The Sierra Club did something very difficult: it admitted it had a problem. The long-standing conservation organization released a statement acknowledging the prejudices of its founder and environmental icon, John Muir, along with its problematic beginnings and harmful impacts to Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color.
In the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the ensuing protests, there has been reenergized conversation around reckoning with the past in order to create a better future. The Sierra Club’s honest acknowledgment of its origins and its commitment to transparent improvement should be a model for how institutions can recognize their past without invalidating the positive work they have done. A problem can only be fixed once it is acknowledged and deemed worthy of action. Our country should take note.
The Sierra Club is one of the nation’s largest and most influential environmental organizations. Since its founding in 1892, the club has worked to preserve and create new public parks, lobbied for the adoption of renewable energy and the protection of clean water, campaigned against the use of coal, and promoted youth environmental education. It’s co-founder and first president, John Muir, inspired many with his writings and assisted in creating the movement that would become the National Park System, earning him the moniker “Father of the National Parks.”
Despite his achievements, the organization recently issued a public apology for Muir’s harmful writings and beliefs. It noted his derogatory comments and characterizations of Black and Indigenous people that played on racist stereotypes, saying, “As the most iconic figure in Sierra Club history, Muir’s words and actions carry an especially heavy weight. They continue to hurt and alienate Indigenous people and people of color.”
The Sierra Club screened out potential members based on race, limiting the historical environmental engagement of people of color. Beyond the club’s membership, Muir’s views and statements were emblematic of many of the early conservation movement’s problems. The very lands that were being protected had been taken by white settlers who drove out its indigenous populations. Muir’s ideal state of conservation seemed to be “the lone white man at one with nature.” This exclusionary view has had lasting effects, including a disproportionately low number of people of color visiting national parks, with 25% of Black and Hispanic people seeing national parks as unsafe.
— Afro Chingona-Excessively Black (@RealKHiveQueenB) July 22, 2020
A founding father who inspired a movement spanning generations but begun on land only considered “free” once its indigenous populations were driven out. An icon whose prejudices ran counter to his overarching positive message, creating a vision he and his generation couldn’t, and frankly didn’t desire to, uphold. A monumental figure who moved the world in a positive direction, while not only excluding but damaging communities of color, creating systemic and generational harm. Sounds familiar.
With its statement, the Sierra Club has already taken a larger step than many in the United States. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that while 59% of Americans believe Black people face discrimination, only 44% believe that it is systemic and perpetuated by policy and institutions – throwing the burden of racism from our largest institution, our country, to a few “bad apples.”
While there is a bit of optimism in this poll that shows 51% supporting the removal of confederate statues, an ABC/Washington Post poll finds that such support was not able to gain the majority. Their polling showed that only 43% of Americans supported removing statues honoring Confederate generals and 42% supported renaming military bases named after Confederate generals. Whichever poll one chooses to believe, the message is still that barely or less than half of Americans believe we should remove statues and names of the military leaders who fought to preserve the ownership and selling of humans.
Admitting a problem is the first step to recovery. It is not saying that we are rotten to the core, have never done good, or are irredeemable, but it is acknowledging that we have done damage to ourselves and to those to whom we have a responsibility. Sometimes it takes an intervention, but it can go no further without self-acceptance. If we are to celebrate the glory of our beginnings, we must also recognize our horrors, and those horrors’ lasting effects. The Sierra Club has begun the work – we should too.
What is environmental justice? Dr. Robert Bullard, often called the father of the environmental justice movement, in an interview with the Union of Concerned Scientists described it as environmental justice centers on fairness, equity, and particularly racial justice. For decades, the movement has worked to make sure that all communities—especially communities of color and low-income communities—are given equal protection. We have environmental laws on the books in the United States, but they’re often not applied and enforced equally.
It isn’t difficult to believe that the poorest get the worst – that the most vulnerable populations are exploited. But it is not as easy to identify ways that social workers can advance environmental justice and I have been asked several times how specifically social work can play a role in the environmental movement. This article attempts to clarify social work roles in addressing environmental injustice.
In 2011, I published a piece on Environmentalism & Social Work and the importance of social work adopting environmental priorities has only become clearer since that time. Many students have expressed an interest infusing environmental concerns into their work. Instead of viewing a person in the environment, they find it equally important to view the environment in the person. Environmental social work sometimes referred to as ecosocial work is different from ‘regular’ social work in that it takes an ‘ecocentric’ instead of a people-centric view. The ecosystem is at the core of practice rather than the person.
