Wednesday, September 25, 2019

where are the environmentalists

I feel dejected.

I recently attended a high school football game. Now, I would rather a root canal than be wedged on metal bleachers between fans with painted faces and noisemakers attending something I care nothing about.

Since I have two high schoolers, I endured the ONE HOUR first quarter and the unnecessary three that followed (67-0 score). The game was way east of my city’s racial and economic dividing line in a new stadium gifted by a professional baller to one of the struggling schools in our district. The mom next to me spoke aloud in footballese, a language foreign to me. 

But that’s not why I’m dejected.

Saturday after the game, there was a much hyped local climate summit where political and environmental notables gathered to discuss how to address climate change. This was around the time of the global climate strike where millions left school and work to march in the streets.

Cued by the football mom next to me, I cheered or groaned. But I was thinking about the two climate events and wondered about the other spectators. Were any of them environmentalists? Were the environmentalists home making posters for rallies? Were they at workshops hand pollinating milkweed? Do environmentalists come to high school football games? Would they drive through McDonald’s or Sonic after because it’ll be 9 pm and there is no time or energy to prepare an organic fair trade seasonal and regional sustainably sourced meal at home?

The environmentalists I know don’t seem to have anything in common with the families here. They speak Environmentalese and inhabit a planet that constellates around Bill Nye, Paul Hawken, Greta Thunberg, Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein. A planet far, far from this zip code.

This is why I am dejected.

Environmentalists of the Global North (EGN) ignore families. The EGN have two strategies: one, pressure elected officials, banks and corporations to divest from fossil fuels and to cultivate infrastructural changes; two, convince individuals of ‘pro-environment’ behavior like recycle, turn off lights or water when not in use. But between the individual and the politicians-banks-corporations, there are families.

As a parent of three children, I am under pressure from school, my kids’ activities and my kids to consume: uniforms, shoes, bags for every sport, activity, hobby; yet more clothes and shoes for every dance, recital, performance; travel for out of town events; sell crap to fund the aforementioned; packaged goods for class parties, teams, events, holidays. These consumerist demands are typical for most families. 

However, I have spent almost a decade working in the environmental field as well as researching and writing about environmental issues so I too speak Environmentalese.  I know the deadly ramifications of a typical American family’s consumption. Since no one speaks Environmentalese in kid-centric arenas, I code switch and follow along. But it is also why I snarl at gymnastics meets and school events.

I am in pain.

When I bring up my struggle with the EGN, I am ignored. Or I am given futile advice and encouragement: shop at thrift stores (check), share what you know with your kids (check) and someday they’ll appreciate you (TBD).

The last time I felt this fractured between reality and expectation was after the birth of my first child. I had no idea what I was doing and felt alone in my postpartum bewilderment. It strikes me that the EGN strategies come from the same patriarchal paradigm that fosters the isolation and abandonment experienced by new mothers. 

Patriarchy only sees and talks to those in power. It makes sense from a strategic point of view to focus on who you recognize as powerful: elected officials, banks and corporations. Historically speaking, families with children, particularly mothers with children, are politically, socially and economically insignificant. And given the racist roots of the EGN, forget about brown or black families, especially those in the zip code of that new football stadium. Since families with children are not power players, we are unseen. This is where the EGN gets it wrong. 

There are close to 40 million families with children under 18 in the US. Why doesn't the EGN directly address us about climate change?


Millions of US families preoccupied with their children’s activities, which often determine household budgets determining what they eat, where they shop, what they buy and drive. Families unwittingly exacerbating climate change, species extinction and habitat degradation because of the material expectations and aspirations of the global north. Families whose money is invested in destructive corporations and banks because of the jobs they need to support themselves.  

The EGN, a movement claiming concern for our children’s future, largely ignores families with children because it is focused instead on 500,000 elected officials and the handful of corporations driving capitalism. You know who’s empowering that handful of corporations more than investors and politicians? 

Millions of families buying their products.

Patriarchy has conditioned us to petition, pressure, cajole leaders to give us what we want, to do right by us. We have been further conditioned to seek heroes to lead and inspire us in our ‘fight’ against those in power. Enter the aforementioned champions of EGN. But historically speaking, those in power are interested in maintaining power and change only when it serves them. Power serves itself.

Another piece of patriarchy: preoccupy the masses with untenable aspirations so we focus on solitary efforts rather than solidarity to dismantle the power structure that created the mess in the first place. Consider the individual choices promoted by EGN. If the average American generates the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions as 583 people in Burundi, reusable bags, recycling, turning off water and lights is patronizing bullshit. We feel empowered and good about ourselves doing these things, but those actions don’t really address our planetary crises. 

I remember my two-year-old ‘helping’ me cook. Besides making a mess (like global northerners offloading recycling to other countries), she’s not actually cooking. But she feels good about herself while I maintain control and do the real work. It seems the EGN have the same infantilizing strategy: give us some pointless shit to do while the real work is happening with the power players elsewhere, far from our kitchens. 

For almost a decade I preached the gospel of the EGN to friends and family. I bought into the myth of individual choice and political action because I too am suffering from patriarchy. If I could just teach everyone Environmentalese, do all the right things, persuade everyone else to do all the right things and we petition in the right way the right people, inspired and led by our heroes, we can save ourselves.

As a new mom, I learned quickly that seeking help, understanding and knowledge from other moms was more useful than seeking support from the dads. We moms provided each other with resources as well as physical, emotional and practical community because we were in the trenches together in a way the dads simply weren’t and didn’t have to be.

The same could be said for the EGN. They simply aren’t in the trenches navigating the constant consumerist expectations experienced by the average American family. They can opt out by their individual actions in a way that, as mom, I simply cannot. Goodness knows, I've spent a decade trying.

When I was at the football game, wondering if any parents in the bleachers were suffering eco-anxiety like I am, I felt angry at the EGN. I am surrounded by mainly black and brown families in one of the poorest zip codes of our city. The EGN know this is the most vulnerable population to climate disruption. Will they be left behind when an unnatural disaster strikes, consistent with what’s happened in other communities of color? Are those who speak Environmentalese in meaningful dialogue with this community?

This is why I’m dejected.


  1. Well said. I also think that there are so many differing opinions on where to focus resources for the most impact, all the good gestures get diluted to the point where there is little impact.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. Good point about where to focus resources. I worry too about seeking solutions without examining their implications.