To become a more inclusive movement, environmentalists are re-examining the past. Today on Outside/In, we’re talking about how history is and isn’t remembered, and we’re looking back at a problematic topic that, in environmental circles, used to loom larger than stopping nukes and saving whales: over-population.
But when people talk about over-population … what are they really talking about?
It’s Not Just John Muir
By Sam Evans-Brown
The Sierra Club’s founding father, John Muir, is remembered in documentaries and history books as a visionary environmentalist. Now - after years of suppression and excuses - he’s also being remembered as a bigot.
In a July blog post titled “Pulling Down Our Monuments,” The Sierra Club’s Executive Director Michael Brune outlined the racism displayed by John Muir and other influential early environmentalists.
“The whiteness and privilege of our early membership fed into a very dangerous idea -- one that’s still circulating today. It’s the idea that exploring, enjoying, and protecting the outdoors can be separated from human affairs.”
This recognition has been a long time coming, and many pleas to acknowledge this history prior to now have been ignored. Dorceta Taylor, author and environmental sociologist at the Yale School for the Environment, has studied John Muir’s prolific diaries at length.
"[John Muir] looked at a Black family and described them as ugly, and said they couldn’t be of the same human species as he. What part of that is not racist?" she asks.
Taylor says she brought up John Muir’s racist writings at an environmental conference in the late '90s.
“I was literally verbally attacked by somebody saying ‘why would you want to desecrate the name of this environmental hero?’”
Taylor says she was the only non-white person in a room of several hundred. About 15 years later, things were only marginally better. Taylor’s 2014 report for Green 2.0, called “Diversity in Environmental Institutions,” revealed that 88 percent of staff (and 95% of boards) at participating environmental NGOs were white.
Taylor has collected new data that shows some improvements in hiring and diversity tracking, but says many small, rural environmental organizations still do not see the value in promoting diversity.
“Environmentalists who don’t see Black people, Latinx, Asians, Native Americans, and their plight as a part of what they do in the environment … they are simply replicating those behaviors of divorcing the environment from the plight of humanity.”
So Over Population (Part One)
By Sam Evans-Brown
Overpopulation was one of the biggest environmental issues of the 60s and 70s, arguably bigger than saving the whales, planting trees, and acid rain. But then, it seemed to disappear from the conversation.
That is until the release of the movie Avengers: Infinity War, where ultimate-bad-guy Thanos is motivated by one concern: overpopulation.
This is the first of a two-part episode on the problematic past behind rhetoric and action regarding “overpopulation.”
Featuring Heidi Beirich, Derek Hoff, Frances Kissling, Dorceta Taylor, and Arthur Erken.