The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare proposed 12 Grand Challenges for our profession. All of these challenges will become worse if we don’t give priority to this one: “Create social responses to a changing environment”
The Academy goes on to illuminate this challenge: The environmentalchallenges reshaping contemporary societies pose profound risks to human well-being, particularly for marginalized communities. Climate change and urbandevelopment threaten health, undermine coping, and deepen existing social and environmental inequities. A changing global environment requires transformative social responses: new partnerships, deep engagement with local communities, and innovations to strengthen individual and collective assets.
Historically, the profession of Social Work has been slow to embrace remediating environmental injustice as in the scope of our practice. Fortunately, there has been a burgeoning social work literature on the subject. A 2017 content analysis of the literature published in the British Journal of Social Work identified three themes for social workers to explore in ecosocial work:
Creatively apply existing skills to environmental concepts and openness to different values and ways of being or doing
Shift practice, theory and values to incorporate the natural environment: This shift implies a move to ecocentrism with the core value being that all beings have equal access to safe and clean environments. This aspect suggests using social work skills such as empowerment, team-building, community development, management, anti-oppressive practice, holistic interventions, and advocacy to address and mitigate environmental destruction. As first responders, social workers often respond to the community aftermath of natural disasters, but ecosocial work calls for us to be more proactive and preventative in our actions to prevent environmental deterioration and disaster.
Learn from spirituality and indigenous cultures: Appreciating cultural diversity is a given principle in social work practice and in ecocentric social work valuing and using the wisdom of native and tribal cultures is prioritized. Acknowledging the interconnectedness of all life is paramount. How can people live in harmony with the environment? How can social workers ensure sustainable environments for the physical and emotional well-being of inhabitants? Concepts of transpersonal theory would be helpful in individual and group interventions.
Incorporate the natural environment in social work education: The increasing literature suggests that social workers have a base from which to study the subject. Some schools of social work have adopted concentrations in community sustainability and environmental justice.
Appreciate the instrumental and innate value of non-human life: The concept of biosphere and biofilia are emphasized in ecosocial work. Looking to the natural environment for restorative and transcendent experiences are emphasized. The premise of adventure-based programs and animal-assisted therapy are certainly reflective of this concept.
Adopt a renewed stance to a change orientation
Change society: Social workers are charged with being “change agents” yet the change required to ensure environmental safety is too often neglected. Valuing environmental and ecological justice should be the driver for change. Advocacy and legislative initiatives that aim for ameliorating environmental injustice are necessary. For example, supporting fair districting and elimination of gerrymandering enables marginalized populations to have a vote that counts.
Critique hegemony: Challenging the social construction of dominance by a particular class calls for radical thinking and action. Anti-oppressive practice demands we examine the political architecture that maintains power and control over people and environment instead of protecting people and environment. In the previous administration, the EPA asked for social work input on pending regulations. The current administration calls for less regulation and elimination of the agency that is charged with protecting the environment. Challenging the political structure to further progressive environmental causes is necessary. The foundational core of the Green Party, popular in Europe, and increasingly so in the US, is environmental justice.
Work across boundaries and in multiples spaces
Expanding our usual scope of practice to educate, mobilize, and support community activism is at the core of this theme. Developing partnerships and coalitions demonstrates work across boundaries. Coalitions with public health organizations address toxic environments. Dual degrees such as the MSW/MPH exemplify such a coalition. The American Public Health Association has earmarked 2017 the Year of Climate Change and Health. Workshops have been hosted monthly to illustrate how public health professionals can help build resilience for the traumas and toxic stresses of climate change.
Social Work needs to have a presence at such workshops and establish similar priorities. An example occurred when members of the International Federation of Social Workers organized a workshop at the UN Headquarters in New York. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the Agenda 2030 of the United Nations. This workshop aimed to highlight social work’s role for reaching the Sustainable Development Goals on the local, subnational, national and international level.
Work with communities: This type of work is our profession’s biggest opportunity in the ecosocial work movement. Think Flint, Michigan where social workers were involved in going door to door, helping to mobilize groups to demand safe water. Social workers can identify food deserts and participate in, or organize food co-operatives, community supported agriculture and community gardens. The plight of migrant workers remains dire, particularly if undocumented. Studies have shown a significantly shorter lifespan among migrant workers due to pesticide exposure.
Family intervention, support groups, managing an environmental non-profit, providing education at the agency and community level are all ways in which social workers can use their skills. Rural communities affected by fracking or mountain-topping and the resultant loss of jobs, land, and health consequences beg for social work intervention. With the recent hurricanes and evacuation orders came reports of immigrants identified with DACA who resisted going to shelters for fear of being deported. Social work advocacy was needed to provide safety for such vulnerable populations.
