By Devika Shah
August 24, 2015
I remember learning in grade school that white light is composed of all other colours of the spectrum, whereas every other colour is only a fragment of it. For most of my life, I have felt that the Canadian ‘green’ movement is much like the colour green, representing only a narrow demographic – nature-loving, socially conscious, engaged, intelligent, well-intentioned, privileged, white Canadians. It certainly didn’t represent most of the people in my world!
With increasing frequency, the lack of diversity in the environmental movement is being cited as a concern. For example, a social media post by an African American initiative called Young, Black & Green noted that polar bears and recycling are not the hook for most African Americans to join the fight against climate change. Far more relevant is the tremendous and disproportionate impact of climate change on African Americans within the U.S. While I am not African American, the sentiment still resonates with me. I was reminded of all the times when I have explained to my (mainly white) colleagues that I didn’t join the environmental movement for the same reasons as many of them. They were often drawn to it because of their childhood experience and emotional connection to nature and wild spaces, and their commitment grew stronger as they learned of the disproportionate impact of climate change on less affluent parts of the world.
For me, it happened in reverse. I didn’t have the luxury of big forest adventures and mountain climbing during my childhood. I was initially drawn to the movement by issues of survival, justice and equity. That’s because I carry a constant guilty awareness of how different my life would have been if my parents, who already endured so much trauma in their own childhoods, hadn’t taken a massive leap of faith and made the cross-cultural journey to Canada from two different parts of the world and met at a party in Toronto. That guilt caused me to be extra-aware of the suffering of people in less affluent places, which led to the realization that nothing will exacerbate this suffering more than the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. Over time, this resulted in a moral commitment to tackling the issue within my own locus of control, here in Canada.
I share this because it relates to a branding discussion we had at a GreenPAC board meeting at the start of this year. I was the lone voice advocating against the ‘green’ branding of GreenPAC. I worried that environmentalism is still very much a special interest of well-meaning, privileged white people, whereas the kind of transformation we are working toward requires everyone on board. Many of those people are outside that core demographic and would never call themselves environmentalists, but they could get behind the need for our leaders to stimulate a new kind of economy, make polluters pay, and so on. I argued that our approach should instead focus on the issues that other people outside of the core demographic are concerned about, and then help them to connect the dots back to the issue of environmental leadership in politics.
I have had this concern for many years now within the movement as a whole. I have observed a slow but gradual increased awareness of the need for the movement to become more relevant to a broader range of societal concerns (hence the increasing focus on the benefits of a green economy, for example). I’ve also noticed that the environmental movement is also slowly becoming more diverse with respect to ethnicity and socioeconomic status, but the majority of leaders at the core of Canada’s movement are still white, privileged, and often squirm uncomfortably in their seats when the subject of being less exclusionary is raised, though they do agree that the shift is necessary. Some of my white environmentalist friends have confessed that, on one hand, they don’t want to be exclusionary when designing their tactics and campaigns but, on the other hand, they have no clue how to go about engaging with the public differently, to draw in a more diverse audience.
Even though environmental leaders may be struggling with how to solve this problem, it turns out that the impacts of climate change itself are providing the solution, sort of. That is because climate change is already wreaking havoc in other universes such as public health, food security and the economy. The impacts are disproportionately falling on the shoulders of refugees and immigrants, low-income and working class Canadians, First Nations and farmers, further increasing inequality in our society. In the words of Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and author of The End of Nature, “It’s becoming clear that climate change and inequality are the twin overriding issues of our age, and their roots come from the same places — they’re interrelated.”
Registered Nurse & Policy Analyst Anastasia Harripaul speaks to the crowd before the March for Jobs, Justice, and the Climate about the disproportionate health impacts of climate change on already vulnerable communities. (Credit: Robert van Waarden)
The 10,000 person Jobs, Justice and Climate rally in Toronto a few months ago cemented my realization that at long last, the environmental movement is transforming from a special interest of rich, white nature lovers to a unifying movement under which people from all walks of life are coming together to birth a new kind of society, a new kind of economy and a new set of values, all contained within a safe, healthy physical environment. In complex systems, there are no distinct components. It is all woven together, and a change within one component has ripple effects throughout the system.
In addition to building critical mass, other benefits result from joining the environmental movement with other movements like Idle No More, LGBTQ rights, gender equality and Black Lives Matter. When activists in other movements experience a win, it makes the job of environmental activists a wee bit easier, and vice-versa. For example, the legalization of gay marriage leads to slow cultural shifts, placing greater emphasis on values such as ‘everyone matters, no one left behind’. It also prompts us to explore other areas where some people are still being left behind, such as the impacts of climate change, and our collective desire for change then increases. I believe that if those societal values were stronger 50 years ago, there would be much less of a climate crisis to contend with today!
The intersection of movements also makes it more likely that those of us working to put a price on carbon, save the polar bears, shift our electricity grids from fossil fuels to renewable energy, stop a pipeline from being built, or save a lake or forest, will be more exposed to other struggles and motivations, and consequently begin to see more value in meeting people where they are, in order to draw a more diverse range of people into the movement. We still have a very long way to go, but today, groups like Dogwood Initiative are demonstrating an ability to reach beyond self-identified environmentalists and the traditional demographic by ‘asking’ people what matters to them, instead of ‘telling’ them what should matter.
So, upon further reflection on that GreenPAC Board discussion, I am happy to say that I was wrong. I am now less worried about the word ‘green’ in our name, or the colour of our logo, because ‘green’ is slowly becoming more like ‘white’, a broad spectrum composed of and linked to all the other causes we take up to fight for a better world. GreenPAC provides an effective platform for Canadians from all walks of life, with a diverse, wide range of motivations and perspectives, to rally behind the need for environmental leadership in politics.
We have a crucial election coming up on October 19. All politicians and their parties operate within the boundaries of political possibility, regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum. Will action X be supported by the base that will keep them power? Will it widen the base? Can it at least be done without significant political costs? These boundaries are determined by you and me. Through GreenPAC, we now have a mechanism for working together to help elect environmental champions from all parties into the House of Commons, and expand the boundaries of possibility.
If you are concerned about poverty, education, equity and social justice, jobs and prosperity, global conflict and security, democracy, human health or human rights, you’re already green and we need you now, more than ever.