I Can’t Breathe: Solve Racism to Solve Climate

June 8, 2020

Sierra Club:

During the street protests and marches of the past two weeks, many people carried signs that read “Racism Is Killing Us.” It’s no exaggeration to say that racism and white supremacy harm all of us, because in addition to robbing us of our humanity, racism is also killing the planet we all share.

An idea—a long-overdue realization—is growing in the environmental movement. It goes something like this: “We’ll never stop climate change without ending white supremacy.” This argument has entered the outdoor recreation and conservation space thanks to the leadership of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color in the climate justice movement. The idea has taken on new force as folks in the mainstream environmental movement do our best to show up for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and all the Black people still living and subject to police violence.

I know that a lot of people are struggling with the thought that addressing the environmental crises must involve dismantling white supremacy. At Sierra Club meetings, some people hear me say something like that and think, “Damn, fighting climate change wasn’t hard enough already? Now we have to end racism and white supremacy too? Seriously, man?”

I get that feeling of being overwhelmed. It’s a lot to carry. It’s a lot to hold. We all have enough to do without feeling like we’re taking on even more.

But I want to share another lens from which we can view this moment. I really believe in my heart of hearts—after a lifetime of thinking and talking about these issues—that we will never survive the climate crisis without ending white supremacy. 

Here’s why: You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can’t have disposable people without racism. 

We’re in this global environmental mess because we have declared parts of our planet to be disposable. The watersheds where we frack the earth to extract gas are considered disposable. The neighborhoods near where I live in Los Angeles, surrounded by urban oilfields, are considered disposable. The very atmosphere is considered disposable. When we pollute the hell out of a place, that’s a way of saying that the place—and the people and all the other life that calls that place home—are of no value. 

This punching down usually comes in the form of blame. Media and popular culture often broadcast a twisted version of Black life and make it seem like communities of color have caused their own problems. Many people (at least half of Republicans, according to one poll) believe that poor people are poor because they are “lazy.” From there, it’s not much of a jump to believe that “some people” deserve to live next to a coal plant, that they deserve to die of cancer, that their children deserve to live with asthma.

Working-class whites are told a story that such a thing could never happen to them. Since the founding of this country, elites have conspired to divide poor and working people by race. Just think about Bacon’s Rebellion, when a wealthy white land-taker led a multiracial group of indentured servants and enslaved people on a mission of violence against local tribes. Afterward, frightened by the cross-racial uprising that had destroyed the state capitol, Virginia leaders began to offer more rights and privileges to white indentured servants to keep them from allying with enslaved African people and rising up against their rulers. They offered slightly better conditions to the white people they exploited, to keep them from seeing what they had in common with enslaved Africans and Indigenous peoples.

That same racist bargain—“You might be poor, but at least you’re not Black”—is alive and well in America today.

In order to treat places and resources as disposable, the people who live there have to get treated like rubbish too. Sacrifice zones imply sacrificed people. Just think of Cancer Alley in Louisiana. Most of the towns there are majority Black, and nowadays they call it Death Alley, because so many Black folks have died from the poison that drives our extractive economy. Or think of the situation in the Navajo Nation, where uranium mines poisoned the wells and the groundwater and coal plants for decades poisoned the air. Or consider the South Side of Chicago, where I used to live, which for years was a dumping ground of petroleum coke (a fossil fuel byproduct) and where residents are still struggling against pollution-related diseases. I’ve lived in a lot of places, and just about every place I’ve ever lived has been targeted by big polluters as a dumping ground.

Devaluing Black and Indigenous people’s lives to build wealth for white communities isn’t new. White settlers began that project in the 15th century, when they arrived in North America. Most Native peoples of North America lived in regenerative relationships with the land; they were careful to take no more than the land could sustain. The settlers had another ethic: They sought to dominate and control. They cleared the old-growth forests and plowed the prairies to make room for their wheat and their beef. They nearly drove the bison to extinction in a calculated scorched-earth tactic that was part of a larger ethnic-cleansing agenda. As the Potawatomi author and scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer put it in a recent essay, “the Indigenous idea of land as a commonly held gift [was replaced] with the notion of private property, while the battle between land as sacred home and land as capital stained the ground red.”

How could the white settlers bring themselves to do it?

They did it by telling a certain story about Native peoples, a story that said Native peoples were less “civilized” than white settlers and therefore deserved to be terrorized and pushed from their lands. This Doctrine of Discovery was a religious belief for many European settlers. The doctrine said that any land “discovered” by Christians was theirs because of the inherent inferiority of non-Christian peoples. Eventually, this pernicious idea made its way into US law. In 1823, the US Supreme Court, in the case of Johnson v. M’Intosh, ruled that “the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.” 

It’s no secret that our country was built on a foundation of enslavement of Black people, the theft of Native land, and near genocide of Indigenous people. US institutions, from our government to Ivy League colleges, were built on a foundation of stolen labor and stolen bodies. The compound interest on the profits from that enslavement became the basis of intergenerational wealth for white communities—the intergenerational wealth that perpetuates race-based economic inequality to this day.

But the past isn’t past. Structural racism continues 150 years after the abolition of slavery, only in new forms. As Michelle Alexander wrote in her best-selling book, The New Jim Crow, white supremacy has evolved over generations. After slavery came the debt-servitude of sharecropping. After the Jim Crow era was brought down by the civil rights movement, the prison industrial complex and the war on drugs (read: the war on Black people) rose in its place.