Work with individuals: Most social workers provide service at this level. Borrowing from the afore-mentioned suggestions, micro interventions need to assess the environment in the person. How does the environment influence the presenting problem? Are there developmental residuals, is access to healthy nutrition an issue? What environmental barriers exist? Is there a healthcare inequity? Does the natural environment provide an opportunity for restorative or spiritual or transcendent experiences? Does it hinder or enhance our quality of life?
Identify the contextual environmental influences that your client may be experiencing. We are all aware of barriers to access, like lack of transportation that clients experience. But do we assess the pollution-laden community in which the client lives?
Of the three levels of social work intervention, micro, mezzo, and macro, several ways in which social workers can make an impact on environmental injustice have been identified. It is imperative that social workers meet the grand challenge to create a social response to a changing environment. As global citizens, we have no choice.
Going vegetarian or vegan can be a daunting task, but there’s no reason to jump in head first! Meatless Mondays (or Wednesdays or Saturdays) can change the world, and its great for the environment, your health, and the animals!
You might be surprised by how much water it takes for the food to get to your plate. The food we eat makes up about 80% of America’s total water footprint. Virtual water is what makes up this water footprint. Virtual water is the amount of water that is embedded in products needed for its production, so this includes the water used in cleaning and transporting for example. Pound for pound, meat has a higher water footprint than vegetables, grains or beans. For instance, a single pound of beef takes, on average, 1,847 gallons of water. It adds up around the world to a range of 7-305 pounds per person per year.
Assuming everyone eats equal amounts of meat each day, adding Meatless Monday will bring that number down to 6-262 pounds per person per year (divide by 7 and then multiply by 6) and that’s a big difference! Beyond water footprint, let’s talk about carbon footprint! Beef produces 13 times the emissions of vegetable protein (beans, lentils, tofu, etc.) Once again that’s a big difference! This is very simplified and does not consider all the pollution that comes from animal agriculture!
Pant-based meals, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, legumes and nuts, is rich in fiber, vitamins and other nutrients. A National Cancer Institute study of 500,000 people found that those who ate the most red meat daily were 30 percent more likely to die of any cause during a 10-year period than were those who ate the least amount of red meat. Other processed meats also increased the risk plenty, but the people who ate the least meat were least likely to die in the 10-year period.
Vegans and vegetarians do get enough protein no matter what the stereotypes say. Make sure you eat enough calories and you are sure to get enough protein. If you eat the same amount of vegetables as you would meat, that’s not going to work! Most meat-free food is less calorie dense than meat so keep that in mind. Don’t forget variety and you shouldn’t have a problem with protein, iron, vitamins, or anything else you might be worried about!
This is the reason most people suspect when you say you’re eating less meat or going vegetarian. After all, modern agriculture commonly keeps animals in overcrowded stalls, cages, crates, or sheds where they are often unable to turn around or take even a single step in their entire lives. Deprived of care, exercise, sunlight, and grass, the animals suffer tremendously before even coming to the slaughterhouse. It is important to remember that the animals are living, breathing, thinking, and feeling beings. The meat industry kills more than 25 billion animals each year.
In modern factory farms, animals are routinely injected with hormones and stimulants to make them grow bigger and faster. Some of these injections have been proven to cause cancer and other diseases. Feedlots are crowded, filthy, stinking places with open sewers and choking air. The animals would not survive in the filthy and crowded conditions without the unnatural amount of antibiotics used. At some farms, cattle are fed dead ground up cows.
Add some meatless meals to your diet! And you don’t have to do it on a Monday, but Meatless Wednesdays just doesn’t sound as good. Do what works best for you!
Sometimes it is hard to continuously find motivation to reach your goals to conserve nature and work to help the environment. Second thoughts may come up such as…Is it really worth carrying around all these reusable bags? or Can’t I just buy a plastic water bottle when I get to the gym? and even A Big-Mac sounds good right about now!
Although everyone’s second thoughts are different, we all have them. And even if you haven’t asked yourself similar questions, I’m sure someone else has.
What can you do about this?
When you are hearing these thoughts, it is hard to snap out of it. The only sure way to get back to where you want (and need) to be is to venture into nature! Petting a few animals may remind you why you choose a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. Swimming in a lake and seeing all the fish and animals could also remind you why you don’t use plastic. Those animals don’t deserve to eat the plastic or have it stuck around their necks! Seeing beautiful trees and greenery is a reminder that you don’t want to cause any harm to our dear Earth!
