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Why the Environmental Movement Needs Its 1619 Project: A Case for a Human-Centered Approach to Saving the Planet

I am (I am)

Somebody (Somebody)

I may live in Warren County (I may live in Warren County)

But I am (But I am)

Somebody (Somebody)

You may bring your PCBs (You may bring your PCBs)

But I am (But I am)

Somebody (Somebody)

I may go to jail (I may go to jail)

But I am (But I am)

Somebody (Somebody)

Soul Power (Soul Power)

Peoples Power (Peoples Power)

Love Power (Love Power)

Right on (Right on)

– Chant from the Warren County PCB Protests, recorded by Jenny Labalme1

On the morning of September 15, 1982, Wayne Mosely left the Coley Springs Baptist Church beneath a canopy of police helicopters and started walking towards the new dump. “As we approached the landfill, there were highway patrolmen in full riot gear, with face shields, baton in hand. We didn’t know whether they were going to beat us or what,” he told NPR four decades later.2 Of the hundreds of protestors that joined him that day, and the thousands that would join them over the preceding two months, he was one of the first to be arrested.

Mosely lived in Afton, a town in poor, majority-Black Warren County, North Carolina — and Governor Jim Hunt’s designated site for a landfill to house PCB-contaminated soil from across fourteen counties.3 Knowledge of the cancer-causing chemicals being trucked into the community caused immediate outrage, and suspicions over the state’s rationale in choosing an already disadvantaged county (ranked at the time 97th in per capita income out of North Carolina’s 100 counties at the time) as the dumping ground.4

Thousands of residents spent 25 days over the course of the fall of 1982 protesting — taking to the streets to block (and, on occasion, even lay down in front of) soil-carrying trucks on their way to the new landfill. The backlash was swift. By the end of November, state highway patrol had made 523 arrests, and 7,000 trucks full of soil had been dumped in the backyards of thousands of residents, virtually all of whom were poor, and most of whom were Black.5

The story of Warren County is not unique; in the 40 years since, evidence has mounted that similar projects are prone to be sited near poor people of color. Yet, this problem and the people of color who have led the movement to end it are too seldom mentioned when discussing the history of the environmental movement writ large. Retellings of what we consider the origins of environmentalism focus heavily on white figures’ interest in land conservation and less on poor health outcomes, which disproportionately affect Black Americans. This history is reflected today in the interests of green lobby groups and ongoing policy that has a plan for protecting wildlife, but not people.   

The first national report to demonstrate the damning connection between pollution and race, commissioned by the United Church of Christ in the wake of the protests, found that race “proved to be the most significant among variables tested in association with the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities” and that “in communities with one commercial hazardous waste facility, the average minority percentage of the population was twice the average minority percentage of the population in communities without such facilities.”6 In the face of climate change, these inequalities have further entrenched themselves due to historical and modern government interventions. For example, New Deal era residential segregation policies formed Black neighborhoods that are more prone to forming “heat islands” due to low tree density and poor air quality, increasing the risk of heat-related mortality.7

So, how did we get here? “Race is not an idea but an ideology” writes Barbara Fields in Racecraft.8 An ideology therefore “must be constantly created and verified in social life.” The atrocities against people of color, from slavery to economic segregation, have been done out of economic extraction or convenience, she argues, which was then justified by theories of racial difference that we carry with us today. This economic extraction can be applied to climate change, as governments and companies have championed, subsidized, and fought wars over an energy source (oil) that is turning up the temperature on billions of people, with people of color feeling the heat the most. Not only is racial inequality reinvented and re-justified over time, as Fields argues; it also replicates across contexts and issue areas that are on its face unrelated to race.

Proposed government solutions to mitigating the effects of climate change have systematically excluded the people it effects the most. “Managed retreat” initiatives to incentivize living in areas with lower flood risk like FEMA’s buyout program are more accessible in wealthier neighborhoods which tend to also be whiter, while equitable access to renewable energy remains elusive.9, 10

The Sierra Club has been a leader in advocating for conservation and environmental issues for over a century. It was founded in 1892 by John Muir, a staunch environmentalist and conservationist intent on protecting land from harmful agricultural practices. His actions led to the creation of Yosemite National Park, among others; “Muir deservedly is often called the ‘Father of Our National Park System,'” the Club’s website lauds.11

The Sierra Club was also a byproduct of a white supremacist society. In some of Muir’s own writings, he used deeply racist language, and also is responsible for recruiting contemporaries Joseph LeConte and David Starr Jordan to be two of the Club’s first board members — both founders of the eugenics movement and advocates for the forced sterilization of Black people.12 Racism in the Club didn’t end there, though; until 1959 (for over half of the Club’s history), membership applications from people of color were systematically screened out.13 “The Sierra Club was basically a mountaineering club for middle- and upper-class white people who worked to preserve the wilderness they hiked through,” wrote executive director Michael Brune in a blog post during July of 2020.14 (Brune stepped down from his position soon after.)

