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Green Groups Can Embrace Future—and Environmental Justice—by Confronting Past

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On July 14, the board of the Seattle chapter of the National Audubon Society, previously known as Seattle Audubon, announced its unanimous decision to drop the name “Audubon” from its organization’s name. Named for John James Audubon, a naturalist known for his illustrations of birds, the large Seattle chapter’s announcement read in part:

“The societies named for Audubon were formed after his death. He was known for his paintings and descriptions of U.S. bird species in his seminal work, ‘The Birds of America.’ Less known are Audubon’s history of buying and selling Black people as slaves, his contributions to white supremacist thought and policy, and opposition to abolition, as well as his appropriation of Black and Indigenous observations of bird species.”

Major news outlets including CNN and the Associated Press reported on the decision. We caught up with SIS professor Malini Ranganathan, a scholar who researches and teaches about environmental justice, to answer a few questions and help put this decision into perspective.

What does Seattle Audubon’s decision signify?
The Seattle chapter of the National Audubon Society’s decision to remove the name of a white enslaver, Audubon, from its organization’s title should be viewed as part of a larger wave of decisions over the last few years by universities, city governments, and museums to reckon with their racist histories. Consider the decision by Yale University in 2017 to change “Calhoun College,” named after a US vice president, plantation owner, and proponent of slaveholder rights, to “Grace Hopper College,” named after a pioneering female computer scientist.
Environmental organizations are only the latest in a global movement to confront their founders’ roles in enslavement, genocide, apartheid, and colonialism. So, in one sense, Seattle Audubon’s decision is not unique. It’s overdue. At the same time, the conservation movement in the US has been slow to change and has cushioned itself from political issues under the pretext that conservation is concerned with non-human “nature.” Nothing can be further from the truth, of course. The very notion that “nature” is devoid of humans is a social construct, wrought from historical exclusions and typically made by the powerful. Even though the environmental justice movement has existed for decades and despite ongoing calls for racial justice by Black Lives Matter, Indigenous land movements, and Latinx rights movements, conservation organizations continue to largely comprise of the white middle class and elite. So, in another sense, Seattle Audubon’s move is path-breaking when compared to similar conservation organizations.
As a scholar who researches topics at the intersection of environmentalism and social justice, how important are name changes like this? How can someone on the outside of an organization tell if the name change represents significant programmatic change or whether it is ultimately window dressing?
If the decision to change a name or pull down a statue is followed by substantive changes, such as diversifying the representation and membership of the organization, shifting the culture and intellectual ideas of an organization, or redirecting resources to account for historical injustices, then, yes, I would say that a name change is significant. The example I’m thinking of here is the Rhodes Must Fall movement that started in 2015 in South Africa. This was not just a movement to pull down a statue of 19th century British colonizer, Cecil Rhodes, at the University of Cape Town. The removal of the statue catalyzed a major student movement to confront inequality, the lack of Black professors, and the whiteness of syllabi and curriculums. So, we will have to see whether and how this name change will affect Seattle Audubon’s operations. It’s a birding organization—how inclusive is birding in Seattle? How will the organization change that?
According to a Washington Post article about the name change, conservation organizations—so-called “green groups”—more broadly face issues related to land stolen from Native people and parks and species named after enslavers and racists. What is the responsibility of green groups dedicated to conserving land and natural spaces when it comes to righting historical wrongs?
Green groups have a responsibility to carefully research the origins of their organizations: who their founders were and how they made their money; who was killed, displaced, or criminalized in the creation of nature conservation areas; and how their actions continue to impact particular groups. I think that several “big green” organizations such as the Sierra Club have been doing this for a few years now—recall the major debate last year on the legacy of American naturalist John Muir, who stands tall in the history of Sierra Club. Members disagreed on whether Muir was a racist or not. The more such debates occur, the more that it will call for robust historical research. To me, this research is an important responsibility of green groups.
How old is the movement for environmental justice, and what recent events have catalyzed it?
In my courses on environmental justice at AU, I often start by saying that the official inauguration of the movement occurred with a 1982 protest against the siting of a toxic landfill in an African American community in Warren County, North Carolina. That protest kickstarted a series of empirical studies—most notably by the sociologist, Robert Bullard, titled Dumping in Dixie, landmark reports by church and civil rights organizations, and similar protests around the country by people of color bringing to light the disproportionate environmental harms they were exposed to. So, in the US at least, 1982 is an important year for environmental justice’s “origin story.” But in my courses, I argue that the environmental justice movement has its roots further back, deep in sanitation labor struggles led by Martin Luther King, Jr., in the South, in farmworker struggles led by Cesar Chavez in California in the mid-20th century, and in Indigenous movements to reclaim territory. In other words, the environmental justice movement started with activists recognizing that labor and land rights are vital components of a safe, healthy, and nourishing environment, defined in the broadest way possible as “where we live, work, and play.” So, I teach that the civil rights movement was an important precursor and inspiration for the environmental justice movement.
How does striving for environmental justice help other critical environmental goals like reducing carbon emissions and mitigating the impacts of climate change?
To me, you cannot divorce environmental justice goals from other ecological goals such as reducing emissions or addressing the adverse outcomes of climate change. So, if the goal is to increase the number of safe, affordable housing units with access to clean water and green spaces, then policy makers need to ask themselves: how can we do this in a way that also produces net-zero or reduced carbon emissions? And if the goal is to reduce carbon emissions, then it has to be done in a way that holds the largest polluters—the fossil fuel corporate and political nexus—accountable; that, in effect, would be achieving environmental justice.
In your opinion, broadly speaking, what do green groups need to do to truly forward environmental justice?
In a nutshell, they need to step outside of their comfort zones. “The environment” is something that’s always been easy to externalize for those who are privileged—to imagine it as something “out there” that needs “saving” from “humans.” But this view of the environment is no longer tenable. It hasn’t been for a long time. It’s not just exclusionary, but also misleading. Green organizations need to look internally at how systemic exclusions have been perpetrated by them. They need to make a concerted effort to increase diversity at their upper ranks—I’m talking boards, presidents, etc.—while also having soul-searching conversations about how to shift their institutional cultures. Frankly, this is about green organizations staying relevant: youth climate leaders are already working on reframing the conversation to center environmental justice. Will the oldest, most prominent, and most well-resourced environmental organizations join the movement, or will they be left behind?