How The Big Greens Contain & Dissolve Resistance
by kat yang-stevens
We are living in an age of unparalleled destruction. The prevailing colonialist capitalist order is forcing humanity to a state of near-total estrangement from the natural world. The earth can no longer sustain the parasitic extractive industry, which is fueled by the unending growth that capitalism demands. As we surpass the apex of the age of fossil fuels, the global elite is desperate to maintain power and control in the face of inevitable, rapidly-approaching economic collapse. They will continue to attempt to maintain the current conditions they have created, in which the incessant pursuit of the luxuries of modernity has reduced the earth and Indigenous peoples worldwide to being viewed as commodities that exist simply to provide “resources” for civil society. They will continue to deploy one of their biggest tools to quell dissent to these conditions: big “green” non-governmental organizations [NGOs].
Within the colonial borders of the US, more and more communities are feeling the direct effects of environmentally degrading industrial facilities and extractive industries. In a blatant act of cultural genocide, the city of Flagstaff, AZ recently committed 3.6 billion gallons of treated sewage water for snowmaking at the Snowbowl ski resort that sits on a mountain sacred to over 13 indigenous nations, including the Dine’ (Navajo), Hopi, Zuni, Haulapai, Havasupai, Yavapai-Apache, Yavapai-Prescott, Tonto Apache, White Mountain Apache, San Carlos, Apache, San Juan Southern Paiute, Fort Mcdowell Mohave Apache, Acoma and Tohono o’odham. Klee Benally, a Dine’ volunteer with Protect The Peaks, says the project is “incredibly offensive, unsustainable and ultimately irresponsible considering the escalating water crisis we’re facing in the Southwest.” In Chester, PA, five large waste facilities, including a Convanta incinerator – the largest in the country, processing over 3,500 tons of trash a day – have led to an asthma crisis in the majority black community. 5.6 million tons of New York City waste has already been burned in Chester, and according to the Chester Environmental Justice Facebook page, on August 13, 2014 the Chester city council approved a plan that will bring 30 years worth of trash from NYC by rail to Chester.
Frontline community organizers like Yudith Nieto with the group Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S.), based in the East End of Houston, TX, have described the conditions of their mostly Latina and Xicana communities as a “living example of environmental racism.” There are hundreds of thousands of people who are living fenceline to industry and being poisoned mercilessly with little to no intervention from the Environmental Protection Agency. People there are engaged in a battle against tar sands, as their communities sit at one of the terminus points of TransCanada’s Keystone XL Pipeline – the other terminus point is in the predominantly African-American community of Port Arthur, TX. Just over the artificially imposed border between the US and Canada lies the Aamjiwnaang First Nation Reservation, which borders the city of Sarnia in Ontario – this area is also known as “Chemical Valley”. According to a 2011 World Health Organization study, the area is plagued with the most polluted air in settler colonial “Canada”. Communities there have been waging opposition to tar sands as the Enbridge corporation prepares to finish a project that will allow Line 9 to transport tar sands. Both communities are surrounded by smokestacks and being forced to breathe the poisonous byproducts of refineries and petrochemical plants, many of them owned by corporations heavily invested in the exploitation of tar sands and fracked gas as well as the construction of new pipelines to transport the toxic products. Both communities are engaged in grassroots community-led organizing and resistance to the presence of these industries. (For more on indigenous resistance to tar sands, see the short film “Kahsatstenhsera” produced by Amanda Lickers of Reclaim Turtle Island.)
WHAT IS ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM?
Vital to building a more complete framework for understanding environmental racism within the context of the United States and Canada is to not simply acknowledge but to incorporate into our basic conceptions of the world that every single bit of land, of “the environment,” that the US and Canada occupy has been stolen from indigenous peoples through ongoing processes and structures of colonization. “We’ve always been here. Nobody can argue that we weren’t here first.” said Amy Juan, an activist and poet and member of the Tohono O’odham Nation in a May 2014 interview with Al Jazeera. The Tohono O’odham are one of several nations whose territories and communities have been devastated by the imposition of colonial borders and their subsequent militarization. Their territories were literally divided by an arbitrary line created through the “Gadsden Purchase” in 1854. This forcefully annexed part of the Tohono O’odham Nation into the US side of the border in so-called Arizona, encompassing the cities of Tucson and Phoenix, and separated the other part of Tohono O’odham territories to “belong” to so-called Mexico.
So what is meant when we refer to “the environment”? The environment IS the indigenous lands we live, work, eat and play on. This is a different understanding than the mainstream environmental movement’s romanticized conception of “the environment” – which is inherently classist, elitist, and racist – that construes “the environment” as equivalent to the “nature” and “wilderness” that conservationist/preservationists are always trying to “save”. Think Sierra Club, which, incidentally, has a deep history in white nationalism. (For more on this concept see: “Asian American Environmental Activism” by Julie Sze.)
