I really need to change the quote at the top of this blog. I feel less and less like there’s a strict dichotomy between human habitations and everything else. Yes, wilderness is its own thing, and to be valued for what it is, and preserved as best as possible. But I’m feeling increasingly critical of the idea that cities are uniformly bad, that anything humans do or create is unnatural, and that you have to choose sides or else you aren’t a good enough environmentalist.
All these ideas of moving out to the country, living sustainably, or just spending more time hiking, camping, etc.–all these have something in common. They all assume that a person has the means to spend quality time outdoors. And that smacks of a great deal of social and financial privilege.
For one thing, it assumes that you have enough money to be able to drive out to the wilderness if you don’t already live there. It assumes you can buy or rent a car, and also have the necessary equipment to hike, camp, etc. once you’re out there.
It also assumes that you have the time to be able to do this. If you’re working two or three jobs and spending eighty hours a week working, you probably don’t have much leisure time to put toward outdoor activities.
And it assumes that you’ve learned that the outdoors is a good place to be, that you’ve had enough exposure for it to grow on you. Believe it or not, not everyone shares these social values. “So what about urban parks? We’re trying to get more of those for people who can’t get to the woods!” Well, yes, this is a good concept. However, parks are not uniformly safe places. Many urban parks are not outdoor refuges for nature lovers, but instead are settings for drug deals and other criminal activity.
If we are going to make the environment and sustainability relevant to more than just primarily white, middle class, educated people with enough spare money to live in safe neighborhoods and buy kayaks, then we need to look outside of that bubble.
We need to understand that for many people cities are their home, and this is not a bad thing–the cities may need restructuring on numerous levels to make them safer for the people who live there (and I don’t mean the process of urban gentrification). This needs to happen at the very least in conjunction with, if not before, greening and sustainability activities can occur. If your biggest concern is paying the bills and not getting shot, robbed or assaulted, then being introduced to Window Farms may not be very effective.
And we need to look at the social biases associated with “cities bad, countryside good”. There is a core of racism and classism in there. Who lives in the worst part of cities? A lot of poor people, a large portion of whom are minorities. Not that less populous areas don’t have poverty, but it’s primarily white people with money who move to the suburbs or the country to “give the kids a safer place to grow up”. What if you can’t escape that? Are you less deserving of a safe place to live?
Additionally, as pointed out in this essay that I love, the acts of urban sustainability that are promoted as the cure for environmental ills not only again assume one has the resources to enact them, but also removes responsibility from massive corporations that promote the very same environmentally and socially unsound conditions that keep the impoverished poor. “Oh, look what I can do!” you can say proudly, all the while ignoring that there are systemic issues that don’t get as much press because they don’t feature white people with easy solutions.
So where does this leave us. Well, we don’t need to give up our camping and hiking and outdoor activities, but we need to find more ways to make environmentalism relevant outside of its “classic” context. This isn’t just supporting environmental groups and activities that focus on specific demographics of race, ethnicity, culture, etc. though these are good things.
It also means making environmentalism relevant to people who would probably not think of themselves as environmentalists per se. I don’t mean in the sense of saying “Hey! You should totally think this is important!” so much as looking at things like environmental justice. It’s looking at related issues like how people buy cheap material goods made in China from Wal-Mart because it’s what they can afford (or Wal-Mart is the only store in the area) and the manufacturing jobs are all overseas. If people can’t afford to spend greener because they don’t have money or access, then that makes jobs a green issue that can’t be solved with a compost bin.
Making it all about going into the wilderness means leaving behind the problems of the city–and abandoning the people still in it.