Although environmental issues affect everyone, they don’t affect everyone equally: research shows this people of color and the least wealthy will disproportionately suffer the most devastating consequences of climate change.
However, in spite of long history of people of color advocating for environmental causes;, the mainstream environmental movement still suffers from a striking lack of diversity. 2014 Survey of US Environmental Government Agencies, Nonprofits, and Foundations found that people of color were significantly underrepresented.
What explains this gap and how can it be overcome? These are two of the questions Ivuoma N. Onyeador, assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, explores in a recent paper the building of nationally and economically diverse environmental coalitions. The paper — which was authored by Neil A. Lewis Jr. of Cornell University, Dorainne J. Green of Indiana University and Ajua Duker of Yale University — builds on previously published research on the environmental movement in the US
She and her colleagues aim to remind readers that “on environmental issues, there are points of connection between different groups that we need to identify, and we have a better chance of actually tackling the issue if we find those points of connection and work together.”
Here, Onyeador describes several ways that people and organizations concerned with environmental issues can unite a more diverse group of stakeholders.
Develop the definition of What Counts as an Environmental Issue
There is a marked discrepancy in how white and non-white Americans think about environmental concerns. 2020 study found that white Americans tend to have a narrower, more ecological view of what constitutes an “environmental issue,” while people of color see anthropocentric issues like racism and poverty as intertwined with the environment.
These divergent perspectives, Onyeador and her colleagues write, stem from how different groups experience the consequences of environmental policy. Nonwhites and low-income people are more likely to live near landfills, experience poor air quality, have few parks and green spaces in their neighborhoods, and so on—environmental issues that are directly linked to social inequalities. (THE environmental justice movement(which emerged alongside the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, has long sought to highlight the connection between inadequate environmental protections and racism and poverty.) White and wealthier Americans are less likely to directly experience these burdens, which may explain why they tend to see environmental destruction as damaging to the planet rather than specific groups of people.
By broadening their portfolio to include anthropocentric issues alongside ecological issues, environmental advocates have a better chance of mobilizing a broader audience that includes those traditionally underrepresented in environmental coalitions.
“If I’m worried about whether I can survive in this neighborhood, and people say we should care about the environment because of the trees, I might run away,” Onyeador says. “But if you connect environmental issues to my experience — like whether my child will have clean water — then I might feel more motivated.”
Recognize that more people care about environmental issues than you may realize
2018 study spotted a strange paradox: Americans of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds believe that the groups most concerned about the environment are whites, young people, and women, and that racial minorities and low-income people are least concerned. But public opinion polls reveal that just the opposite is true: minorities and low-income people are actually more concerned about the environment.
This misconception, possibly fueled in part by media representation, may explain much of the lack of diversity in mainstream environmental groups. As Onyeador and her colleagues write, “it’s hard to muster the motivation to work toward a common goal with people you misperceive as disinterested.”
Broadening both our idea of what counts as an environmental issue and our sense of who is a potential environmental advocate “allows [us] to recruit from a wider audience, which brings more attention and more support,” says Onyeador.
Join Corporate Social Responsibility and Environmental Justice efforts
It is increasingly common to see companies highlight their environmental sustainability measures. These efforts typically have a strictly ecological focus—carbon offsets, recycling programs, and the like.
In Onyeador’s view, this is a missed opportunity: “Companies should consider expanding the range of environmental organizations they support to include environmental justice organizations.” For example, instead of simply planting a tree for every item sold, an organization could focus on creating green spaces in neighborhoods that lack them.
Corporations also have a vested interest in supporting environmental justice efforts. Consider the impact that poor air quality or contaminated drinking water can have on an entire region in the future. As Onyeador points out, “if people have lead in their water and can’t do well in school, they may never be able to work in your organization.”
Learn from recent successes
Amid a sea of disheartening environmental news, Onyeador and her colleagues see encouraging signs that the movement is beginning to succeed in uniting a more disparate coalition. Recent events such as the March for Science and the People’s Climate March have succeeded in attracting different audiences. youth-led Eastern Movement has made environmental justice central to advocacy efforts.
Researchers also cite the Flint water crisis as a key moment in the convergence of mainstream environmentalism and environmental justice. The crisis garnered a national outcry—much of which focused on the racial inequality that contributed to the environmental disaster. Years of constant advocacy ensued to replacing about 10,000 lead pipes by 2021 and a $641 million settlement agreement for city residents.
It’s not enough to erase the damage that has been done, but it still serves to show the power of a more unified environmental movement.