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UPDATED: A Black Perspective On Environmentalism

Sept 5, 2021

By Zach Spicer

 

As a Black person on Dartmouth’s campus, I’ve felt uncomfortable more often than not, whether it’s been trying to fit in with different clubs, feeling noticeably out of place in my classes, or realizing that the closest people to me knew little about my lived experience. I knew very little about Dartmouth before I applied or even after I was accepted. When I learned that it was the “outdoorsy” school I cringed internally, having had no experience with hiking or camping, and knowing almost no one with such experiences. Unlike many Dartmouth students, my relationship to the environment began with the United Nations 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, not ski mountains or hiking trails. 

 

It wasn’t until my freshman fall that I learned about environmental injustice and the disproportionate effects of the climate crisis on Black and brown communities in an official sense. I went a whole year without action, struggling to find classes in Economics or Public Policy (my intended majors and minors at the time) that addressed the nuances of the climate crisis and the injustices it perpetuates. I was shocked that there weren’t more faculty or programs at my “outdoorsy” school that sought to address environmental injustice. 

 

My sophomore winter I was able to get involved in two groups that represented nearly opposite aspects of the climate crisis: an internship at the Dartmouth Sustainability Office and a leadership role in Dartmouth’s hub of the Sunrise Movement. While my internship at the Sustainability Office was useful in some ways, it mainly opened my eyes to the disconnect between (typically first gen or low-income) Black and Brown students and privileged/white students on environmentalism. The same could be said about the Environmental Studies class I took that term which, although titled “Colonialism, Development, and Environment in Africa and Asia,” was populated mostly with students that looked down on and criticized indigenous environmental practices.

 

My work with Sunrise @ Dartmouth was much more intensive and holistic, although it could have been improved in some ways. It taught me that efforts to promote sustainability and similar framings of the climate crisis as something that can be alleviated by individual action provide a cover for institutions (like Dartmouth) that still have ties to fossil fuels, the true architect of the climate crisis. It also taught me that the fight for climate justice is easily co-opted by privileged, white people while the environmental justice movement is led by BIPOC for whom the climate crisis is not a faraway issue but rather something whose effects have already existed in their communities for generations. 

 

After almost four terms of organizing with Sunrise @ Dartmouth, one day I was forced to look around and see that all of that time had taken a mental toll on me. I realized that not only was I dissatisfied with the space where my organizing was primarily taking place (Sunrise @ Dartmouth) but also that there were people and outlets already existing that I would much rather participate in (the Dartmouth Student Union, or DSU). My process of waking up came through my involvement with the DSU, an organization at Dartmouth dedicated to radical learning in community and tenets of care such as mutual aid. I think the shift that woke me up was realizing that I had the opportunity to be in an organizing space that made me feel like I was in community and therefore cared for, where I didn’t feel like I was always taking the lead, or that I was always subservient to someone else either.

 

So much of my time at Sunrise felt like it was spent catching people up on the radical parts of caring about the environment and the people that inhabit it, that by the time it came to actually doing work or planning actions, I was tired from all the educating I had done. That’s not to say that the educating wasn’t important, in fact, I’m glad to have helped inform so many people, but that in the process of stepping back and looking around, I realized that I was often the only person of color instructing groups of white students on why they needed to care about people that look like me and not the mountains that they go hiking on. And that just felt very wrong. Especially, at one point, a friend of mine that also used to organize with Sunrise at their college, told me that they had the same experience, and I started realizing that this was an issue not just for me, but embedded within Sunrise as a national movement. At that point, it was clear I had to step down.

 

The past year I’ve spent a lot of time learning and unlearning a lot about my relationship to the environment, as well as that of humans in general. I am so thankful that I entered the Geography department because it is one of the few spaces on campus that allows me to academically pursue what I’ve been discussing thus far. Looking back, it seems obvious that the distinction between people and the “natural” world was fabricated to allow the destruction of the latter. Not to mention the realization that Western hegemony and colonization in all of its forms rests on this idea that the natural world exists primarily so that we may consume it and turn it into products. These lenses were presented to me and reified over and over in the few Geography classes I have taken since switching my major, yet never arose when taking classes with the Environmental Studies or Econ departments.

 

Through my geography (and some history) courses, I’ve learned so much about the contradictions of capitalism and how they express themselves in our contemporary life and the cycles of history. It’s sad to say that many people at Dartmouth, especially those that claim to be committed to any sort of environmentalism will fail to experience any sort of learning close to this during their time here. As a wealthy, colonial institution, Dartmouth and most of its students are fixated upon profit; they obsess over it and plan their entire beings around it. The environment and all of us who inhabit it will not be saved in any way that is monetarily profitable. It simply does not work. Capitalism is based on the understanding that ecological destruction is acceptable because it results in profits for the ruling class.

 

Beware of nonprofits, environmental consulting agencies, or NGOs that claim to be acting for climate or environmental justice. I spent the past spring as an unpaid intern for an environmental justice non-profit. I still can’t put into words the frustration I felt after 10 weeks went by and I’d almost never interacted with members from the community we were supposed to be representing. Obviously, I can’t speak for all internships and experiences, but I recommend reading the introduction of “The Revolution Will Not be Funded: Beyond the Non-profit Industrial Complex,” by INCITE! Women, Gender Non-Conforming, and Trans people of Color Against Violence, for an understanding of what I experienced. The tl;dr is that nonprofits, especially small ones, spend the majority of their time trying to keep their heads above water, applying for grants and expanding their networks, a teeny bit of time actually doing the work they claim to, and an even smaller percent actually producing results that reflect a change in people’s lived circumstances.

