When Saving the Planet is a Fight to Save Ourselves

Environmentalism, explained, in the world’s longest nutshell. A series of chapters on social justice, equity, the environment, & how it all connects.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I vowed to “save the planet,” but I’m pretty sure the thought entered my mind while I was in the ocean. Entranced by this place of indescribable beauty, I became totally consumed by this otherworldly escape – and as I grew older, my passions manifested into an undying determination to save it.

It was a beautiful vision, a heart-warming commitment to serving a higher purpose. But what I failed to understand at the time was that this dreamy conviction contradicts everything the environmental movement actually enshrines – and my altruistic dreams to “save another world” ironically represent the backwards thinking that have made the creation of a just, harmonious world such a difficult pursuit.

Environmentalists are often viewed as nature-addicted do-gooders, passionately defending that distant, separate world we have emphatically termed “the environment.” Typically viewed as eccentric and borderline-hostile in our ways, we’re known to possess an abrasive enthusiasm for some higher-cause that makes the rest of us look like the uninformed inferior. When you factor in the vegan rite of passage, rejection of societal norms like store-bought deodorant, and all the Birkenstocks, it’s not the most inviting movement to be a part of.

But what looks like a cult-ish gathering of eco-freaks actually has very little to do with devoting oneself to another world, and everything to do with better understanding the one we are already in. Because when we look closely at the ecological challenges we face, we see that these issues don’t stem from causes confined to a distant world. We see that there are no divides, and that the problems afflicting our planet mirror problems ignited within us. We see that ecological collapse is a mere symptom of a greater disease – and that the movement for a safe environment is a movement for robust social freedoms, our basic safety and justice, and healthier, stronger, thriving communities.

So for everyone who feels understandably dismayed by the uninviting legacy of the environmental movement’s past, bare with me as I re-define what thinking about “the environment” is all about – and dare to imagine a world that is safer, healthier, and better for all.

I. Lightbulb Moments: Overcoming Fallacy

My first steps in nature were rooted in fallacy. Raised alongside California’s coastline, the ocean was my solace and my escape, a dramatic portal into “another world” where everything was calm and clear. Whereas everything on land seemed distraught in perpetual disarray, underwater, disorder unfolded so gracefully – delicately balanced, co-existent in quiet harmony.

Given this radical departure from the congested roads and noise of human existence, it really does seem like a world remarkably detached – but as different as it seems, ‘different’ does not denote ‘separate,’ and views that draw such concrete divisions between the ‘natural’ and ‘human’ worlds reflect a sluggish misconception.

Embedded within my childhood vision to “save the ocean” rests this uninformed assumption that the environment was something separate from myself – a delusion forgetting that the fight for the planet is a fight for ourselves. We are intricately entangled and enmeshed with the natural world. In the developed and affluent world, where food security is more closely affiliated with the commute to Vons than harvest yields, where the faucet still flows in times of drought, where we can afford separation from pollution and environmental harm – we are privileged enough to disconnect. Melting glaciers, rising seas, and a changing climate are best viewed from afar, asking only that we pause in mild concern before promptly resuming the natural progression of our everyday lives.

Ignorance is bliss, until it’s not – and time and time again, we see nature overstep this forbidden barricade into human existence, as we dwell in mind-boggling disbelief that the world we’re a part of affects us in anyway. As floodwaters swallow cities and fires level entire towns, alongside droughts and hurricanes and drinking water that lights on fire – damaging our security, health, equity, income, and livelihoods – we are harshly reminded that the human and non-human worlds do not exist independently.

To the world’s marginalized and poor, this is no new concept – as subsistence living, institutionalized vulnerability, and enduring exploitation make environmental and human wellbeing synonymous goals. Pollution is not a distant issue to those who can’t afford to escape poisoned air and water. Climate disruption is not an abstract concept when it displaces your entire community. Deforestation isn’t all about trees when it causes food insecurity or unleashes mudslides that bury your village, and changing seasons are more than a mere inconvenience when they unleash water scarcity and disease.

Throughout the developing world, we see how the health of one’s environment is a strong indicator of equity, personal security, and overall wellbeing – and while the privileged and wealthy might be better off for now, these stories send a strong message about the shared nature of our collective destinies. Environmental struggles are human struggles – and even within the confinement of polished suburbia, we’re connected to the world around us in deep, gripping ways.

