Green: Too White?
Alex Matthiessen is the President of Riverkeeper, a New York State-based clean water advocacy organization widely considered to be among the most successful non-profits of its kind. Prior to his tenure at Riverkeeper, Mr. Matthiessen was a Special Assistant at the U.S. Department of the Interior, where he developed the Green Energy Parks initiative. He has also served as a macroeconomic policy analyst in Indonesia for the Harvard Institute for International Development and worked at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Hudson River Improvement Fund, Catskill Mountainkeeper, and Waterkeeper Alliance.
Question: Is green activism too limited to certain races and classes?
Alex Matthiessen: There’s no question about it, I think that the environmental movement in general has suffered from seeming to represent a pretty narrow segment of society and that’s not the case obviously, you know we’re out there fighting for clean water and for clean air and so on, we’re doing it for everybody, of all economic or income levels, of all races, of all religions and all political parties and so on, you know, there’s no discrimination in terms of the work that we’re doing but largely speaking the environmental movement over the last 30, 40 years has been dominated by middle to upper class, you know, white folks who have been, you know, leading the charge on this stuff and I think that’s unfortunate.
I mean I think there’s some kind of reasonable explanations for that but it’s unsustainable because it’s had a couple of effects. First of all, we’re failing to reach large segments of the population that are actually being even more hammered by environmental pollution than a lot of the kind of, you know, upper middle class folks who are part of these organizations. So they have even more at stake if you live in an urban area or a low income area whether it’s, you know, or a rural area and so on, a lot of times you’re more subjected to air, water pollution than other communities. I also think that we have not done a good job of appealing to folks as well and I think that that’s why we’ve tended to be vulnerable to the tree-hugger or the kind of elitist type of tag and I think that we’ve failed to do that, you know, luckily I think that that’s really changing.
First of all, a lot of environmental justice organizations are starting and are actually, you know, are thriving around the country, and you’ve got people like Majora who are doing terrific work and who are really becoming serious voices and influential players in this movement, but not just in this movement, but in political circles as well, and that’s vitally important and it’s long overdue, but I can’t say how thrilled I am that it’s happening now. Because the bottom line is this, if it’s just the environmentalists trying to do this work on their own, we’re not gonna do it, we’ve got to enlarge the tent to have it represent all sectors of society and we’ve got to include everybody, everybody has to see themselves as an environmentalist. We have to get away from the idea that’s a dirty word which is, you know, what unfortunately a lot of our opponents have successfully achieved is making environmentalism some kind of fringe activity. I think it’s becoming pretty apparent with climate change especially, but all the different environmental problems we have that this is no longer a fringe issue, this is front and central to how we’re going to do going forward, and not just in terms of our health but also economically and otherwise. So luckily I think the word is starting to catch on, and whether we want it to or not, this is becoming a world movement and it needs to.
Environmental activism is largely the province of the white upper-middle class. How can this change?
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