Hey environmentalists, we can do better

Image of a poster saying: “do you like polar bears? Reduce your carbon footprint + fight climate change and if you are able… TAKE THE STAIRS! #savethepolarbears

Image of a poster saying: “do you like polar bears? Reduce your carbon footprint + fight climate change and if you are able… TAKE THE STAIRS! #savethepolarbears

This poster, located by the Danawell elevator on campus, perfectly encapsulates the environmentalism that Swarthmore promotes through the Office of Sustainability and the Green Advisor (GA) program. This environmentalism places the blame for climate change on individuals, not institutions and systems of injustice. This environmentalism relies on shame, scarcity and faulty surface-level solutions, by refusing to look at the root of environmental injustice. This environmentalism continues to perpetuate oppression in struggling for more trees, recycling and compostable straws. This environmentalism is not only ineffective, but deeply violent.

On the most basic level, this sign takes on the huge multifaceted and pressing problem of climate crisis and offers a simple, but quite disconnected solution (taking the stairs will not solve the issue of climate chaos). Additionally, by taking on ability as an afterthought, instead of integrating the concept of different bodies into the solution, this sign falls into the traditional environmental trap of perpetuating ableism, shaming certain bodies in the name of advancing a sustainability agenda (a topic which Eli Claire, a disabled, genderqueer author and activist discusses extensively). This is ineffective and violent because it does not address the real root of the issue because it continues to perpetuate harm. How did we get into this mess in the first place? Why do we have a global economic system that (fossil) fuels exploitation and destruction of our natural life-giving ecosystem? Why are certain people deemed not worthy of healthy environments? These questions are important to examine before offering solutions, otherwise solutions will be as empty as prompting people to take the stairs, taking the staple out of tea bags, or, in some ways, even sorting our trash (but we’ll get to that).

Environmental destruction was not created because a couple of people were a little thoughtless or greedy and just short-changed the environment. On this land, environmental destruction came with settler colonialism, and, across the globe it is deeply connected with oppression of certain groups of people. As indigenous authors such as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Kyle Whyte, and many others have been saying, the mentality of commodification brought to this land by settler colonialists “turned creation into resources, and resources are to be exploited.” Then, instead of respecting all creation, all beings and life of this earth, this colonial framework established a certain white-rich-straight-able body as those deserving of the riches, health and life extracted from the environment. Simultaneously, this mentality relegates those that are not worthy, that do not have the right bodies, into “sacrifice zones” with intense concentrations of environmental hazards. In this way, destruction of the environment is powered by and helps to maintain racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, classism. By not talking about these fundamental intersecting truths of environmentalism, environmentalists at Swarthmore are only able to affect one small piece of the entire pie. Environmental protection without a framework of justice is ineffective, because environmental destruction is and has never really been about the environment at all. It is about control. In stripping us from our connections with the land and from ways of being in harmony with nature that sustained both our own health and ecosystems health for centuries before, settlers, colonialists, whites, slave owners, were and are better able to maintain their own power and supremacy. As environmentalists at the College, be us GAs, PSRFs, ENVS studies, or anyone else, we have to be able to talk about these issues not as periphery issues but as central to environmentalism.

This poster, and the ineffective, gross environmentalism expressed within it, is representative of the environmental ideals the College supports and embodies. This year for the very first time, the College wove sustainability into First Year Orientation. As a GA, I was told to be excited about this opportunity to get an entire class year (a quarter of Swarthmore’s student body, no less!) to do their part to support the College’s zero waste goal, which commits Swarthmore to divert 80% of the waste from the Chester Incinerator by 2020 and then 90% at some unspecified time in the future. As GAs, much of our supporting work to this initiative was to disseminate, reinforce and clarify the nuances of sustainability st Swarthmore, which in these years nearing the 2020 deadline, revolves mostly around accurate waste sorting. The Office of Sustainability worked extensively with the communications department to craft the perfect zero waste presentation in order to effectively engage with the issue of climate change, show the problems of waste, and then describe how each individual has the power to effect change. This is the environmentalism of the College refined, perfectly articulated, and riddled with racism, classism topped off with ineffective solutions.

