The White-Washing of Sustainability

Maybe I’m weird, but I like conferences. And in the past year, I’ve been honored to receive invitations to numerous conferences concerning sustainability, permaculture, green living, environmentalism, and nature connection. (Some of my favorite topics!) And yet, over time my enthusiasm for such gatherings have slowly waned. In fact, I think that I’ll turn down the next invitation. Why? Simple. I am tired of always being the only person of color in the whole conference.

Not just in the room, or at a particular session. In the whole damn conference. How many times have I desperately sought just one Black or Brown face in the crowd to connect with, only to be greeted by a sea of Whiteness? Progressive, well-meaning, friendly Whiteness. But Whiteness, nonetheless.

Now, why is this lack of representation a problem? I bet you think I’m going to say that it represents a sense of apathy among communities of color when it comes to issues of conservation and the environment. But, nope. I don’t think it represents that at all. I know plenty of folks of color who care about the Earth. Plenty are worried about climate change, and pollution, and creating more just an sustainable food systems. People of color care about the planet.

What people of color don’t seem to care about are a bunch of self-important White people giving speech after speech about how they plan to save the world. And inevitably, all good intentions aside, that is exactly what these conferences turned out to be. Whether scientists, spiritualists, students, or scholars, the goal of these gatherings seemed to be for folks to share their own grand plans for saving the Earth and all of humanity (despite White folks representing a minority of humanity) from certain doom. Great. Build eco-villages. Wonderful. Create bike-friendly cities. Awesome. Promote organic farming. Okay. Teach communities of color to value the environment. Wait a minute.

Can we all get honest about something for a moment here? The undertone of much “environmentalist” work today is a subtle sense that White people (mostly young, often liberal, sometimes dreadlocked) are running around on a mission to “educate” and “enlighten” everyone else about sustainability and “green” living. Not to interrupt your savior complex or anything, but…I find such sentiment more than just a little condescending, extremely arrogant, and quite ironic. Because in actuality, White folks are kind of late to the game. In fact, they’re the latest.

“Need we be reminded, the first environmentalists in this country were the Native Americans.” ~john a. powell

Virtually every other culture on Earth has already figured out that the planet is alive, that nature matters, that water and animals and air are all valuable resources worthy of respect and protection. From generations of Native Americans/First Nations who built sustainable homes and paid reverence to the spirits of the animals (and were called “savages” by Europeans), to centuries of Asian cultures that engaged in organic farming and developed entire philosophies from their observations of natural cycles (and were considered “primitive” by Europeans), to native Africans who invented the concept of village and danced in honor of the Earth’s elements (and were labeled “animists” by Europeans)…can you see a pattern?

Even the descendents of those Africans, brought to North America as slaves to toil in plantation fields without pay, had to be connected to the Earth because their lives literally depended upon their understanding of the land. In order to produce enough crops to ensure their owners’ profit, to feed themselves and their families, and even to escape slavery (traveling for days or weeks through woods, across rivers, and into various climates), they had to be familiar with the rhythms and patterns of sky, water, earth, fire, wind. You’d better believe that their lives were sustainable, organic, and environmentally conscious.

So, European Americans convinced everyone to industrialize. To build factories that pollute our air and water, build roads and cities that demolish our trees and plants, fill food with chemicals that alter our soil and damage our bodies. They taught us all – Bigger is Better. More, More, More.

“You’re backward,” they said, “for living off the land and producing such small amounts. You can only feed your local village, or produce enough for small local markets at best. You need to expand, to modernize. Here, use these pesticides to be able to produce more. And stop living in that tiny hut in a village so you can move into private, single family homes. Stop walking everywhere and buy a car. You know, like real Americans. Like us.

And now, we hear “You’re backward for buying food from big grocery stores. Get with the times…it’s all about local and small. Why don’t you shop at the local Farmer’s Market? You need to think smaller, greener. Buy a tiny home, or live in an eco-village. You know, it’s important to be a part of a community. Get a bike, or walk. It’s healthier!  Be more sustainable. Like us.

Sheesh. A circle is round and has no end. Maybe it’s time for the blind to stop jumping up and volunteering to lead everybody. Maybe some humility (i.e. the ability to sit down, shut the hell up, and learn from others) is called for. Maybe instead of studying books like Silent Spring we can listen to what indigenous folks around the globe have been saying for centuries. For centuries, people.

So no, permaculture is not new. Neither is environmentalism. It is a recycled, repackaged, re-branded concept that though worthy, is often misguided. The real key to sustainable, green living is actually improved race relations. Yeah, that’s right. Because improving race relations is the only way to get well-intentioned White folks to understand that they actually need to take a seat. Rather than host another conference, write another book, or blog yet another post about how much they know and understand about the Earth, they should probably just be quiet. And listen.

Listen to the elders, listen to the people of color, listen to the cultures around the world who had this Earth-centered living stuff figured out long, long ago. Forget Gaia Theory. The people you most need to listen to don’t write theory. They live it. They’ve never stopped believing that all of life is connected. They’ve always asserted that human beings were children of the Earth, and that all of our brothers and sisters (other lifeforms on the planet) must be loved and cared for. Despite colonization, slavery, war, and industrialization, the idea of Earth as a living planet has survived in the bloodstreams and lifeways of many. This is not a new understanding; it is ancient and woven throughout so many strands of our human heritage.

Most traditional, indigenous cultures intuitively understand the concepts of permaculture and sustainability. They don’t need a Powerpoint slideshow or a lecture to get it, because they invented it. They are the keepers of real environmental wisdom. And in the interest of our planet, of our species, they will gladly teach you what you need to know. If you can, just this once, quiet your ego and become truly willing to learn.

Some interesting places to start:

Indigenous Wisdom

Click to access article1380045794_Rim-Rukeh%20et%20al.pdf

A More Intersectional Sustainability Movement


One thought on “The White-Washing of Sustainability

  1. I really like this lady a lot. I myself and biracial and my mother was born and raised on the island of Samoa, I have taken up a mission and that is to rebuild our little island using sustainable and modern technology but respecting and learning the cultural agriculture that has been thriving for centuries.. so currently I’m from podunk Missouri in the middle of nowhere, I noticed there was any agricultural conference at a five star hotel and resort so I took my non farming self to this conference, and let’s just say your blog explains my predicament while there…. hahaha, I learned real quick that day.


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