5 ways to incorporate nature into your everyday life
1. Open the windows
Whether you’re cooking dinner or slaving over your computer at work, fresh sunlight from open blinds or fresh air from an open window can do wonders!
2. Have a plant
Taking care of a plant is a great way to see nature every day. You are actively caring for it, which creates a lot of motivation! To keep the plant alive and healthy, a routine must be established which leads to it being an everyday part of your life.
3. Add a pet to your family
It does not matter if you decide on the typical dog or take the easier way and get a fish or spring for a horse, each will provide you with a source of joy. Even more so than a plant, animals provide a routine and a sense of responsibility to animals and plants of the Earth.
4. Go for a walk
Some of the best ideas are thought of during a walk! Why is that? I think getting fresh air and your endorphins flowing keeps the human body and mind working the way it should.
5. Eat plants
It has been proven that a plant-based diet is best for the environment. It can also help with your health and therefore your mind as well. Jumping head first into a plant-based diet can be daunting, which is why it is recommended to start with Meatless Mondays.
No matter how you personally choose to do it, I ask you to meditate on the beauty of our Earth and how you treat our home and all those who inhabit it.
Danielle King’s deep concern for the well-being of others was nurtured back in elementary school as she cared for a blind and deaf classmate and was more clearly defined later when she came out as gay in middle school.
“It wasn’t cool to be gay,” she says. “My peers called me names and made me feel uncomfortable. I didn’t understand why someone would want to hurt me.”
The challenges she faced in her youth made King stronger and motivated her to become an advocate for others.
Today, King, a former U.S. Marine, is nearing completion of a master’s degree at Rutgers School of Public Health and also making plans to help homeless LGBTQA teens and young adults.
She volunteers as assistant chair of community outreach for Disability Allies, an East Brunswick nonprofit that pairs young adults with disabilities with mentors. King’s advocacy for challenged individuals traces back to an elementary school program that paired handicapped students with non-disabled classmates during lunch.
It became a life-changing moment when she discovered that the girl next door was both blind and deaf and could use a friend. “I started taking her to the park after school and realized that disabled people needed involvement and interaction,” she says. She sought opportunities to work with the disabled community, such as teaching children with disabilities to swim.
At 18, she enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps for three years, including a one-year deployment to Afghanistan as an intelligence analyst. “Serving as a Marine made me more confident,” she says. “I realized I could overcome any obstacle.”
When she entered the military, she formed a group of LGBTQ women and men near her base in North Carolina. “This was during the time of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ which really put me in the closet,” she says. “I found many people had similar stories about coming out to their families at a young age. That’s when it hit me that we needed a voice.”
Her service completed, she enrolled in Middlesex Community College, where she learned about careers in public health. “I started taking classes and thought, ‘Oh, this is exactly what I want to do: Get into the grassroots of the issues that plague our community,” she recalls.
In 2014, she transferred to Rutgers to finish her degree in public health and became a health activist. Volunteering with the Health Outreach, Promotion and Education (H.O.P.E.) peer education program, she taught fellow students about substance abuse and encouraged them to pledge to be designated drivers. She continues her work in improving community health by working as a HIV counselor and tester at Hyacinth AIDS Foundation.
A 2016 internship at the Monmouth County Regional Health Commission assisting the registered environmental health specialist solidified King’s interest in another form of helping others – environmental advocacy. She thrived on helping to inspect landfills and ensuring residences were up to code. “I was hooked,” she says. “I realized the importance of regulation in taking care of the earth and personal health.”
She accompanied her supervisor to the New Jersey State House and testified on behalf of a proposed bill to raise the legal smoking age to 21. “I had worked with the health specialist on progressing the bill,” she says. “One of the legislators in opposition kept asserting that young people in the military should be able to smoke if they wanted to, so I offered to testify as a veteran who supported the bill. Even though it was vetoed, I still feel passionately that the smoking age should be raised.”
Her sights are now set on joining the CDC in Atlanta, where she hopes to establish a nonprofit joint venture with her wife, Jahari Shears, fulfilling a dream to support the LGBTQA community. Shears shares King’s excitement for improving communities; she will graduate with her bachelor’s of science degree in public health from Rutgers in May.
“We want to be the adults teenagers can look up to if they don’t have that support at home. We want to provide a place for them to go and assist them with enrolling in college or finding employment,” she says. “I want to share with them what I learned as a Marine: When you feel like you’re hitting a block, say ‘I’ve got this.’ It’ll give them the energy to keep pushing.”