How, Marian? How could these good (white) environmentalists who care so deeply about our “collective” future and are just trying to protect our planet (and sometimes I fall into this thinking, too, because it is so attractive in its simplicity) be doing harm?

Let’s start off by discussing the ineffectual nature of the zero waste goal itself. I am a strong proponent of actual zero waste because I believe in justice. I know that waste in any system represents an injustice of some sort. Particularly with food and item waste, injustices lie in the production, consumption, and disposal of unnecessary, or an unnecessary amount of, things. I deeply believe that this earth, with its finite resources, has the ability to provide for each beings’ needs, but not more. Black and Brown people, indigenous societies across the globe know that zero waste is not a goal, an aspiration, but a necessity of life. Frugality and thoughtful consumption is not a sign of underdevelopment as the white, modernity logic would suggest, but rather a sign of being in balance with other people, and larger (eco)systems of life. The lack of waste in traditional, indigenous systems made it possible to remain on the same land and on this earth for centuries upon centuries. This root need to question consumption and interrogate the inherent waste within our systems was lost when this institution and many like it co-opted this idea of zero waste.

What the Office of Sustainability promotes on campus today is waste management. Without a thorough interrogation of our waste stream and of the violent inequalities that waste represents (it has to be made and burned somewhere after all!), we are only managing waste at in our one section of the waste stream and, like this, can never hope to even touch zero waste. If we actually deeply examined our waste stream, examined other sections of the waste stream besides the part that is right in front of our faces, we would realize even things that go into the green or blue bins still often cause environmental injustices even though they will not (always) be burned in Chester.

Compost is magic, the decomposition of matter facilitates new life. However, the surface-level, mainstream environmentalism we see here takes this beautiful life promoting force and uses it to continue perpetuating environmental injustice (while also allowing them to feel oh so good). The crux of Swarthmore’s zero waste is compostable products, purchasing different products instead of questioning why we need the products in the first place. Many of these products such as corn-based plastic food wares we use on campus have been described as being “more prolific polluters on the path to production” than traditional plastic. These products require extensive land, fertilizer, and pesticide use to get the corn and then continue to rely on the same extractive fossil fuel based machinery and systems to produce and transport these products to and from our campus. This method of composting, while it has diverted waste away from Chester’s incinerator, cannot be described as zero waste. We are still producing unnecessary waste and still consuming thoughtlessly. One of the main differences now is that we feel good about it.

Recycling is even worse, because the disposal in addition to the production of recyclable products is riddled with extreme environmental injustices. The Office of Sustainability knows and will discuss some of the problems with recycling: that even when placed in the right bin, recycling can still be incinerated if a load is too contaminated or when there is not market value for certain recyclables. Especially with China’s recent decision to stop accepting the US’s very contaminated recycling waste, we can be continually less sure our recycling will not be incinerated. However, even when it makes it to the recycling site, this unjust story is not over. As David Pellow discusses in his book Resisting Global Toxics, our recycling waste is often sent away to countries within the Global South where it poisons the air and water, stealing life and health from Black and Brown people across the globe. When the recycling, namely e-waste, is not sent away to another country, the dangerous and hazardous job of breaking it down falls on the shoulders of incarcerated people. Recycling perpetuates and enforces our colonial and exploitative relationships with Black and Brown people within this country and across the globe. This we see only when we look at the waste stream in its entirety.

Because Swarthmore’s sustainability framework fails to incorporate this full picture into their analysis, the zero waste campaign and its grounding logic falls into even more and more tragic pitfalls. The beautiful, perfectly constructed zero waste presentation that has over this semester been presented to countless students, faculty and staff, begins by discussing the “effect of population growth” on our extreme waste problem. The problem, though, is not more people; the increasing global population simply reveals the already existing holes in our system. White mainstream environmentalists have for decades used this population growth argument to site climate chaos onto the wombs and fertility of Black and Brown women across the globe. Some organizations, such as PopOffsets, even allowed those within the Global North to purchase carbon offset credits in the form of contraception for women in Africa claiming the “CO2 emissions from one person’s round-trip flight between London and Sydney, Australia could be offset by preventing one birth in Kenya.” While there has been righteous outcry over these organizations forcing many of them to change their tactics, this idea of blaming Black and Brown women for having too many children - instead of the companies, institutions, systems and frameworks that have so thoroughly commodified and exploited this planet and all the beings within it that we are now fast approaching the possibility of climate collapse - persists. This is eugenics, this is racism, this is unacceptable and this mentality of mainstream environmentalism remains at Swarthmore and across the nation often excluding Black and Brown people from a fight that most acutely affects our present and future livelihood.

