This year, more Bates students have become politically conscious and environmentally active than in the last four. The Bates Energy Action Movement (BEAM) sent the most students of any Maine college to the first Maine Students for Climate Justice (MSCJ) rally in Augusta last month. Similarly, over seventy Bates students made the long drive to New York City to attend the People’s Climate March in September.
This high level of students taking environmental action is without precedent in our years at Bates. Many students have realized that they are capable of significant political action, and that the capacity for social change is in their hands. These students have not looked to any higher power for change. Rather, they have gone to the streets to demand it.
The environmental movement at Bates is not alone in its growth. The protests surrounding police brutality on the national level have sparked responses on campus. Last week, we are proud to note, over one hundred Bates students marched all over campus chanting “Black Lives Matter,” “This Is What Democracy Looks Like,” and “No Justice, No Peace. No Racist Police.” We, the members of BEAM, have never before observed a more unified group of students taking collective political action on campus, and we find a certain kind of solace and hope in this solidarity.
We see an obvious connection between the environmental and the Black Lives Matter movements, but so far, we have not been able to effectively portray this connection on campus. At the MSCJ rally in Augusta, the organizers attempted to make this association clear by inviting speakers from the Portland Congress of Racial Equality, which organizes anti-racism actions in Portland and by having the attendees chant “Black Lives Matter” while they marched.
We were concerned to find that some Bates students in attendance were not only ignorant of the connection and surprised by the direction of the rally, but were also explicitly and actively opposed to this direction. Perhaps BEAM did not make clear the intersection between racial and environmental issues before, so, moving forward, we want to make it explicit: it is impossible to separate environmental justice from racial justice—both movements are, in fact, one and the same.
From a philosophical perspective, racial oppression and environmental destruction stem from a similar principle: colonialism. Colonialism and the imperial urge make false distinctions to justify exploitation, separating alike the civilized person from the savage, as well as civilization itself from “the wild.” The same impulse that would drive a “civilized” man to attempt to tame a “savage” man would also encourage civilization itself to attempt to tame nature.
These attempts at taming have nevertheless failed. They have only served to engender the brutal system of racism that has destroyed and is continuing to destroy the lives of black Americans and the brutal system of environmental exploitation that has destroyed and is currently destroying the planet.
When one looks upon another person as subservient and as an object because of their race and exploits them, this is a clear injustice; this is the cause of racist brutality. Similarly, when one looks upon the planet as an object that is totally subservient, waiting to be dominated by the powerful, this is the same form of injustice. Thus, the root cause of racist brutality is also the root cause of environmental degradation.
But the definite connection between environmental injustice and racial inequality is not purely a philosophical matter. Rather, it is a material and concrete problem, manifested in every city in America. It is poor communities, especially of color, that have had to face the brunt of environmental crises. Poor communities are often industrial communities, and because of this, they have faced health issues from pollution.
In Baltimore, a black infant is nine times more likely to die before the age of one than a white infant, according to the Johns Hopkins Health Institute. Similarly, African-Americans in Baltimore have the highest rate of death from cancer than other racial group. The correlation between race and environmental vulnerability is environmental racism: a system that further oppresses racial minorities by polluting and destroying the environment in which they live.
The aforementioned philosophical and material intersection calls for a redefinition of the environment. The environment is not solely the wild parts of nature: the forests, lakes, and mountains. The environment is much more than that; it is, quite simply, everywhere on Earth in which we all live. The streets of Lewiston—especially the dirtiest, most impoverished, and dilapidated —are just as much a part of Maine’s environment as the peaks of the Appalachian trail.
Consequently, we all must realize that all social issues are environmental issues. Poverty is an environmental issue. Income inequality is an environmental issue. Racism and police brutality are also environmental issues. After all, if police brutality makes one afraid to leave his or her very house, to move about freely in his or her own neighborhood, is this not itself an issue of the environment? To only attempt to protect an abstract sense of “nature,” and to ignore the need to protect one’s own neighborhood, is to fail to practice a responsible environmental ethic.
Environmentalism is ultimately and entirely about trying to find a just, peaceful, and sustainable way to live on and with planet Earth as a whole; therefore, to act as if a gritty street is any less part of the planet than the ocean or the forests is to delude oneself. Environmentalism should be about respecting not only the remote, pristine, adored environment – but also the immediate, industrialized, and overlooked environment.
This new understanding of what constitutes the environment shows how the environment becomes a host for societally engrained structures of oppression and control regarding gender, race, and class and how these associations shape power relations and unequal control and access to resources.
In totality, BEAM would like to assert the intersection between environmental and social issues. At this time, when the majority of Bates students are capitalizing on collective power, the potential force of future political action on campus is substantial. Unification of all campus-recognized, socio-political issues would allow for Bates to create a stronger network of aware and engaged students with the potential to enact serious change.
Lastly, BEAM would like to note that while the intersection of the environmental and the Black Lives Matter movements can appear obscure and intimidating at first, recognizing and acting upon the aforementioned connection could be a catalyzing force for successful change.