Having spent several months planning the local Earth Day Celebration, I was hit hard yesterday by an article that appeared in the New Republic: “Earth Day is Too White and Out of Touch with Reality,” by Emily Atkin. I had been feeling pretty good about our event on Saturday. We had lots of people come through. There was a “Walk for all Species,” with people, children mostly, either in costume or carrying a puppet, parading a short distance. There were workshops on composting, recycling, solar energy, and food sustainability. There was music, food, and, yes, face painting. At the Interfaith Climate Action table, people could make a prayer flag expressing their hopes for the earth. At other tables, children found the seeds in spruce cones and planted them, made dye from flowers, and made things from recycled cardboard. All this was fun and good, enjoyed by many people. But I hadn’t realized how white the crowd was. What were we missing?
Atkins cited Anthony Rogers-Wright, the organizing director at Environmental Action, who says “Earth Day is mainly a white person thing. . . While there are programs this Saturday for vulnerable communities, they’re just not getting an equitable level of transmission. And that’s been the story for many years in the environmental so-called movement. The nation’s leading environmental groups too often neglect environmental justice communities. Earth Day is a manifestation of that disconnect—an event that, like much of the environmental world, focuses too much on making white people feel good about recycling and driving Pruises (sic) than helping those suffering from environmental injustice.”
Besides this article, there were a few comments on Facebook noting that the March for Science on Saturday was also a largely white crowd. That doesn’t make it bad, just as the Earth Day Celebration wasn’t bad. The question in my mind is, how can we work to make our messaging more relevant and be more inclusive? For us in Alaska, I believe, that means being more intentional about climate justice. Yes, we all need to modify our lifestyles to reduce, recycle, and convert as much as possible to renewable energy. But we also need to be more conscious of the fact that people around the world, including coastal Alaska, are suffering disproportionately from the effects of climate change. They are losing their homes and their livelihoods. Their water is being poisoned by oil leaks and industrial action. Can we stand with the people of Flint, Michigan, who must drink bottled water because the water pipes are corroded? Can we stand with the Standing Rock Sioux people whose ancestral lands have been violated? Can we stand with the people of New Tok, Alaska, who are seeking funding to move their village further from the coast? Can we support the Gwich’in people who seek to protect the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd?
Last year our Earth Day celebration included statements from many different faith communities (Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, and more). regarding their response to climate change. Most of them offered words similar to those of Pope Francis regarding our responsibility as stewards of the earth to care for the most vulnerable among us. This is the work I feel called to. I stayed with the group planning Earth Day this year even though the focus was on recycling rather than on this interfaith work. The article I read made me realize that while this year’s event was successful in many ways, it may have distracted me from the ongoing work for climate justice.