The environmental fight in the wealthy and developed world has long missed this crucial connection – that nature isn’t something “else” to save, it’s something we are. This idea digs at one of the most riveting moments of my educational experience – my first-ever day of class, when a professor asked us to define the environment. She asked us, simply, “What is the environment?”

For someone so overwhelmingly into nature things, I had a very poor grip on what “the environment” actually meant when I started studying it – and as I thought about it, literally for the first time in my life, the answer uprooted my most basic assumptions. You could practically see the beams shining throughout the lecture hall as the lightbulbs illuminated above a captivated crowd – “everything is connected.” My college education in a nutshell – every discussion, argument, lecture, rant or environmental fiasco over the course of four years, essentially comes down to this dominating mantra.

For the first time, I understood basic ecology. Everything is connected – and what befalls one of us, befalls us all.

An odd thing happens when you embrace this mantra. When we see that everything is connected, we view the world through a completely different set of eyes – and it becomes literally impossible to look away.

We see how our lifestyles are closely intertwined with the living ecosystems around us, and how ecological collapse is rooted in diseases of the human world. We see how the environmental movement is about investigating global inequality and injustice, poverty, security, political opportunity and self-determination, and human rights. We see that the ecosystems collapsing around us are trying to tell us something – about our society, the way it currently functions, and not simply how it must change – but how it can be so much better.

II. Towards a Bigger Movement, & a Better World

At times, the interconnectedness of our shared global ecosystem is obvious. I think everyone was tortured by the water cycle in fifth grade biology and to some extent, we’re all aware that the ingredients in our salad were, at one time, grown in the ground. But the linkages between humans and our environment run deeper than these basic relationships, and the environmental movement stagnates in deficiency without discussions about justice, equity, social freedoms and security.

A few scholars of the environmental justice movement summarize this relationship quite eloquently:

“In recent years it has become increasingly apparent that the issue of environmental quality is inextricably linked to that of human quality. Wherever in the world environmental despoliation and degradation is happening, it is almost always linked to questions of social justice, equity, rights, and people’s quality of life.”

Julian Agyeman, Robert Bullard, Bob Evans

Here, we encounter an invigorating idea. No longer is environmentalism just about trees and flower power – it’s about the strength and resilience of human ecosystems, and we see how imbalances within our own communities are linked to imbalances throughout the surrounding world. The authors elaborate further, citing empirical evidence that factors such as income inequality, civil liberties, political rights and literacy levels are strong determinants of environmental health. Voter participation, tax fairness, healthcare access, and education – social opportunity – all directly influence exposure to environmental harm and stress.

It may seem absurd – what do voting laws and land rights, or taxes and healthcare, have to do with environmental health and harm? How are race, gender, and class struggles intricately tied to the struggle for a stable planet? While the mechanisms are complex, around the world we see a pattern emerge – that those with greater social freedoms, political opportunity, and social equity and resilience enjoy greater environmental health and security. The environmental challenges we face begin not with ecological assault, but with unjust decision making – the institutionalized vulnerability of certain peoples, and the idea that some lives carry more importance than others.

The examples are everywhere – and around the world, we see the fight for healthy ecosystems indiscriminately tied to fights for human advocacy and justice. We see the erosion of indigenous land rights pave the way for environmentally destructive oil, gas, and pipeline projects. We see the political impotency of the global poor invite extractive industries to exploit resources and despoil the environment. We see how racism and class struggle fuel the growth of toxic industry, as it is no coincidence that these poisonous players and their toxic factories mostly inhabit low-income spaces and communities of color. Institutionalized injustice makes environmental degradation and harm a feasible reality – and in our vision of a sustainable world, there is no space for such inequity and dispossession. Environmental harm stops when we stop harming ourselves.

Racism, gender oppression, land theft, genocide, mass-murder, colonialism, global resource-wars – these are the driving factors of poisoned and collapsing ecosystems. As the environmental movement pursues a “sustainable world,” these are the difficult legacies we’ll need to leave behind. Ecosystems aren’t just falling apart outside an untouchable orb of human existence – it’s all very reflective of the injustice and widespread inequity within our dysfunctional world, and the solutions start when we recognize the connections.

