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Deep Dive: The Big Greens and the Environmental Justice Movement.
By: Howard Sinclair, Greens REALIGN Intern

Historical Background

Many of the most exploitative extractions of resources and harmful depositions of toxic materials have disproportionately affected people and communities of color. The environmental justice movement has its roots in the plight of Black people when in 1982 the predominantly Black community of Warren County, North Carolina protested the dumping of toxic PCBs in their area as approved by the state government.

The modern environmental movement started in the late 60s but retains many of the sentiments from the emergence of environmentalism in greater American discourse that dates back to the turn of the 20th century. In contrast to the environmental justice movement, the environmental movement has roots in racial discrimination and white supremacy.

For example, John James Audubon, the ornithologist whom the National Audubon Society is named after, was an enslaver who capitalized on the racial tensions of the time by including an "episode" in his ornithology book where he recounts getting into an armed stand-off with a fugitive enslaved person who had escaped. This exacerbated fears brought about by Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, which occurred only three years prior. Furthermore, he verbally detested Black and Indigenous people despite relying on their knowledge to conduct his ornithology research.

John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, used racist rhetoric against the previous Indigenous inhabitants of the national parks that demeaned the vital impact they had in cultivating that space, and the Sierra Club at times excluded people of color from joining the organization. 

Withstanding their overt racism, the most damaging implication of their discriminatory views was that they established principles and ideals within the environmental movement that were subtly racist and became entrenched within environmental institutions. In addition to omitting the contributions of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color to their work, much of the rhetoric they used advocated for preserving pristine and "unaltered" "natural" lands that were dwindling as a result of industrialism and expansion. But, in fact, these lands had been lived on and altered by the Indigenous people who resided on them for thousands of years.

The environmental movement was particularly fixated on preserving these "unaltered" lands for the enjoyment of middle-class white Americans who wanted to escape urban sprawl. This not only solidified the refusal to acknowledge BIPOC contributions to preserving and maintaining the environment but also established the movement's primary goal to preserve the environment with less  consideration for the people who live and rely on the land.

  1. The Need for Improved Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Efforts at the Big Greens 


While the Big Greens have made progress in addressing their history of racial intolerance by denouncing the racist sentiments of their founding members and taking action to become more inclusive of underrepresented demographics, more work remains to be done. Recent incidents and evidence indicate these organizations may still be unwelcoming to minority staff. 


In 2019, two senior officials at the Nature Conservancy exited the organization after investigations into sexual harassment, workplace misconduct against women, and the lack of response to these issues by management. In 2020, the National Audubon Society made headlines when two staff members working on organizational equity and inclusion left the non-profit claiming they had been intimidated and threatened by leaders at the organization with no recourse. One of the departing employees, Devon Trotter, recalls how efforts to address the prejudice culture at the organization were met with criticism and threats to his employment. Trotter had conducted an internal survey of over 121 employees (including those who identified as LGBTQ,  women, people of color, and people with disabilities). The results revealed over 66% of the participants agreed that “Audubon doesn’t create an environment where diverse staff can thrive,” and 40% had witnessed staff “stall, de-prioritize or ignore” diversity and inclusion efforts. Similar accounts have come out about many other national environmental organizations in recent years.


A 2014 study by Dr. Dorceta E. Taylor for Green 2.0 showed that U.S. environmental non-profits had only about 12% people of color on staff and only 4.6% people of color on boards. Since then, environmental organizations have increased efforts to recruit and hire staff of color. Green 2.0’s most recent 2021 report observes that BIPOC representation in full-time staff positions has increased over the last five years to almost 30%.


2. Functional Differences Between the Big Greens and Environmental Justice Organizations


More often than not, environmental justice organizations and the Big Greens take an inverse approach to how they organize themselves and determine actions. Many grassroots organizations are born from communities directly impacted or concerned with a specific environmental issue and focus on tackling that issue through community-led approaches. Some take a non-hierarchical approach to organizational structure and leadership. In contrast, the Big Greens have expansive environmental goals, often on the national and global level, and employ a traditional top-down hierarchical structure. This serves to make them more detached from impacted individuals and communities. A board of directors and CEOs usually oversee the Big Greens, so their direction is determined by the views of a select few people. 


The Big Greens’ collaboration with corporations and corporately-aligned politicians who prioritize business profit over environmental sustainability and public health is one of the largest sources of contention with grassroots organizations. During the 1980s, the Regan administration brought about a neoliberal shift in economics where corporations were prioritized and federal environmental protection was weakened. The Big Greens were inclined to capitulate and created a mutually beneficial way to advance the goals of environmentalists and business. Several of the Big Greens have even received donations from the natural gas and oil industry along with other corporate polluters. Grassroots organizations typically shun such partnerships and approaches. Instead, they stand in direct opposition to corporations as the harms of corporate expansion are intentionally aimed at the communities grassroots organizations originate from. By collaborating with corporations, the Big Greens sometimes work to advance their own goals at the expense of grassroots environmental justice communities. 