Internal battles among Club executives have erupted in the years since George Floyd’s murder over how to grapple with this history. Resistance to stock-taking of the Club’s racist history prevents the Club from meeting its environmental justice goals in the present, however, as it ignores a central pattern of advocating for nature in a way that at best remains inaccessible to those most impacted by environmental issues and at worst treats it like a green playground for the white and rich. Such history could explain why the President’s proposed budget for the EPA’s environmental justice program in fiscal year 2024 is $369 million, while that of the National Parks Service is $3.8 billion.15, 16

How such stock-taking of racist histories explains the present is a central theme of Nicole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project for The New York Times, published in 2019. “Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals,” she writes in her article on democracy for the project.17 The same can be said for Black contributions to environmentalism. Jones highlights how US history tends to highlight a few flawed individuals as “founders” while ignoring the broader context and unflattering complexities that explain causes of oppression rather than justifying them. Failing to tell the full truth allows for the story of Muir’s fight for the right to go hiking to remain the prolific and central narrative of environmentalist movement, while the story of Warren County’s fight for the right to breathe clean air is frustratingly under-told.

Of course, the 1619 analogy isn’t perfect. For instance, the events in Warren County, N.C. occurred nearly a century after the founding of the Sierra Club. However, just as Nicole Hannah-Jones articulates how 1619 represents the beginning of America as we know it can be told through the lens of Black lives and contributions, Warren County was a crucial new beginning of treating environmental issues for what they truly are: issues of inequity.

Much of the dialogue around this issue is centered around what we, as humans, can do for the environment. Yet, few pause to question what it is the environment should be doing for us. More specifically, we must assess how the environment can be used as an accidental tool of oppression. We allow fine particulate matter to swarm urban ghettos and accept accelerated temperature rises on people who live near the equator not out of any direct malice to people of color; rather, environmental racism is born out of convenience and nourished by ignorance.

The federal government and state governments have used their power of placemaking to create treeless, segregated neighborhoods, often divided by major roads that leave the air thick with fine particulate matter that settles in your lungs.18 All these phenomena have disastrous health implications; cancer, asthma, and heat stroke are just a few.

The US response should not sideline the inequalities deepened by climate change — it should make them center-stage. A solution that centers climate changes’ effect on people must better acknowledge the historical harm that has been done for real restoration to occur. But this approach requires something else: a more fundamental change in how we tell the story of our environment, and how we’ve harmed it. Telling the history of the environmental movement in a way that makes room for events like the Warren County protests allows us to pinpoint where we continue to fail so that we change course — before it’s too late.

  1. “We Birthed the Movement: The Warren County PCB Landfill Protests, 1978-1982,” UNC Libraries, accessed April 9, 2024, ↩︎
  2. Rund Abdelfatah et al, “How Everyday People Started a Movement That’s Shaping Climate Action to this Day,” NPR, October 5, 2023, ↩︎
  3. “Real People – Real Stories: Afton, NC (Warren County),” Exchange Project, September 2006, ↩︎
  4. Jenny Labalme, “From the Archives: Dumping on Warren County,” Facing South, September 30, 2022, ↩︎
  5. “Real People – Real Stories: Afton, NC (Warren County).” ↩︎
  6. Commission for Racial Justice, “A National Report on the Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites,” United Church of Christ, 1987, ↩︎
  7. Jeremy S. Hoffman, Vivek Shandas, and Nicholas Pendleton, “The Effects of Historical Housing Policies on Resident Exposure to Intra-Urban Heat: A Study of 108 US Urban Areas,” Climate 8, no. 1 (2020). ↩︎
  8. Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in the American Life (Verso, 2012). ↩︎
  9. Katharine J. Mach, Caroline M. Kraan, Miyuki Hino, A.R. Siders, Erica M. Johnston, and Christopher B. Field, “Managed Retreat Through Voluntary Buyouts of Flood-Prone Properties,” Science Advances 5, no. 10 (October 2019): eaax8995. ↩︎
  10. Julius Alexander McGee and Patrick Trent Greiner, “Renewable Energy Injustice: The Socio-Environmental Implications of Renewable Energy Consumption,” Energy Research & Social Science 56, (October 2019): 101214. ↩︎
  11. Sierra Club, “John Muir: A Brief Biography,” ↩︎
  12. Zack Colman, “‘It’s Just Wrong’: Internal Fight Over Sierra Club Founder’s Racial Legacy Roils Organization,” Politico, August 16, 2021, ↩︎
  13. James Harris, “A Brief History: 1911-1986,” The Sierra Club in Southern California, 1911-1986, ↩︎
  14. Michael Brune, “Pulling Down Our Monuments,” Sierra Club, accessed October 23, 2023, ↩︎
  15. Environmental Protection Agency, “FY 2024 EPA Budget in Brief,” ↩︎
  16. National Park Service, “President Proposes $3.8 Billion for National Park Service Budget in Fiscal Year 2024,” Office of Communications, March 9, 2023, ↩︎
  17. Nikole Hannah-Jones, “Our Democracy’s Founding Ideals Were False When They Were Written. Black Americans Have Fought to Make Them True,” The New York Times Magazine, August 14, 2019, ↩︎
  18. Hoffman, Shandas, and Pendleton, “The Effects of Historical Housing Policies on Resident Exposure to Intra-Urban Heat.” ↩︎