If We Don’t Connect It to Race and Class, Then Green Politics Is Just High-End Consumerism

February 17, 2014

Instead of advocating “green” lifestyles that are financially and culturally inaccessible to millions of Americans, artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph proposes we ask a single, crucial question that connects race, class and ecology: What sustains life in a community?

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green politics and urban space

Alexis Rockman, Church and White, 2009

As environmentalism goes mainstream, corporations are marketing the word “green” as a panacea for the world’s climate crisis. Today the word describes a set of prescribed, mostly consumerist actions: buy local, organic and fresh; go vegan; eat in season; skip the elevator; take the stairs. “Green” has come to mean shopping at Whole Foods and possessing a Prius. Meanwhile, leading corporate polluters like BP and Exxon Mobil place commercials on CNN advertising their “green” practices.

It should come as no surprise, then, that “green” lifestyles don’t resonate with low-income communities; being “green” involves a set of behaviors that are financially or culturally inaccessible to millions of Americans. This presents a major problem for the environmental movement. If it is going to be successful, environmentalism simply cannot afford to be demographically segregated or isolated from the pathos of economic disparity.

The environmental movement needs to do a better job of connecting issues of race, class, poverty and sustainability; in short, it has to become a broader social movement. And people of color need visibility in the movement. By that, I don’t mean Barack Obama presiding over environmental policy from the White House or Lisa Jackson heading the Environmental Protection Agency during Obama’s first term. I mean the recognition that sustainable survival practices in poor communities are just as significant as solar panels and LED lights. Ultimately this is where the citizenry of the planet can and must come together in order to move forward.

For communities of color plagued by high rates of homicide, hypertension, cancer, HIV and imprisonment, it is far more urgent to ask people to sustain life than it is to pitch them green politics. In my adopted hometown of Oakland, an African-American male is as likely to be the victim of homicide as he is to graduate from high school at proficiency levels for a California state university. This tragic situation is both systemically entrenched and historically rooted (the destruction of the black home and family was integral to chattel slavery, as was the denial of literacy), making the present prospects for anything but survival bleak in our harshest urban environments. If we’re to talk about the environment in a city like mine, we must examine the impact of the death of another promising black boy on a local, social ecosystem.

Given this fact, it is naive and inappropriate to try to convert everyone to “green living.” We can’t ask struggling communities to change their values; we have to rally them in a different way. Mainstream environmental groups don’t tend to see underresourced neighborhoods as forward-thinking, but poor and working-class people have an intrinsic conservationist ethic, born out of necessity. They need only to develop their own vocabulary so that their actions aren’t dismissed as insufficiently “green” but are valued for their intrinsic merit. This notion goes back to the kind of pedagogy practiced by Paulo Freire, who helped members of oppressed Brazilian communities find new meaning in their everyday actions and use these insights to transform their own lives. The nonprofit-industrial complex, by contrast, too often imposes a set of values that is not easily transferred to the people it is meant to serve.

In underresourced neighborhoods, it is important to create platforms for environmental advocacy that do not revolve around “green” practices. I learned this gradually, beginning with my work mentoring economically marginalized teenagers at the Bay Area literary arts organization Youth Speaks. Some of the teenagers with whom I work are regularly selected to carry poetic messages of environmental accountability to the green movement’s elite global advocates. Invariably, when performing at gatherings featuring Bill Clinton or Paul Hawken, they are among the very few people of color present. Returning to Oakland from one high-profile conference, I was struck by the remoteness of its language—how it didn’t seem to apply to any experience in the urban communities that I lived in or passed through.

The festival series I cofounded, LIFE is LIVING, which features performances on public health and the environment alongside aquaponic gardens and nontoxic graffiti murals, initially employed some of this language. The first festival we hosted in Oakland was called “red, black and GREEN,” a name chosen both to invoke Marcus Garvey’s vision of pan-African solidarity and to serve as a precursor to red, black and GREEN: a blues, my performance documenting sustainable survival practices across African America. The word “green” would appear prominently in five festivals that we subsequently produced, until we realized that the festival wasn’t about “going green.” It was about the celebration of life. And this new message was delivered by artists, health workers and activists who live in urgent proximity to communities impacted by environmental issues, rather than by people considered ecological “experts,” who tend to take an Earthrise-inspired macro view. This intimacy lent integrity to the “messengers,” generating trust and empathy between artists and their audiences.