Let us return once more to this zero waste presentation to examine the problematic way that environmentalists on campus discuss Chester. The argument is akin to this: Chester is a predominately Black low-income community about four miles from here that has one of the worst concentrations of environmental pollution in the nation. This past year, within the GA program at least, there have been attempts to make this analysis less reductionary and dismissive of the long, tough history that Chester residents have fighting this incinerator within their community. However, we still are falling short. The environmental framework we operate under here allows us to claim that, through the zero waste goal, we are cleaning Chester’s air and helping ease the environmental injustices found there. I fail to see how Swarthmore College  diverting even 80% of our trash from one of the largest incinerators in the nation (with trash shipped in from New York and even Puerto Rico at times), would substantially change the embodied experiences of Chester residents. Perhaps change should look beyond the purely material, waste connection between Swarthmore and Chester and examine the ways that our environmentalism and sustainable actions perpetuate the idea that relegates Black and Brown people to areas of extreme environmental injustices and perpetuates continued and increasing exploitation. This superficial form of environmentalism found at Swarthmore, and in most mainstream outlets across the nation, is not the only form of environmentalism. I strongly believe that we can do better, and if not, we can at least be real with ourselves and stop claiming that what we are doing has some moral high ground as we continue to perpetuate systems of oppression and fail to actually radically affect change.

My intention with this article is not to call out these individual actions, these individual posters or presentations, or individual people within Swarthmore’s ecosphere. I hope to really highlight the underlying and unifying issue with our approach to sustainability, the continued use of a framework grounded in hierarchy and exclusion. I understand that what I am pointing to calls for a complete restructuring of the environmental work that takes place on this campus. The solutions to climate chaos, after considering the real issues of environmental exploitation, are more difficult and uncomfortable than purchasing special cups and forks for events.

I am not criticizing this environmentalism as a purely intellectual exercise: I am scared what might happen if this environmentalism continues to go on unchecked on campus. Especially with twelve years to stop the worst effects of climate chaos, environmentalists at Swarthmore and across the nation can no longer be satisfied with simply doing something. I do not have the solutions myself, but I am sure that through starting with recognition and examinations of the frameworks of commodification and our consumer society, we could work something pretty darn life-affirming out. There are models of alternative justice-centering environmentalisms on this campus, that actually are beginning to grapple with this framework of commodification, exploitation, and injustice. However, at the institution level, within the Office of Sustainability, this analysis does not exist in any real way.

I am hoping with this article to take the first step and connect with others on this campus who have been excluded and disenchanted by environmentalism. Message me - let’s talk! Let us imagine what environmentalism would look like if it was more concerned with justice, than with tons of carbon. Let’s dream how we can redesign products, so there is no waste and no sacrificing of health instead of designing technology to better sort our waste at the end of the line. Let’s envision how environmentalism can and must be decolonial: centering the knowledge, expertise of communities, societies, peoples who know or have known ways to live in balance with other beings and this earth. Perhaps, we could create a different, more connected model of sustainability that values the life within all beings on this earth. Perhaps?

1 There are so many other aspects to discuss as the problems with this environmentalism beyond zero waste. There are issues with the Carbon Charge and the falsehoods of reducing environmental devastation and injustice to tons of carbon (after all, the compostable wares are carbon neutral). This also touches on the way that market-based solutions allow wealthy-rich nations to continue to exploit as they please and place the need for carbon sequestration on countries and communities within the Global South (read the first chapter of Vandana Shiva’s Soil not Oil for an in-depth critique of these sorts of market-based solutions).