 

I’ve always wanted mass, people-based, organizing to be capable of affecting change, and I’m sure it can to a certain degree. The extent to which it is possible depends on people’s commitment to radical action and principles. Mainstream politics in the U.S., especially as represented at Dartmouth, often fails to come close to meeting this mark. But coming to realize that the months and millions spent on campaign trails could go directly to people in need of help really turned me away from electoral practices toward direct connection/action. This past winter I read How to Blow Up a Pipeline by Andreas Malm, who makes the extremely effective point, over and over, that the movement for climate justice needs to pursue more radical actions to affect meaningful change. It’s been shown over and over that simply getting large numbers of people out in the streets does not put into effect the policies that are needed to save peoples’ lives. Time is running out. For climate and environmental justice movements to achieve their goals, they must move beyond protest to the sabotage and destruction of fossil fuel machinery around the globe. Malm gives various examples: I remember Palestine and Nigeria specifically, where these types of acts of sabotage have been utilized, usefully so, to stop environmental harm against marginalized communities. Between 2006 and 2008, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta attacked the oil industry in Nigeria, blowing up pipelines, taking over offshore oil infrastructure, and disabling the vessels used to ship it, shutting down a third of production. In the late 1930s as well as in 1969, Palestinians consistently struck against pipelines that provided revenue for the British then Israeli colonial governments, deterring their oil production and disrupting the strength of their empires.

 

Ideally, I want to work with Black and Indigenous-led organizations that are committed to the climate and environmental justice movements in the ways I have described above. At the very least, I want to work with farmers of color, and help feed communities and contribute to the health of the air and their environments. After reading an article by Leah Penniman (which I ironically came across because of my internship), I came to realize that nurturing a relationship to the land that is not extractive was what my mind and body were looking for. As a result, this summer, I had the opportunity to live/work as a WWOOFer (WWOOF = World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) on an organic farm/orchard in Lebanon, 15 minutes away from campus. That was one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done in my entire life. The property was 1-2 acres of regenerative agriculture and agro-ecology practices, connected to a communal living space with between seven and twelve people at a time. Having never really farmed or gardened in my life, it was incredible to learn so much every day and be able to literally taste the fruits of my labor. It wasn’t easy, and I experienced more privileges than a committed farmer, but it still felt incredible to learn how to work with the land instead of against it, preparing holistic sprays that fostered plant health and avoiding heavily mechanized agriculture. This experience has me desperate for more, and I’m considering spending my time after graduation back at Fox Run in Lebanon or another communal farm. I know I have so much more to learn still and would love to have the time and capacity to fully commit myself to experiencing it all.

 

My experience in the U.S. has been limited to mostly white, neoliberal spaces that typically do not have the connections to the environment that I am seeking. My entire existence sometimes feels defined by whiteness and neoliberalism, and it feels uncomfortable to step out of that. I’ve been able to find databases of cooperative housing spaces, which are one of the concrete forms of the alternative future that I imagine. Cooperative housing or farming that is explicitly politically motivated would be my ideal environment. I hope to see the liberation of oppressed peoples during my lifetime. After centuries of disenfranchisement and having our connection to the land violently severed, the liberated existence of Black and indigenous people across the world requires a major upheaval of the current system we live within. After living communally for a short time, I’ve experienced how it works and how it does not. How communities based on mutual respect and care are far stronger than those we often find ourselves in today. While farming a couple acres for myself and those that reside on the property certainly is a step in the right direction, there is so much more that could be done. A friend of mine was a WWOOFer in Claremont, CA, and the landowners took the food they grew and used it to make healthy, organic meals for students at an elementary school. That barely scratches the surface of what I think can happen with the right people and attitudes towards stewarding the land properly and forming an intentional community. Surplus foods can and should be given to people in need in the community; community members should have 24/7 access to a food pantry, and kitchen, so they can support themselves; meals can and should be used as a time for critical discussion and community building that tackles the issues that people are facing. It is up to white, privileged people to cede their power to make these possibilities into a reality. It is also up to us to refuse to stand by when that power is not ceded. Many people across the country have come to similar realizations and are doing what they can to make our society, here in the imperial core, a little more revolutionary, one farm at a time.

 

At the end of the day, each person’s experience is different but, if I were to advise my freshman self I would tell them to explore the Geography department, go to Divest meetings, avoid neoliberal institutions found in Silsby Hall (Econ, Dems, Govt, etc.), and look into some of the stuff I link below!! Feel free to reach out if you want to chat or borrow my copy of “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” I’d love to hear from you, feel free to email me at zachary.a.spicer.22@dartmouth.edu and I’ll give you my number so we can chat!

 

Links/Suggested Readings

  1. https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/dirt/2019/02/14/by-reconnecting-with-soil-we-heal-the-planet-and-ourselves (Article that first inspired me to want to work with the land)

  2. https://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Smith_Intro_Revolution_Will_Not_Be_Funded.pdf (Intro to “Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex”)

  3. Black Marxism by Cedric Robinson

  4. How to Blow Up a Pipeline by Andreas Malm

  5. http://www.kolleg-postwachstum.de/sozwgmedia/dokumente/WorkingPaper/WP+1_2017+Fraser.pdf (Article by Nancy Fraser on capitalism’s contradictions)

  6. https://neweconomy.net/member-directory/ (Good spot to find orgs more committed to liberatory work than your typical run-of-the-mill non-profits, although some still fall into the latter category)

  7. https://wwoofusa.org/user/961755 (Where I WWOOFed in the Upper Valley!)

https://www.ic.org/ (Database for communal living opportunities, residential and otherwise)

 

The Dartmouth Radical