III. There is no “Other”

Underlying all of this is the fundamental, indisputable and vital recognition that there is no “other.” There are no concrete dividing lines. When we ‘other’ the planet, we sicken the supporting ecosystems we depend on for life. When we ‘other’ people, we forego the reality of our shared fates, and destroy opportunities for cooperation and sustainable growth. To reference basic ecology once again: “everything is connected.”

And here, we see what the environmental movement is all about: overcoming this divided, dualistic, binary way of thinking about the world, that views everything as distinctly separate, rather than deeply connected. It’s what environmental sociologists have termed the “logic of domination” – that the world is divided and detachable, organized in a strict hierarchy, with some groups and lifeforms slotted above others. That there is an “us,” and a “them,” and that we can disassociate from “others” because our fates are separate and unconnected. It’s a dangerous, self-destructive way of thinking in a world where life is deeply entangled and shared. In nature, everything is connected – humans are not above the natural law.

This is the challenge the environmental movement seeks to overcome – it’s not about holding hands and picket signs, or indulging in devout adoration over a tree. It’s about encompassing a more compassionate worldview, and seeing the interconnectedness of a world we collectively inhabit. As U.C.S.B. Professor of Environmental Studies David Pellow states,

“Othering someone else is very dangerous because you’re othering yourself. When you harm your environment, you harm yourself.”

Given these social tensions, stabilizing our planet cannot just be about new technology and planting trees – it’s about empowering local communities and correcting global power imbalances, so that all people are equipped with the capacity to demand their health and environmental security. So that no life is viewed as “dispensable” in pursuit of unequal development, and so all people enjoy ownership over their land, health, and community wellbeing. Nobody is immune – we are poisoned at different rates, but share a common trajectory. And resolving this issue requires that we work together – a goal that can only be met if we are to embrace a more cohesive, equitable, just society.

IV. Incorporating into Action

That it’s so easy to become immediately depressed, dismayed, or put-off by thinking about the environment is deeply unfortunate, because bravely pursuing deeper understanding and truth is such a liberating and empowering way to look at the world. Embarking on this mindset about environmentalism as a shared movement for social progress opens powerful gateways for real solutions.

But this isn’t the narrative we commonly hear. We hear teenage me, declaring I’m going to save the ocean as if it’s a different realm – ironically engaging in this mindset of “othering.” We hear leaders debate over the significance of environmental challenges, still using the word “environment” as if it’s something separate from ourselves. Their very language, the reality they’ve constructed, reinforces this binary, disconnected thinking, and detaches us from thinking collectively about creative solutions.

The movement for a better environment is a movement for a better us. It is indisputably linked to alleviating poverty and class struggle, racism and discrimination, institutionalized vulnerability and dispossession. So when we hear national leaders say they want to assail environmental protection, but advocate for jobs, social wellbeing, or a “better” society, we know this cannot be true. When a national leader abolishes the institutions focused on climate stability, or severs national monuments, land grabs, and cripples environmentally protective organizations, we know this individual cannot be interested in our broader social betterment. For this individual is engaging in dominating logic, “othering” the environment with the same logic that “others” and exploits other human beings.

It is a massive injustice that we aren’t empowered to think in this deeply collective, creative way. It’s a massive injustice that leaders perpetuate the disconnect that we can exist separately from the living ecosystems around us, and it’s an injustice that we are guided to think in this divided, dualistic mindset. That we are told we have to choose between jobs and the environment, or that environmental protection degrades “growth,” or that environmental security is some kind of dispensable afterthought – is a great delusion and weakness, and we have the power to think differently.

Environmentalism is not about looking outwards at a distant ocean or “other” landscape. It’s not about the suffering of some distant “other” world. It’s about better understanding and adapting our communities to the shared world we all inhabit. It’s about overcoming the delusion that we can pursue democracy, social equity, justice, jobs, public health, and better communities in separation from healthy environments. You don’t need hemp attire or Birkenstocks to embark on this invigorating way of thinking – and as we imagine healthier environments through the pursuit of justice and equity, a sustainable world and thriving communities sit on the horizon, boldly in sight.

Still Curious About Environmental Justice?

Check out these resources:

Environmental Justice Foundation

Sunrise Movement

Food & Water Watch

Rising Tide North America

Center for Race, Poverty, & the Environment

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