By Zaria Howell
The portrait of environmentalism has typically been a white one—composed of many faces, from Aldo Leopold to Rachel Carson to Greta Thunberg.
As a Black girl growing up in rural Pennsylvania, the place that nurtured my love for the environment, I often wondered where that left me. As much as I desperately wanted to engage in the work that protects the planet, I couldn’t ignore how environmental activism often didn’t coincide with matters of racial justice. For instance, through their wilderness explorations, some of the early pioneers of the conservation movement, such as Theodore Roosevelt, supported the displacement and genocide of Native Americans. And only in more recent decades did the environmental movement begin to seriously address the injustices that plague the health of Black people, from the air we breathe to the water we drink and the food we eat.
I saw how traditional environmentalism was failing people of color, so I had to reimagine what environmental activism looks like for me. Over the years, my environmentalism took the shape of a fight against racial capitalism. This is the name for an economic system that was founded on exploiting Black and Brown people for profit through forced labor and it continues its exploitation today, such as in the way polluting industries disproportionately harm our communities.
A 2018 study released by the American Journal of Public Health examined the exposure rates across the country to fine particulate matter, a type of air pollution that can cause or exacerbate lung and heart disease and often comes from the combustion of fossil fuels. The research revealed that compared with the overall population, people of color were exposed to 1.28 times more particulate matter. That exposure rate rose to 1.54 times the national average for Black folks.
Or look at “Cancer Alley” in central Louisiana, where Black communities have the highest number of cancer rates in the state due to their close proximity to numerous industrial plants. The siting of such facilities in or close to Black and low-income neighborhoods is a trend seen across the country. Our governments also fail to protect us. Consider Flint, Michigan, where after the discovery of lead in their drinking water seven years ago, affected residents—the majority of whom are people of color—are still waiting to be able to trust their taps.
Racial capitalism exploits Black bodies in other ways, too. It places fast food chains and liquor stores in Black communities instead of local grocery stores, limiting the ability to put healthy, fresh food on our tables. It urges sustainable businesses to target white consumers, yet use Black and Brown bodies for labor. And all the while, racial capitalism keeps sending a message to people of color to “strive for” or “work towards,” but never acknowledges the myriad of obstacles it throws their way.
So I decided to reject this value system as much as I could. It started in 2015, when I went vegetarian after learning about the environmental and social impacts of the livestock industry. These can be anything from carbon emissions and deforestation to hog farms in North Carolina spraying pig waste on and around the properties of people of color, forcing them to seal their drinking water wells and shut their windows to keep out the contaminants and suffocating stench. A year later I began practicing minimalism as a way of renouncing materialism in an effort to lead a more intentional life, one that acknowledges the impacts my actions have on the world and people around me. And last year, I began living a low-waste lifestyle, giving up plastic in order to reduce my contributions to climate change and to a waste stream that is relentlessly polluting lands, seas, and wildlife, in even the most remote parts of the planet. Suddenly, I felt more connected to the world around me. I looked up and felt I had reclaimed some of my power.
All of these lifestyle shifts are inextricably linked to my desire for liberation for my people, and I have since dedicated my life to this sort of afro-environmentalism. I felt that with each denunciation of the norm, whether that be meat or plastic, was a way of rejecting the racist system that is woven so deeply into the fabric of our country—and a way of getting closer to the true meaning of life, which for me is to enjoy it, fully.
I want to feel the intimate connection my ancestors once had with their lands—before they were forced into bondage and that relationship was strained by exploitation and racism, instead of nourished by love and respect. Through racial capitalism, it was the work of their bodies that fed and clothed this country. Yet even once my ancestors were free, or free-ish, exploitative sharecropping, unjust housing practices, and Jim Crow laws continued to uplift whiteness at their expense and further hinder their enjoyment of nature. Even the environmental movement disregarded their struggles while it worked to protect white bodies and white priorities. So now, I see the act of communing with the environment as a form of resistance against the constraints of racial capitalism. And though systemic hurdles continue to limit Black people’s access to resources, such as time, money, and green spaces, I think slowing down and deepening our connection to the land in the ways we can is almost revolutionary. These activities do not feed into a system that profits off of lack, because where there is nature there is abundance.
So I live mindfully, cherishing the items I already own and being more discerning with the ones I bring into my life. When I make new purchases, I prioritize second-hand items. I eat plant-based foods, shopping at farmer’s markets and supporting small businesses in the process. I eat with gratitude for the Earth that has provided me with fresh food to eat. I live with less, and instead of things, I pursue joy—an emotion of happiness, but also an expression of defiance in the face of oppression.
This has become a source of strength for me when affronted with injustices such as the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others, and the alarming and disproportionate rates at which Black folks are dying of COVID-19. Of course, true liberation can only come with the dismantling of our society’s insidious racial frameworks. But until then, I find freedom in nurturing my connection to the Earth, living slower and more mindfully, and learning to find joy and peace in less. For me, appreciating these seemingly small things makes me feel less like I am merely surviving, and more like I’m alive.