Environmentalism. What does that word mean to you? If you’re like me before this summer, environmentalism means bright green. It means recycling and catastrophic climate change that, yes, is human-made but seems beyond your own individual impact. Environmentalism might mean feeling bad at how many water bottles you’ve thrown away this week or just feeling a sense of uneasiness as you walk down crowded busy streets filled with smog. Environmentalism might just mean that feeling of peacefulness and sanctity you experience when you’re away from it all, on the rare moments you actually feel connected to nature, that moment when you wonder what the world would be like without our national parks or beautiful oceans.
To you, environmentalism might even mean the type of activism people without bigger problems do.
These moments and feelings used to be the extent of what “environmentalism” meant for me. Today, after finishing a summer working at the Natural Resources Defense Council and learning about the environmental movement, environmentalism means a whole lot more. I want it to mean more for everyone.
Here’s why. Throughout my time at the Natural Resources Defense Council as a Karel Fellow, I realized that environmental issues had largely affected my upbringing, yet I never saw it that way. I didn’t understand environmentalism in the same way I understood feminism, racism, or classism. I recognized those issues in my day-to day life. It was not until working at NRDC that I began to recognize environmental issues in the same way and connect environmentalism into the frameworks of social justice I already had.
Growing up in an under-resourced community, I had limited access to healthy food. I depended on school lunches and cheap fast food. There were times when we didn’t have access to clean water. I would turn on the faucet and the water would be brown, but I didn’t think of that as an issue to protest. Polluters, such as factory chicken farms targeted our communities, not only releasing hundreds of pounds of toxic wastes into our environment but also generally making life uncomfortable with horrible fumes.
My father works at a coal plant. He has asthma and works unsafe, long hours. My mother has spent decades working at jobs requiring hard labor and little pay. Simply put, my parents and thousands of others’ parents do not have the same rights to safe working conditions that other well-resourced Americans do. Moreover, when they go home, they don’t have the same amenities and comfortable surroundings well-resourced families do. This summer has taught me that access to equally safe and supportive environments is something worth a fight.
Somehow I didn’t believe my life had been impacted by environmental issues. I didn’t believe I had a right to clean water or healthy food. I knew that my family suffered many hardships, but I never took the time to think about the environmental issues surrounding us. There are two reasons for this 1) The environmentalist movement projects an image that doesn’t correspond with the real issues within my life. 2) I thought the environmentalist movement was about tomorrow, when I felt as if I had enough problems to deal with today.
I’ve learned about the critical nature of environmental issues this summer. I’ve learned the image is false; however, a commitment to diversifying the movement and opening up communication outside of traditional supporters is necessary and potentially expounding to supporting campaigns and improving peoples’ lives.
So, look around you and see how environmental issues affect you every day, how they disproportionately affect those dealing with economic and racial injustice. Environmentalism isn’t all about sunshine and rainbows, hiking mountains, energy efficiency, and saving pandas. It’s also about real people fighting for their lives. If you don’t identify as an environmentalist, it might be time to ask why.