Once we let go of “green” politics, a single, crucial question remains: what sustains life in a community? Artists across the United States are responding to this question by placing communities in need at the center of environmental conversations. Take the Bay Area artist Keba Konte, who builds low-maintenance aquaponic gardens that don’t take up much space, don’t disturb the earth and can feed a family of four. Konte’s work is among several dedicated practices across African America that integrate creative intellect and environmental health at the local level. His arts-driven take on urban sustainability is part of a national trend that includes the work of DeWayne Barton in Asheville, NC, Rick Lowe in Houston, Theaster Gates in Chicago, Will Allen in Milwaukee and Majora Carter in New York’s South Bronx. Whether reviving decaying buildings or initiating arts education programs, these artists are sustaining their economic, social and physical environments.

With the sustainability of our planet hanging in the balance, it would be wise to continue to turn to the arts as a vessel for kindling empathy and inspiration in historically disenfranchised communities. If the environmental movement practices a more diverse, community-based form of sustainability, then all of us will ultimately benefit, even if it takes a generation. Forget green; let’s figure out how we can all live better together.

This piece, commissioned by Creative Time Reports, has also been published by The Guardian.

Climate Reports is made possible by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. This series is produced in conjunction with the 2013 Marfa Dialogues/NY organized by Ballroom Marfa, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and the Public Concern Foundation.

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  • John

    As a low-income American, this speaks closely to me. I have always
    followed sustainable practices not by purchasing ‘green’ products, but
    by NOT buying as much. I reuse, repurpose, or buy used stuff. I
    ride a bicycle and I keep the heat set to [what is considered in my
    culture] insanely low levels. Living green doesn’t have to mean
    *buying* products, that’s just consumerism’s evil influence. It can mean
    growing spices in the windowsill, riding a bicycle, and not buying stuff
    just to make yourself ‘look like all that’

    • rtdrury

      John,

      Our task is to replace the idea that elite is good with the idea that
      elite is bad, common is good. The media and curricula have long framed
      the common man as insignificant, and the elite as essential. The truth
      is the elite is insignificant, and the common man is essential. The
      elite deny the truth, while the common man embraces the truth. In doing
      so, the common man recognizes the connections between all of the
      holistic good. And the connections between all of the opposing evil.

      So Mr. Joseph had an urge to highlight connections between those key
      pieces of the opposing evil: Racism, classism, and consumerism and
      resulting industrial destruction that green lifestyles are supposed to
      mitigate. He’s showing us how to see the big picture, which is actually
      quite simple: All the pieces of the opposing evil result from elites
      exploiting our weaknesses. The solution to all social problems, then,
      is to marginalize the elites as we put ourselves, the common man, into
      position to steward the societies worldwide.

      The connections among the pieces of the holistic good are strong. A
      couple of frameworks that connect large parts of the holistic good are
      Permaculture and Natural Hygiene. Both recognize the importance of the
      wellbeing of all living things, the wellbeing of the living whole, and
      all elements of the individual, physical and non-physical.

      In contrast, elites have pushed us to focus narrowly on one element at a
      time, which divides us, and renders us ineffective, as we for example
      focus on environmental health while neglecting the spiritual, mental,
      emotional, and physical health of humanity! Bizarre, eh? Very very
      bizarre.

      Occupy Wall Street’s big accomplishment was to highlight the importance
      of the holistic view, the holistic good, universal wellbeing. Mr.
      Joseph is contributing to that, and you ad I are too. Everyone’s
      contribution is needed. The common man is indispensable. We need
      him/her to steward our societies, worldwide.

  • Emma Rosenthal

    It’s totally outrageous that this article didn’t even mention dis-ability. The ableism in the green movement, along with classism and racism is overwhelming- insisting that everyone can prepare and eat and get access to certain foods, can take the stairs, can ride a bike, doesn’t need air conditioning, sayings like “the revolution will not be motorized” when so many of us depend on mobility devices to access the community, closing roads for bike traffic without even making exceptions for people who live, work or access services in those areas and may not be able to get home or to work or to the dr on those closed road days. Often markets (like Whole Foods, which is very hostile to people with dis-abilities), farmers markets and community gardens aren’t accessible to us.

    • Dan Korn

      Those are good points. Some of the rhetoric used by alternative transportation advocates can seem extreme, but that is in large part a reflection of the sheer dominance of the automobile in this country, brought about by decades of car-centric planning. In spite of that, though, many different
      kinds of people with different abilities rely on bicycles, tricycles, and other non-motorized mobility devices.

      The problem you don’t address is that automobile-centric infrastructure does not always serve people with
      different abilities either. How can a blind person be independent
      living in a place where driving is the only way to get around? What
      happens to elderly people who no longer have the ability to operate a
      motor vehicle safely? How does a suburb with no sidewalks help someone in a wheelchair? For that matter, how does creating spaces which require people to drive help people of different economic classes?

