
4. Sell Your Gear on Geartrade– Giving someone else a deal on gear, and reducing the need for new-product production is a win for you, a win for the expanding outdoor community, a win for the planet. Sell Gear here
Emma Athena is an award-winning journalist and fresh-air lover. She writes about adventure and the environment, where humans and nature intersect at their most impactful moments. When she’s not glued to her keyboard or curled up with a book, she’s running in the mountains with her dog or camping with people she loves. To read more of her work and get in contact, visit emmaathena.com.