Do Environmentalists Have A Diversity Problem?

A new report finds that the groups fighting climate change and pollution tend to be staffed by wealthy white people—and focus on the issues that most affect them.

Does the environmental movement have a diversity problem? Inarguably, according to a well-reported article by Darryl Fears, in the Washington Post. Mainstream organizations like the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council have few minorities on staff. And, more seriously, they’ve developed a reputation for caring more about macro-issues, like climate change, than the concerns of poorer groups who "bear a disproportionate burden of the nation’s toxic pollution."

In their demographic make-up, the white-shoe nonprofits are like a political party many members would never vote for:

In fact, [the minorities] say, the level of diversity, both in leadership and staff, of groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Sierra Club and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is more like that of the Republican Party they so often criticize for its positions on the environment than that of the multiethnic Democratic Party they have thrown their support behind.

The diversity deficit has a long history, says Fears. Traditionally, groups like Nature Conservancy, which was founded in 1915, were run by "white, upper- and middle-class, [who] focused on the protection of wilderness areas." Then, as the environmental justice movement emerged in the 1980s, they resisted fighting battles over local parks, and toxic dumps, many of which inevitably got built in poorer areas.

Today, minority communities—black, Latino and Native American—along with low-income white neighborhoods still bear a disproportionate burden of the nation’s toxic pollution. They are in the shadows of petrochemical plants and coal-fired power plants, the nation’s greatest source of stationary pollution, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The upshot is a movement that is less effective than it might be, according to Van Jones, co-founder of Rebuild the Dream, a nonprofit. "Any movement or cause that’s racially exclusive will have less power and less influence," he says. "I think the cause of having a liveable, survivable environment is weakened by the fact that we have these divisions."

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  • Jeff Ramos

    When I read this headline, I thought the entire article was just going to say: Yes.

  • mememine

    All of science agrees; “Climate change is real and is
    happening and could lead to a climate crisis.”

    Help my house could be on fire maybe? How is 27 years of “maybe”
    supposed to be consensus and if “maybe” is good enough to condemn your own
    children to the greenhouse gas ovens of an exaggerated crisis then you don’t
    love the planet you just hate humanity.

    Not one single IPCC warning isn’t swimming in maybes.

    If they can’t say climate change is as real and eventual as comet
    hits are, it only proves their legal exaggeration and real planet lovers
    welcome the good news of a crisis not being a real crisis after all.