'A movement led by and for middle-class white people': On Earth Day, the fresh challenges for environmental campaigners

Analysis: Earth Day inspired landmark environmental legislation but activists now want everyone to have a seat at the table

Louise Boyle
New York
Wednesday 22 April 2020 16:04 BST
What is Earth Day?

As Earth Day marks its 50th birthday, the founders of the movement, which it is estimated draws in one billion people a year, can celebrate in their significant achievements.

It’s inaugural demonstrations, on April 22, 1970, led to the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, by Republican president Richard Nixon, and sparked a wave of legislation in the following years including the Clean Water and Air Acts and the Endangered Species Act.

But half a century on, immense environmental challenges remain.

There is less than a decade to achieve the Herculean task of limiting global warming to the 1.5C above pre-industrial levels set out in the Paris Climate Agreement.

The coronavirus pandemic has shown us the tragic consequences if we don’t tackle the destruction of biodiversity along with the trafficking and sale of wild species which increase the risk of zoonotic diseases jumping to humans in close proximity to these animals.

And pollution does not affect all equally. Communities of colour, indigenous peoples and low-income communities disproportionately suffer the adverse effects of pollution and climate change.

Currently, the Trump administration is rolling back dozens of environmental policies and cosying up to the fossil-fuel industry.

Julian Brave Noisecat, Vice President of Policy & Strategy of Data for Progress, viewed the success of Earth Day as a “mixed bag”.

He told The Independent: "The environmental movement has succeeded in its 50-year history of taking on big issues like the hole of the ozone layer quite effectively.

“But the climate crisis has gotten a little bit out of our control. Even amid this pandemic, emissions reductions are not on track for what the UN says is necessary to keep warming below 1.5C."

He added: “I would also say that the environmental movement in its history has, for the most part, been a movement led by and for middle-class, white people.

“The communities that are harmed the most by the fossil-fuel economy, pollution and climate change are communities of colour. But the environmental movement has not done the best job in its history of allowing those communities and people to take leadership and to shape the movement in a way that would prioritise those on the hazardous edge of poverty and pollution.”

A Pakistani activist displays a placard as others hold candles during a demonstration to mark International Earth Day in Karachi, 21 April, 2005. (AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images)

Earth Day got its start from Senator Gaylord Nelson, who on seeing an oil spill in Santa Barbara, California in 1969, wanted to organise a series of “teach-ins” on college campuses.

Sen Nelson recruited a graduate student, Denis Hayes, to led the movement which he expanded across the US beyond colleges to encompass a myriad of groups.

Some 20 million Americans, 10 per cent of the population at the time, demonstrated from coast to coast on April 22, 1970.

Former California Governor Jerry Brown, called Earth Day an opportunity for “a wake-up call” in an interview with Associated Press, saying a global shift in thinking and action is needed that goes beyond any one day.

“But the darkness, the blindness is so pervasive,” he said.

Over the decades, millions more joined the Earth Day movement and were inspired by its message to start grassroots activism. In the 1990s, it paved the way for the first UN Earth Summit and in 2010, the Earth Day Network launched a campaign to plant 1 billion trees which it achieved in two years.

In some respects, things have become worse.

There has been widespread deforestation. Almost one-fifth of the "world's lungs" Amazon rainforest has been destroyed in the last 50 years, intensifying climate change along with decimating wildlife.

The oceans are warming far more quickly than previously thought and in part due to this, sea levels are rising.

Members of Greenpeace hold banners during the "Take Back the Earth Day" rally to protest President Bush's environmental policies and protocols outside the White House in 2001 (Photo by Alex Wong/Newsmakers)

A decade after Deepwater Horizon spill, the oil and gas industry continue to drill deeper, leaving some environmentalists and ocean researchers fearing another disaster.

Diane Hoskins, campaign director of Oceana, said: "What was true 50 years ago is still true today. When they drill, they spill. President Trump’s radical offshore drilling plan is one of the greatest challenges our ocean has ever faced.

"Just 10 years after the catastrophic BP disaster, instead of learning any lessons, President Trump is proposing to massively expand drilling to nearly all US waters, while dismantling the few protections put in place as a result of the catastrophic blowout. More drilling and less safety is a recipe for disaster. It’s time for President Trump to pull the plug on his drilling plan."

Meanwhile, minority and poor communities disproportionately bear the brunt of pollution and climate change.

Some 68 per cent of black people live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant despite being 13 per cent of the population, according to GreenAmerica.org, compared to 56 per cent of white people, making them more likely to feel the health impacts of pollution including breathing issues and heart conditions. More than a third of Latinos, who make up 17 per cent of the US population, also live within a 30-mile radius.

Indigenous communities in the US and Canada have staged protests and are fighting through the court against oil pipeline construction, which they say is hazardous to the natural resources of their ancestral lands.

The devastating toll of climate change is no longer a distant problem and youth activists have been driven by this fear for their futures to act.

“I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is,” activist Greta Thunberg told The World Economic Forum in Davos last year.

Rather than unifying behind the science, environmental issues have become political ones.

The Trump administration has made dozens of environmental rollbacks including cancelling a requirement for oil and gas companies to report methane emissions; amending rules on how refineries monitor pollution in nearby communities and gutting ambitious Obama-era vehicle mileage standards that were intended to tackle fossil-fuel emissions and reduce air pollution.

Trump has also called time on the US's participation in the Paris climate agreement and continues to champion his allies in the oil and gas industry.

Mitch Jones, policy director at Food & Water Action, told The Independent: “Instead of easing regulations on the oil and gas industry, we should be focusing on a fair and just transition away from fossil fuels, leading with a ban on fracking and new fossil fuel infrastructure.

“The administration, wrapped in a nostalgia for the 1950s, is wasting an opportunity to begin to transform our economy to create family-supporting union jobs in a vibrant clean energy economy.”

Democrats have fought back with the Green New Deal - a bold plan to tackle the intertwined crises of inequality and climate change by using public resources to move away from a fossil-fuel economy and build one based on clean energy while providing thousands of new jobs. One pillar of the plan is addressing economic inequality and racial injustice under the climate change umbrella.

"The single greatest spokesperson for the Green New Deal, for example, is also the youngest member of Congress, a woman, Puerto Rican and comes from the Bronx, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I think that's incredibly encouraging," Mr Noisecat said.

The plan has sparked Republican backlash. The socialism of the plan would “literally destroy the economy,” Larry Kudlow, White House chief economic advisor, told the Conservative Political Action Conference last year.

To gain momentum, environmental reforms need support from minority communities, who will comprise the majority of the US population within two decades. Yet they are underrepresented in environmental organisations, according to Green 2.0, an advocacy group that tracks racial and ethnic diversity in the field.

Green 2.0's recent study found there were positive trends in the diversity of the boards, leadership and staff of major organisations. However, the majority of foundations and several NGOs failed to report their data.

Whitney Tome, Executive Director for Green 2.0, told The Independent: "This Earth Day, I hope environmental organisations remember that people of colour have been and continue to be the most impacted by the historic inequities inherent to the ruling systems that permeate our planet. While people of colour were the closest to the land, cultivated it, protected it, and loved it, we are the ones who have been burdened by its degradation.

"Only when we hold seats of power will our communities not be burdened. The power dynamic of the environmental movement, like so many other movements, was crafted by and perpetuates white supremacy culture. Once we address this, then we can finally move towards policies and strategies that will fix a planet that continues to burn."

Associated Press contributed to this report

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in