Environmental racism encompasses public and human health concerns for indigenous communities and communities of color such as border militarization, conditions for undocumented migrant farmworkers, public housing, factory conditions and immigration reform. (See “Comprehensive Immigration Reform is Anti-Immigrant and Anti-Indigenous” by Mari Garza and Franco Habre.) Therefore, I argue that the state (and public) sanctioned shootings and murders of black people – part of the legacy of chattel slavery and ongoing genocide of black people – by police and vigilantes are also a part of environmental racism. The 2012 annual report “Operation Ghetto Storm” conducted by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement calculated that every 28 hours in 2012 someone employed or protected by the US government killed a Black man, woman or child. This omnipresent threat to black communities – whether while shopping (like John Crawford), walking to their grandmother’s house (like Mike Brown), hanging out at the park (like Rekia Boyd), or even seeking help after a car accident (like Jonathan Ferrell or Renisha McBride), and surely we can’t forget the many black transgendered women (like Islan Nettles or Kandy Hall) who are murdered merely for existing – is environmental racism. Systemic anti-black racism and the devaluation of black life as well as the epidemic rates of indigenous women who are going missing and being murdered – part of ongoing genocide and colonization – must be considered in order to develop a holistic and realistic understanding of what constitutes “the environment”.
Environmental racism includes the intentional and systematic targeting of communities of color and indigenous communities & Nations with regard to the placing of industry that poses environmental/health hazards and the ongoing failure to enforce environmental regulations. For businesses that threaten public and environmental health, it is easier to operate near these communities that are often low-income and disenfranchised, with less political, social, and economic power to stop these “projects”. Environmental racism is yet another expression of systemic racism and the ongoing legacies of colonialism, genocide and slavery, and though it is less spoken about (and often conveniently ignored) by mainstream environmentalists, it is not a new phenomenon or concept. According to a report, “Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty 1987—2007”, co-authored by Dr. Robert Bullard (the so-called “father of environmental justice”), no progress was made during the 20 years the study covered. The study concluded that half of all Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Indigenous peoples and three out of every five African Americans and Latinos lived in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites.
We cannot build a complete analysis of environmental racism without incorporating an understanding of border imperialism. This is a concept that has been explored in detail by Harsha Walia, co-founder of the Vancouver chapter of No One Is Illegal, in the recently published anthology featuring voices from directly impacted communities, “Undoing Border Imperialism”. Walia asserts that capitalism and empire, coupled with the militarization of imposed borders – which are constructed by colonialist and imperialist nations and entrenched in racial and hierarchical structures – are responsible for the mass displacement of impoverished communities and the expansion of globalization. Globalization is an ambiguous term that is usually (purposely) laden with warm connotations of unification; however, this structure allows corporations to be highly mobile and travel anywhere in the world to maximize profits through the least governmental and environmental regulations, the best tax incentives and the cheapest labor. They can constantly target and/or undermine any existing legal protections in order to gain access to easily exploitable communities in which corporations have freedom to do as they please. Consequently, we see continued and heightened attacks on indigenous sovereignty, cultures, livelihoods – such as the assassinations of anti-extraction activists in Central and South America or of miners in South Africa – and the fragile and unique ecosystems upon which plant, animal, and human life alike depend.
ENTER THE BIG GREEN NGO
Many people in settler colonial societies of Canada and the United States, as well as other parts of the “developed world,” who consider themselves “well-meaning,” “left-leaning,” “liberal,” “earth-friendly,” “sustainable,” “green,” etc., recognize that there is something deeply warped and malicious embedded within our societies and get sad, upset, and restless. If not sufficiently pacified, their energies could be harnessed in such a way that they would become a major threat to the status quo.
Big Green NGOs present an exciting semblance of resistance. A vapid shell that allows people who are grasping to find something to cling onto in their disillusionment about the world, to feel that they too can make a difference! All they have to do is click here, sign there, watch a flashy video about an adventurous “direct action” that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to stage, make bi-annual trips to the White House to really give that darn president a piece of their mind! Oh, and they must not forget to pay their monthly tithes to their NGO of choice! These NGOs market themselves as catalysts of what they whimsically (and falsely) refer to as “movements.” Their every move is a careful calculation designed to placate, pacify and render ineffective their target consumers: white, college educated, liberals with a small sense of the hollowness of everyday life in capitalist America (or Canada). By proposing simple and false solutions inside a framework of what’s been cleverly branded as “Peaceful Resistance,” potential disruptors of the colonialist imperialist ablist white supremacist capitalist cis-hetero patriarchy are rendered ineffective while simultaneously believing they are engaged in meaningful resistance to “save” the planet as well as acting as great “allies” to indigenous communities and other people of color.
