If we are to ground this blog in a specific understanding of environmentalism, one that is in constant flux but holds to certain values, we might as well begin at the beginning. What are we talking about when we say “environmentalism,” “environmental justice,” and the “environmental movement?” This blog post doesn’t answer these questions, that’s for this community, but it does position us with an understanding of today’s environmentalist landscape to continue the conversation.
I think many people would say that the environmental movement in the United States was started by Richard Nixon in the 1970s. And it’s true, he created the EPA and passed the Clean Water and Air Acts. Because he was a Republican, he made “saving the Earth” his left-leaning initiative that would please both sides of the aisle. (But Earth doesn’t need #whitesaviorism.) So it is fair to say that Nixon was a key player in the beginning of the environmental political movement in the United States.
But environmentalism was not birthed by Nixon or neighborhood cleanups in the suburbs. Doing things to support the Earth and its environments did not begin with a political campaign in the 20th century.
Urban gardening as a community tool for survival has existed in this country since Black families escaped southern terrorism by fleeing north to cities and creating intricate dependent networks of food growing and sharing.
Subsistence living and symbiotic ways of engaging with the land have been practiced by indigenous people on this land since before settler-colonialism and the invention of the nation-state here.
Taking the bus, reusing items, and having little tech are all sustainable practices that poor people have done out of necessity since always.
People today want to talk climate change. Which is good, we should. It is an issue that is going to actively affect us all in the next 5-20 years in ways we can’t even totally anticipate. But when we have these conversations, we must recognize that ‘first-world’ country white middle-class and up inhabitants are buffered from the effects of climate change. While it surely will affect us all in the near future, climate change is actively affecting indigenous people, residents of the global south, and poor communities right now. With no buffer zone, these people face the brunt of the current environmental burden.
These are the same people who live the most sustainably. Poor people have significantly lower carbon footprints that others. And this makes since—when you take public transportation, don’t travel widely, own few things, shop secondhand, reuse plastic bags and everything else your grandmother’s savvy taught you, you are working significantly to save the Earth. But rarely do those people and those acts go recognized.
This is why I think top-down only solutions to climate change are doomed. But let me take a step back and define the environmental schools of “Top-Down” and “Bottom Up” and their divides.
Top-Down environmental solutions utilize technology and wide-scale legislative, commercial, and cultural shifts to decrease consumption, carbon emissions, and climate change effects. Things like carbon taxation, regulatory laws, and Carbon Neutral City campaigns are examples of top-down environmental strategy. One thing that often crops up with top-down thinking is that it is up to “first-world” countries to decide and spread protocol change to the rest of the world. Things like the Paris Accords are top-down global strategy to combat climate change.
The belief that it is up to the United States and Europe to create and implement the global solution is flawed because these are the same countries who disproportionately cause the effects of climate change. Furthermore, they are largely responsible for emissions created by other parts of the world. For instance, China, because of its rapid industrialization has some serious carbon emissions—we’ve all seen the photos of the smog—and is ‘running behind’ in greenification. But the industrial demands placed on China are due to demands from the United States and European consumers’ and created largely by foreign companies who manufacture there for cheaper and more exploited labor.
Top down thinkers want to keep their cake and eat it too. We can’t save the earth and continue to live the way we do. Uncomfortable sacrifices, especially on the wealthy’s way of life, is a brutal reality. There’s just no if, ands, or buts about it. If the entire world consumed at the rate of the average middle class American family, we would need four Earths to have enough resources to support consumption. But we only have one Earth. So why are we pushing for third world countries to develop and be like us? It’s simply not sustainable. Technology is not going to save us. The cost of producing that tech in and of itself is a drain of resources. We cannot rely on the policymakers and corporate entities who got us into this mess to get us out of this mess.
Which is not to say that things like the Paris Accords are bad. They’re not, they are strong goals and they make an important statement. However, we cannot reduce the import of bottom-up environmental change as well.
Bottom-up environmental efforts are those that operate from grassroots-level actions to effect change. They’re the actions we take as individuals and communities to build the Earth we want to live on that everyone can enjoy.
Things like Boston’s Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative are examples of impactful grassroots environmental change. The continued practice of interconnecting community gardens that create food sovereignty, foster knowledge sharing, and build competent independent communities who could feasible survive an environmental disaster.
Land reclamation, both of indigenous territory and, in places like Detroit, of formerly corporate land, both redistributes resources and allows intimate person-nature connections. Giving land to those who are closest to it fosters a way of interacting with the land that ensures the mutual gain of both the land and its inhabitants. This idea can be summed up as the “you wouldn’t pollute your own backyard” concept.
Not accumulating trash, rallying your farmers’ markets to accept EBT (and then making the market actually inviting to low-income people), transitioning into smaller housing, valuing keeping your phones and computers for more than five years—these are also examples of bottom-up environmental efforts. These actions may be less flashy than the Accords, they take hard work, sacrifice, and collaborative effort, but they will have just as strong an impact.
A bottom-up framework is inclusive, brings marginal experience to center, and prioritizes the voices and goals of those most affected by problems in creating solutions. Whereas top-down thinkers are often critiqued for being disconnected, bottom-up thinkers are engaged and working from the heart of issues. Bottom-up environmentalism must work alongside anti-racist, pro-indigenous sovereignty, class-confronting, gender equality movements in order to be effective. But unfortunately, we have a ways to go before this intersectional bottoms-up environmentalism is the norm.
Nixon-era mainstream environmentalism prioritized cleaning up the water and air in middle class neighborhoods, praising the creation of the Clean Water + Air Acts, while ignoring environmental issues that were harming society’s most vulnerable. Environmentalism today cannot continue to overlook the issues affecting the least protected communities. Again, these are the communities made of the very people leaving the smallest carbon footprint and are least responsible for our present state. Top-down theorists and policymakers need to confront the reality that the onus is on us—we have made the greatest mistakes and instead of dictating to “third-world countries” or urban communities what they need to be doing, we need to be prioritizing altering our own consumption patterns and modes of operating. You can’t demand someone wash their hands when there’s dirt on your own. We—and I say we as a class-ascending white person—need to be buying less, living close to where we work while actively resisting gentrification, growing our own food, repurposing things—doing a lot of things that poor/migrant/disabled+ marginalized to the point of squeezing folks already do. And we need to be listening to the solutions of those who already live sustainably. The knowledge already exists. It’s been silenced through oppression, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism, but those who know it are the experts. And we need to be paying attention to what these most affected folks are saying. Until then, efforts against climate change will not be equitable and therefore not actually useful in ‘saving’ the world.