Tensions between environmental justice organizations and the Big Greens were high in 2013 with the debates over the Waxman-Markey bill, also known as the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which would have established a national greenhouse cap-and-trade system. Many of the Big Greens championed the bill, despite vocal opposition from grassroots organizers. Environmental justice groups pointed out the bill would do little to reduce overall emissions, would concentrate emissions in BIPOC areas, would infringe on Indigenous sovereignty, and would allow corporations to continue environmentally racist practices. Grassroots leader Miya Yoshitani of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network admonished the cap-and-trade nature of compromises such as the Waxman-Markey bill because it allowed polluting industrialists to purchase absolution for the damage they inflicted onto low-income communities. Rather than looking for effective collaboration with the Big Greens, Yoshitani stated, “the ultimate way that we are going to get the change we need might not be to join forces,” indicating that environmental justice organizations were moving towards a platform of self-sufficiency and independence from the Big Greens.


In 2015, when the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and Obama administration announced the Clean Power Plan, a policy that would implement national pollution standards for coal-fired power plants and allow for pollution trading to meet those standards, many of the Big Greens announced their support. Meanwhile, a coalition of 41 environmental justice organizations created the Climate Justice Alliance (CJA) to propose their own solution to climate justice in response to the Clean Power Plan. The CJA drafted the Our Power Plan, where they acknowledged that the Clean Power Plan was a step in the right direction but did not go far enough in transitioning away from fossil fuels to protect environmental justice communities. The Our Power Plan was also endorsed by the Big Green Greenpeace, who had opposed both the Waxman-Markey bill and the Clean Power Plan due to the profit-in-return-for-absolution nature of these bills.   


The tensions that arose from the Waxman-Markey bill would resurface and somewhat intensify during the EPA chief administrator nominations in 2020. Joe Biden’s initial nomination of Mary Nichols was met with vigorous backlash from environmental justice communities, who criticized her inability to effectively address pollution in predominately BIPOC urban areas in California and condemned her role as the primary proprietor of the Waxman-Markey bill. The efforts of environmental justice organizations would ultimately prove successful, as President Biden instead nominated Michael Reagan to direct the EPA. Environmental justice leader Robert Bullard explained the success of the Nichols protests by stating, “the environmental justice movement basically flexed its muscle for the very first time in a very collaborative, effective and unapologetic way. We are not going to be taken for granted. We are not going to let the white groups go in the room, close the door and speak for us. No, we need to be in the room.”


3. Collaboration between the Big Greens and Environmental Justice Communities


One of the most successful instances of the Big Greens and environmental justice organizations working together occurred in 2011 during the protests of the Keystone XL Pipeline. Planning and manpower for the protests of the pipeline were initially fronted by and Indigenous communities. After receiving approval from its Board of Directors, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune and Sierra Club president Allison Chin would direct the Big Green’s efforts to support the pipeline protests. Brune and Chin would even participate in the demonstration, getting arrested with another 1,200 protestors and breaking the Sierra Club’s prohibition of civil disobedience that had been in effect for over 100 years. The efforts of the Big Greens, Indigenous Peoples, and environmental justice organizations would ultimately prove successful when President Obama rejected the pipeline’s permit in 2015 and when developers shut down the project after it was briefly revived by the Trump administration.


Another effort to bridge the disconnect between the Big Greens and environmental justice organizations was spearheaded in 2016, when the Natural Resources Defense Council (“NRDC”) partnered with other nonprofits and foundations to create the Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC), an initiative dedicated to community-led sustainable development. SPARCC operates in six regions: Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Memphis, and the San Francisco Bay Area. The program invests in sustainable and equitable infrastructure in underrepresented low-income and BIPOC communities, frequently through partnerships with local organizations. 


The People, Public Lands, and Climate Collaborative (“The Collaborative”) is yet another initiative founded to bring together the Big Greens and environmental justice communities on issues at the intersection of people, public lands, and climate change. It does this work using a framework that emphasizes core environmental justice principles including acknowledging the exclusionary history of the conservation movement, emphasizing engagement with and input from impacted communities, and promoting solutions that are just and equitable. The Collaborative thus works to protect and maintain public lands while also providing a platform and support for underrepresented communities who may lack the resources and face language barriers to otherwise participate equitably in this work. 



The Big Greens have often embodied or helped to perpetuate the oppressive institutional mechanisms that grassroots organizations are dedicated to opposing. Sometimes this is a result of the Big Greens’ national scope and intention to achieve change on the highest levels, which results in them ignoring the impacts of their actions on local communities and individuals directly affected. Other times, this is due to their embodiment of systemic oppression leading them to employ exploitative methods or, at the very least, remain ignorant to how their cultures are oppressive to many demographics within and outside of their ranks. As some of the Big Greens begin to acknowledge their discriminatory past and practices, deeper collaboration between the Big Greens and the environmental justice movement is becoming a more viable possibility.

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