The most obvious indicator of this insidious function of NGOs is the fact that the mainstream environmental “movement” in the US has done almost nothing to counter the political and economic conditions that make participation in their contrived organizing spaces inaccessible to many people from the very communities bearing the brunt of degradation and state violence. At the same time, these hyper-visible Big Greens draw attention, recognition, and visibility away from localized and community-based grassroots organizing. In fact, these white-led liberal elite NGOs have time and again refused to take direction from primarily-impacted communities and have incorporated racist and colonialist elements directly into their recruitment tactics. Silencing the voices of leaders of indigenous communities and communities of color while often simultaneously using their images and appropriating bits and pieces of their cultures is a deeply entrenched mode of operation for many Big Greens. They often mash together multiple Indigenous cultures as if they were one, a method that reels in their target consumers, who often possess deeply misguided ideas of “Native Americans as the first environmentalists” and who can often be seen engaged in reformist “support work” that thinly veils their commitment to the settler colonial project. Queen Sacheen, a founder of Ancestral Pride and contributor at Last Real Indians, asserts that “there is no one size fits all way of dealing with over 1000 individual and distinct nations.” These kinds of racist and colonialist practices of cultural appropriation and tokenization play off of people’s fetishized ideals of “the other”. Ultimately, this feeds individualistic desires to place oneself at the center of everything and misdirects the energies of the mainstream public to both reinforce historical barriers and create new ones to building meaningful resistance, rather than facilitating engagement in meaningful work centering on relating environmental degradation to race and colonialism.
Tom Goldtooth, the Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, urges people to think critically and question the validity of many popular NGO’s. In a 2011 interview with Africa Report he said:
“We challenged the big organizations with environmental racism – including Greenpeace and Sierra Club, to bring our voices to the board. They resisted us. Look at 350.org – we had to challenge them to bring us to stand with them on the pipeline issue. Bill McKibben, the ivory tower, white academic, didn’t even want to take the time to bring people of color to the organizing.”
THE NON PROFIT INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX
It’s not just an issue of “not wanting” to bring people of color to the proverbial “table.” There are tangible reasons which make it impossible for environmental justice (or any justice) for communities of color to be achieved by organizing with Big Green NGOs. For over a decade, the funding sources of non-profits have been heavily critiqued for the amount of leverage funders are able to exert over the priorities and political work of NGOs. Activist, author, and professor Dylan Rodriguez defines the non-profit industrial complex (NPIC) as “a set of symbiotic relationships that link political and financial technologies of state and owning class control with surveillance over public political ideology, including and especially emergent progressive and leftist social movements.” The NPIC is how state and corporate interests use colonial and exploitative practices (branded as social movements) to manipulate and control the ways that dissent from the public manifests and operates.
In an essay entitled “The Industry of Black Suffering: Breaking Down The Non-Profit Industrial Complex”, Adam Jackson and Dayvon Love of Leaders of A Beautiful Struggle describe how Black-led grassroots organizing in Baltimore, MD was destabilized, disempowered and co-opted. In response to how the NPIC manifested in their community, they stated: “It is essential that we be astute in our political analysis of the ways that white liberalism impairs our ability to effectively gain independence from white supremacist institutions that ultimately do not have our best interests at heart.” A common critique of the NPIC is that it exploits the suffering of already marginalized peoples while operating in ways that ensure the continued oppression of the very communities they claim to be in service to. We cannot choose to ignore the sources of these exorbitant amounts of money that makes all of this happen, nor to assume that there is no connection between those sources and the agendas being pushed through these NGOs. Big Greens are allowed to operate on the condition that their target consumers will not gain access to or develop analyses that would allow them to critically engage with the ways in which these organizations co-opt political movements in order to protect and further capitalism, white supremacy, and settler colonialism. (For more on the non-profit industrial complex see: “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded”, edited by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence.)
350.org openly admits to being heavily funded by the Rockefeller family, one of the most elite and depraved families of all time, who played an integral role in the creation of Big Oil as well as monopolizing the American Medical establishment. But 350.org is not the only Big Green guilty of partnering with Big Business. Big Greens can often be found accepting large sums of money to partner with some of the most environmentally degrading corporations in the world, producing media campaigns that market their products as “sustainable” and “green” (see “green capitalism” and “greenwashing”). Dishonest and deceitful behaviours and actions are so normalized that no one seemed to bat an eye when the Sierra Club took over US$25 million dollars in donations from the gas industry in 2012 – most of that coming from Chesapeake Energy, one of the largest fracking companies in the world. These Big Greens often have so little integrity that they will outright solicit for donations for causes that have already been lost, such as when Greenpeace continued to posture as the only thing standing between whales and whalers, making desperate pleas for donations to “help refuel their boats”, when the Whale Sanctuary in question had already been surrendered to the whalers. Even Greenpeace’s former leadership has charged them with outright fraud. Paul Watson, an early and influential member of Greenpeace, referred to it as a “public relations strategy in a global campaign to fleece money from people of good conscience”.