How does this all connect to today’s environmental crises? It’s all part of the same story of dehumanization. The pollution-spewing global mega-corporations that created Cancer Alley are just the latest evolution of the extractive white-settler mindset that cleared the forests and plowed the prairies. And just as the settlers had to believe and tell stories to dehumanize the people they killed, plundered, and terrorized, today’s systems of extraction can only work by dehumanizing people. Back then we had the Doctrine of Discovery, and today it’s the doctrine of neoliberalism that say it’s OK to value some lives more than others, that it’s OK for some people to have clean air while others struggle to breathe.

The crimes may be hiding in plain sight, but many white people are socialized to ignore how these systems of violence and inequality show up in our society. When it comes to racism, many white people are like fish swimming in water: White supremacy is so pervasive that it’s hard to even know that it’s there.

The richest people need for white supremacy to remain invisible so they can continue to plunder our planet. They need those sacrifice zones, and the racism that justifies them, or they’ll have nowhere to put their trash and pollution. In this way, white supremacy serves to divide white working people from Black working people. Today’s one-percenters are able to sacrifice whole communities using more or less the same methods the settlers used: By dividing people into racial categories and directing the worst of their abuse at the people at the bottom of a manufactured racial hierarchy. There’s a term for this: It’s called punching down.

11 Responses to “I Can’t Breathe: Solve Racism to Solve Climate”

  1. Sir Charles Says:

    Belgium, Canada, Colombia, EU, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Netherlands, NZ, Pakistan, South Korea, Switzerland, UK, US.

    Citizens around the world are taking their governments to court over their insufficient climate policies.

    => Global Climate Litigation

  2. pendantry Says:

    Reblogged this on Wibble and commented:

    You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can’t have disposable people without racism.

    • jimbills Says:

      “you can’t have disposable people without racism”….

      ….is completely false. We might as well say Midland-Odessa is because of racism, West Virginia is because of racism, and the tar sands in Alberta are because of racism.

      Sacrifice zones are not exclusive to third world countries. They exist everywhere. After we basically mined and pumped out sources within our borders, we moved to other countries – but this is just geology and time. Racism allows us to environmentally pillage without a much troubled conscience – it does have some effect, certainly – but you absolutely CAN have disposable people and sacrifice zones without racism. Classism might be more accurate, but it’s really just that the wealthy move out of an area if it becomes overly polluted, and the poor cannot. The problem is unchecked capitalism and warped cultural values as well.

      Racism is a horrible problem, white privilege is a real thing, and both are corrosive to an equal and just society. We can hope that the George Floyd murder can lead us closer to a better world. But this Sierra Club article’s main message, which you highlighted, is nonsense.

      Another point – the article seems to be saying that we can’t solve climate change without solving human nature. Quote: “we will never survive the climate crisis without ending white supremacy”. I’m all for ending white supremacy, but wow, good luck with that. Only someone who didn’t live in the South could say such a thing. Over time, we can hope that we have a more just society – but that is a process of generations, not years, and we only have years to meaningfully address the climate crisis.

      • pendantry Says:

        Agreed, the hurdles we face appear to be insurmountable. But if we don’t at least try to tackle them, we’ll fail. All of humanity will fail. Arguably, we don’t have ‘years’ to tackle the climate crisis, because it’s already upon us, and we can’t turn back the clock.

  3. Sir Charles Says:

    The connection between the spread of Corona and mining is very obvious.

    Poland to shut 12 coal mines in attempt to contain coronavirus

    Number of cases has jumped markedly in Silesia, centre of country’s mining industry

    … “This is a temporary suspension of work in mines in which we have recorded coronavirus infections, but in which the workers have not yet all been tested,” he said at a press conference on Monday morning, adding that the miners affected would continue to receive their full salaries.

    The suspensions, which will take effect on Tuesday, come after Poland reported 576 new infections on Saturday, and 575 on Sunday, the second and third-highest daily figures since the pandemic began. Of these, 671 cases were linked to mines, according to the health ministry.

    Silesia, which is the heartland of Poland’s mining industry, has become the centre of the country’s coronavirus pandemic, with more than 50 per cent of cases in the past six weeks having come from the southern region.

    In total, more than 4,000 cases have been linked to the region’s mines, and local authorities have embarked on a mass-testing drive to enable them to identify and quarantine sick workers. JSW said on Monday morning that it had so far recorded 2,771 cases among its staff. …

    Whole article as PDF.

  4. Gingerbaker Says:

    And here we go again!


    To solve AGW:

    1) Build and deploy RE infrastructure.

    2) See 1)

    • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

      To solve CAGW:

      1) Stop producing GHG.

      2) Work to replace and remove 1)

      3) By whatever it takes.

  5. redskylite Says:

    After so many protests for so many decades, the problem of racism should be well and truly obliterated. Are people finally ready to listen this time around.?

    Yale also ran with the facts:

    “Unequal Impact: The Deep Links Between Racism and Climate Change
    Activist Elizabeth Yeampierre has long focused on the connections between racial injustice and the environment and climate change. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the outsized impact of Covid-19 on communities of color, she hopes people may finally be ready to listen.”


  6. J4Zonian Says:

    The link between racism, misogyny, religious and class prejudice, and destruction of nature is projection. Want to reduce them? Help people to project less.

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