      I can’t speak to the specific examples you allude to of roads being closed for bicycle traffic, but many of depend on bicycles for transportation too, and we are often denied access to places and services. I would submit that the number of places in the United States where motor vehicle access is closed off for non-motorized access is far less than the number of places where non-motorized transportation is made completely impossible, if not outright illegal, due to a complete lack of basic facilities, such as sidewalks.

      Cycling may not be for everyone, and neither may walking, but a truly green approach to transportation means making multiple modes
      available, and giving people as many choices as possible. And it also
      means looking not only at modes of transit, but also at how we design our
      cities and suburbs. Cycling and walking infrastructure is a vital part of making our cities and suburbs accessible to people with all kinds of abilities and economic situations.

  • Paul Erna

    The same people calling for green are out driving The big Audi A* http://zautos.com/car-review-2014-audi-s8-sedan/
    The rock stars telling us to go green are in private jets wasting fuel.
    Amazing world

  • Howard

    Well lets not ignore his cynicism in identifying Green politics with the corporations and wealthy consumers when it is the Green Party that refuses corporate money of any kind and further seeks to dis-empower corporations and transform the political and economic system through policies that restore and preserve the integrity of natural systems, advance local community resiliency, sufficiency and sustainability, nurture individual freedom and responsibility, and build a better quality of life for all. Will Allen and people like him are Greens, they have Greens working for them growing greens. Aquaponic gardens are a Green technology, building a community garden is Green work, regenerating community is Green policy, support for the local artists etc. is all Green policy. Green Party policy, as presented in the GP platform, is in support of all these Green things and much more. The Green Party also supports reparations to communities that have been exploited and systematically destroyed. More and more people are doing Green work for green reasons and the Green Party is the only party that represents those values. Green is the celebration of life, it is a symbol of life, the living plants that make life on this planet possible for us, and it is the key to our good health, our bodies are a natural system that depends on Green. We should not let the soulless corporate system redefine Green, Green is already well defined. We also need to recognize the evolution of consciousness and come to understand Green is a symbol of regenerative living systems of which we are all a part, a system that must come to be regarded as sacred, for it is. People are in all different places regarding the Green imperative, from shopping at Whole Foods, to building a community garden, and including denial, which can be seen as one of the stages in processing grief as is anger. As we all know here, we the human being must go Green or die.

    I am sorry Marc feels a need to bash Green politics when he obviously has been doing Green work, which is Green politics.

    What I find fascinating is that Green politics etc. is always something other than the Green Party, its like the Green Party is invisible despite its efforts. This invisibility was recently tested when a poll was taken on policy preferences without identifying the party whose policy it was and the Green Party came out on top. People prefer Green policy but not Green politics….?

  • Howard

    What sustains life in a community? Our relationships with one another and with our source of life, the Green growing world of the living plants. Better to ask, what systematically destroys community?

  • Carl

    Agreed that “green” is a terribly overused, meaningless phrase. Agreed that the arts are centrally important.

    Disagreed that communities of “color” have no option to increase sustainability except to make art – as a worker in the solar industry, myself or my colleagues can easily help any homeowner go solar, massively cut their PG&E bills, and participate in the changing of our global energy paradigm. Sad that this attention-grabbing article failed to make note of perhaps the single most impactful action any homeowner can make, which is to get solar panels on their property’s roof. The price of solar panels has dropped 80% since 2008 alone, and with a credit score at 680 or better, homeowners can go solar for $0 down, and simply start paying a lower amount for electricity, so the financial impact is positive from the outset, and into the future.

    • inotowok

      Carl, you mention “homeowners”. This article is about the poor and marginalized — who generally do not own homes, but are struggling to make rent and avoid eviction. The author is writing from the Bay Area where gentrification is skyrocketing and affordable housing continues to disappear. Focusing on homeowners is part of the “green as elite privilege” problem that the author is pointing us to. Thanks.

    • citizen8

      I agree with Carl, and I agree with iotwok. It seems pretty obvious that the US ought to put solar on the roof of every house; to light the house with solar instead of coal is a no brainer. On the other hand, to finance a $30K purchase with a bank at 6% interest means you will not be able to sell your house if you want to move in a few years. If the US had a political party that wanted to help ordinary people, we could get a zero interest federal loan program for solar roofs, worth the government’s investment to fight climate change. But we have two parties that both help the rich get richer, full of crony capitalists and climate deniers.

  • Will Navidson

    Its consumerism not enviromentalism that is the problem here … We do not need pointing towards a better class of products but help avoiding all those unneccessary products that arecentral to the maintenance of the present sysytem … and good luck with that.