In a July 2013 interview with Franklin Lopez of Submedia.tv, Lionel Lepine of the Athabascan Chipeweyan First Nation, which is located downstream of the largest tar sands operation on the planet in Alberta, CA, had this to say (full interview can be seen here starting at about 6 minutes in; some of the text below has been altered at the request of Lionel Lepine): “At first, they came to Ft Chip promising to help us out…in the end they took all the credit. When the news comes on TV, it’s all NGOs. You see a bunch of white people…you don’t see US.”
Given the legacy of broken treaties between the Canadian and US governments and the indigenous peoples whose sacred and ancestral lands these two settler colonial nations are continuing to occupy through ongoing colonization and genocide, one can easily see these dynamics expressed through the behaviors and actions of these NGOs. Lionel continues:
“The elders in Fort Chipewyan — they don’t like Greenpeace or any of the other NGO’s campaigning around tar sands because they know damn well that these people aren’t from there, they’re not indigenous to that land, they’re white, they have no understanding of our culture — I don’t think they even want to know about our culture. All they want is their name in the paper so they can get money for their next campaign, for their next tar sands tour, for their next whatever. All they’re trying to do is gather money off of our death. They are profiting off of our deaths!
One of the most insidious tactics in the arsenal of the Big Greens are their constant calls (literally – some organizations/corporations like Avaaz.org are little more than giant listservs and phone banks) to “actions” and marches. Flashy ad campaigns and promotional events billed as meaningful resistance are an easy way to quell would-be radicals capable of making critical connections that would render such organizations targets for destruction, or at least obsolete. These corporate-backed Big Greens put a lot of funding into fooling and exploiting impressionable students and other well-meaning people to spend vast amounts of time, energy, and resources to mobilize for these ultimately counterproductive and completely contrived events.
This is where NGOs would prefer to see people put their energies instead of participating in or financially supporting the growing number of direct action campaigns and “action camps” being organized and led by members of directly impacted frontline communities and indigenous Nations across US-Canadian colonial borders. Resistance camps such as the Yuct Ne Senxiymetkwe Camp, where a sacred fire has been lit outside the Mount Polley Mine site operated by Imperial Metals in so-called British Columbia. The camp sits at the site of a tailings pond breach which released 2.5 billion gallons of contaminated water and 4.5 million cubic meters of metals-laden fine sand into drinking and fishing waters. Or the Unis’tot’en Camp on unceded (unsurrendered) sovereign Wet’suwet’en territory, also in so-called British Columbia, which is and has been blocking several pipeline projects – including ones that would facilitate tar sands and fracking – since July 2012. Dini Ze Toghestiy, Hereditary Chief of the Likhts’amisyu Clan, reminds us: “This isn’t just a fight about pipelines. This is a fight about indigenous sovereignty, our sovereignty.”
Environmental and “climate justice” cannot be separated from the expansive intersectional and anti-colonial work and imperatives that true justice demands. Big Green organizations are a part of the NPIC and replicate and perpetuate systems of domination and white supremacy. Therefore Big Greens betray, contain, and dilute potential for the scale of collective action needed to achieve genuine environmental justice.
We must refuse to be obedient, passive, and malleable “movement builders” armed with self-righteous egos and e-mail lists, invoking elite names in the white liberal left like Bill McKibben, Michael Brune, and “up and comers” like Maura Cowley with Energy Action Coalition, marching towards the next carefully calculated, police-approved, staged “action” in pursuit of a symbolic victory. The stakes are so high with 400,000 people, mostly indigenous peoples and people of color, dying each year from climate-related disasters. An international panel on climate change recently released what is being hailed the most comprehensive study on climate change to date that warns that “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” are already here and will increase due to rising greenhouse gas emissions.
Time is running out for countering the damage that has been done to the global environment.
We must dismantle all NGOs operating within frameworks that do not, and by nature cannot, foreground a value of supporting self determination by oppressed Indigenous, Black and other migrant/diasporic/settler communities of color.
kat yang-stevens is a cisgender queer woman and first generation Asian American of Chinese ancestry. kat grew up on and currently lives on occupied territories belonging to the Onondaga & Cayuga Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in so-called New York. Narrowly avoiding the school-to-prison pipeline & having no formal education or degrees, they understand the need to create spaces for education outside state and private structures and are instead linked into larger projects committed to community well being and liberation. A main focus of their work includes addressing intra-movement racism and the barriers that it presents to creating meaningful multiracial alliances. They are currently being politically targeted. Their work includes critques of the non-profit industrial complex and work to subvert the placating and incapacitating effects that Big Greens have over struggles against extractive industries.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.