Green, But Mostly White: The Lack Of Diversity In The Environmental Movement, Part 2 of 5—Future 500

Guest Blog by Marvin Smith, Future 500

Future 500 is a global nonprofit specializing in stakeholder engagement and building bridges between parties at odds—often corporations and NGOs, the political right and left, and others—to advance systemic solutions to urgent sustainability challenges. Recently, members of the Future 500 staff held a roundtable discussion about diversity—rather, the lack of it—in their industry. Participants were Shilpi Chhotray, Danna Pfahl, Marvin Smith, Nick Sorrentino and Brendon Steele. Part 2 of a five-part series features comments by Marvin Smith, Stakeholder Engagement Analyst—The Editor.

The mainstream U.S. environmentalism movement and corporate responsibility sector are both really white. Like Portland, but without the strip clubs and boutique doughnuteries. When I picture the quintessential mainstream environmentalist it resembles a non-celebrity version of Robert Redford, like your friend’s chill uncle who cites All Things Considered and frequently enjoys Bluepoint oysters. It definitely doesn’t look black or Latino, nor does it look poor.

This is a bit of an issue, because the future face of America will look less like Doc Savage and more like a brown color palette, a tan mélange. The number of ethnic minorities is rapidly growing and will make up the majority of Americans in several decades. Support from a diverse range of classes and minorities will be critical in ensuring that we take action on important environmental issues, like climate change. 

Conservatives often dismiss the environmental movement as serving the interest of the infamous “liberal elite.” Though this type of rabble-rousing primarily serves to further a specific agenda, there is a morsel of truth to it. The mainstream environmental movement is (albeit unintentionally) exclusive to middle, upper-middle class, white, liberals.   

That isn’t to take away from the incredible, important work of these groups. Advocating for environmental protection is more important than it has ever been as we face dire global consequences from global climate change. It just seems that having groups comprised almost exclusively of wealthier people who are least affected by climate change dictating policies and advocacy campaigns to the poorer people who are most affected by the issue is a bit…Kiplingesque (in the “White Man’s Burden” sense, not in the child-rearing anthropomorphic animal sense). 

A recent study from the University of Minnesota showed that though minorities emit less carbon than whites, they breathe 38% more nitrogen dioxide than their white counterparts. The vivid images of a crowded Superdome post-Katrina serve as a reminder of exactly who is most affected by extreme weather events. Because they are most affected by climate change, it is these groups that most strongly believe in anthropogenic global warming according to a Pew Research Center study, and would therefore be the strongest allies in a move to enact changes in federal policy. Yet, they are absent from the broader conversation outside of the environmental justice community.

I came to understand this problem firsthand at a sustainability conference a few months ago, as my colleague Danna mentioned above. Big brand executives and NGO leaders convened to discuss sustainability issues and a lot of key insights were shared, but everyone looked, and mostly thought, the same. Of the almost 70 panelists and speakers only three (<4%) were minorities, and of those minorities all were Asian. There were literally no black or Latino voices to be heard.

At networking events, I was one of a small handful of blacks or Latinos at a conference attended by hundreds. Like a Stormtrooper at a Star Trek convention, I stood out.  This wasn’t a problem for me personally because I’m used to it (I went to private school, I’ve been to a Coldplay concert, etc.) and it helped me in my post-conference follow-up (“It was great to meet you. You might remember me, I was the black guy.”), but it was slightly disconcerting that no one noticed, or at least mentioned, the missing voices in the room. 

To be clear, I’m not encouraging inclusion for the sake of inclusion. However, I am suggesting that because of their investment in environmental policy, and their unique role as messengers that can reach out to important communities most affected by the issues on the front lines, black and Latino leaders should be actively recruited into the mainstream environmental movement. Bottomline:  There is strength in diversity. 

Marvin Smith is Analyst, Stakeholder Engagement, Future 500.

Read Part 1 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5