Environmentalism in the “White Supremacy Scene”

By-and-large, the mainstream environmentalist movement in the U.S. is decidedly white. This is in spite of the large body of activists of color attempting to combat environmental injustices. On the ground, environmental degradation disproportionately impacts working-class people of color, but such concerns over the actual, immediate impacts of environmental damage remain marginal to the mainstream movement. Instead, the popular environmentalist discourse seems to be more focused on the planet than the people on it (“Save the planet!,” “Protect the environment!,” etc.).

Perhaps the worst case of this is in the conversation around climate change. Those of us invested in this discourse have come to recognize a few tropes, the worst of which is “humans are destroying the planet.” Scholars, ever enthralled by the prospect of using a big, new word to unnecessarily label a phenomenon, the age of climate change has come to be referred to as the “Anthropocene”; simply put, the term refers to the time in which humans have been a geophysical force on a global scale. The issue with this label is perhaps best capture by Nicholas Mirzoeff’s essay, “It’s Not the Anthropocene, It’s the White Supremacy Scene.” What Mirzoeff’s essay highlights is not simply that the current environmentalist discourse is misguided in its focus, but that the causes of climate change have its roots in the white supremacist enterprise of colonialism. Foregrounding the connection between colonialism and climate change means that environmentalism that does not focus on issues of race and (neo)coloniality is not simply misguided, but entirely inaccurate.

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