Friday, February 27, 2009

Browning the Greens

Antonio Lopez

Van Jones’s The Green Collar Economy proposes a “design for pattern” approach advocated by Wendell Berry, with the intended goal of solving two problems -- economics and environment -- with one solution. This method seeks to redress the common trap of designing solutions for singular problems without taking into account the broader, holistic context or source of an issue. By advocating for green tech jobs and training for traditionally underserved communities (in particular the urban poor and incarcerated youth), Jones rightly points out that many environmental programs have in the past been elitist and out of touch with the needs of working class people, and “people of color” in activist parlance. I personally eschew this term, simply because many people, such as myself, are hybrids and don’t fit easily into racial categories (I apologize in advance for my interchangeable use of various terms of differentiation, such as “white” or “Hispanic”). But Jones’s point is well taken. We have to argue for social justice as well as environmental care, without which we will continue to fracture and disaffect our movement. If we are to find the true pattern of ecological culture, we need to see that it’s composed of many hues, and many classes. So far corporations have benefited from our lack of understanding that the war against the environment is also class warfare.

The anti-immigration stance of a Sierra Club faction a few years ago is a good example of environmental elitism being out of touch with the broader population, in particular by alienating predominantly Latino low-income and working class people. Another example is a prominent environmental organization in Santa Fe that, according to an insider, is unselfconsciously anti-human. This has resulted in their work advocating against Hispanic loggers in Northern New Mexico. Ecopsychologist Chellis Glendinning has sided with Hispanic loggers, who traditionally practice low-impact harvesting, but have been caught in the middle between NGO environmentalists and multinationals. Big companies well versed in divide and rule tactics have exploited the tension between Hispanic workers and more recent immigrants, who tend to be affluent white people using the land for recreation, not for subsistence.

The situation in Northern New Mexico bears further investigation. Santa Fe, where I lived for more than 15 years as an adult (my family is colonial Spanish and has lived in New Mexico for more than 300 years), is a rich cauldron of tension between the older land-based cultures of the Hispanics and Native Americans, and the influx of affluent whites. The immigration started after the Mexican-American War with the advance of American settlers to the West, but increased at the turn of the century as New Mexico became known as a safe and aesthetically rich environment for artists fleeing the oppression of industrial and puritanical East Coast life (many of the early émigrés were gays and artists, “black sheep” of their world -- hence my designation of New Mexico as the “land of exile”). From early on whites have paternalistically altered traditional artistic and folkloristic customs to match capitalist market practices (such as creating competitive art markets for traditionally made items for the home or religious purposes). I feel that I can speak with some authority on these matters because for many years I worked as a newspaper reporter covering arts and culture for Santa Fe’s daily paper, which put me in the middle of these social conflicts.

During this time I also got involved with bioregionalism. My entrée into the movement came in 1996 when I attended the First Bioregional Gathering of the Americas in Tepoztlan, Mexico. The congress was a week-long event with participants from all over the Americas, but was hosted by Mexico’s Rainbow Tribe, a decidedly alternative hippie counterculture. Canadian and US bioregionalists have similar countercultural roots, but many didn’t seem to jibe with the multicultural mixing between North and South that ensued. I remember one early morning when a Mexican family placed stereo speakers on top of their family van and blasted cumbia towards the camp. An irate Northerner stormed out of his tent, and summarily smashed the offending speakers on the ground. So much for peace, tranquility and harmony. Though this anecdote exaggerates cultural differences (and glosses over the many counterexamples that took place during that week), it reveals a kind of undemocratic arrogance that tends to emanate from Westernized political organizers.

Mexicans by nature have had to adapt to dominant cultural idioms (they are a hybrid culture, after all). In the case of the camp’s inner conflicts and workings, I observed that many Northerners failed to adjust to local (Mexican) customs, notwithstanding Mexican efforts to accommodate their guests. I’ve seen these kinds of behaviors repeat themselves in Santa Fe, a predominantly Hispanicized city. I recall a conversation with a Buddhist activist there claiming that Hispanics were too ignorant to care about the land. She said this (ignorantly!) despite the fact that descendents of the Spanish colonies have lived there for more than 400 years in a sustainable manner (much longer than we can say of US culture). It wasn’t until WWII that the draft and the advance of “free” markets displaced the land-based communities. Old-timers, such as my grandmother who was born in 1912 (the year New Mexico became a state), grew up on “organic” beans, chile, meat and corn. I put the term in quotes because organic was conventional, not the reverse. She is 96 and a tribute to the traditional lifestyle. Before the war there was little money used. Most people bartered and worked collectively on their farms or ranches. So you can imagine that it’s an utter insult to hear some environmentalists tell the locals that they are too uninformed to practice sound ecological practices.

But culture changes, and fortunately there is much more cross-fertilization going on between environmentalists and underrepresented communities. In fact, the point at which I first came into contact with Van Jones was when the Pond Foundation offered scholarships for Hispanics and Native Americans to attend the Bioneers conference in 2003. I went under the auspices of the Ecoversity, founded by Frances (Fiz) Harwood, an anthropologist who was very sensitive to bridging ecological cultures. I met her at the Mexican gathering in 1996, and worked closely with her for many years. I spent many years with Fiz conversing and strategizing among local Hispanics about browning the greens. When Fiz died of cancer, one of her deathbed requests was that there be a large local party featuring a cabrito (goat roasted in the Earth with hot coals); she insisted that an animal be slaughtered and served at the event. The (white) Tibetan Buddhists overseeing her funerary arrangements (Fiz was Buddhist) were horrified because it would create “thousands of years of rebirth.” The party went on, with red chile seasoned cabrito on the menu.

At the Bioneers conference where I first saw Jones speak, Bronx activist Majora Carter was also there, demonstrating that the Bioneers had crossed the multicultural bridge. The attendees were still largely white, but one evening I found myself congregating with upwards of 40 New Mexican Hispanos and Native Americans who had been brought there by the Pond Foundation. I remember feeling at home in the group, but slightly alienated when we tried merging with the general population. I imagine that people more strongly rooted in their communities find it even harder to adjust to the dominant culture when in general it refuses to budge or absorb from the “bottom-up.”

Consequently, I think one of the keys to Jones’s book is the section in which he critiques California’s efforts to pass Proposition 87 in 2006. Recall that the concept was to tax state oil resources to fund alternative energy research (funny how we designate natural energy as “alternative,” and synthetic as normal). Of course the oil companies pounced on the opportunity to pull “people of color” to their side by arguing (falsely) that their utilities and gas expenses would go up. This was a replay of what I experienced firsthand in 1990 when I worked for CalPIRG as a grassroots organizer on the Big Green Initiative, one of the most ambitious green legislation proposals ever put to the general vote. I recall working in a get-out-the-vote campaign in which I cold-called voter registration lists in West Los Angeles (the affluent part of the city) comprised of 25 electoral districts. I don’t remember if the disadvantaged sectors of LA were being organized, but I do recall very vividly the $25 million ad campaign unleashed by Chevron against us, and feeling helpless because we were unable to respond in kind to their lies about raising the cost of food, fuel, etc. to working class families. We certainly did not have the coalition to buttress that claim. Not surprisingly, victimized by a classic confuse-and-conquer PR blitz, we lost big time. Several years later, though, Latino janitors and maids were much more successful advocating for changes in their working conditions in LA. Too bad the movements didn’t merge.

That heart-breaking experience ended up discouraging me from activism for many years. I imagine that those who invested so much time and money in Prop 87 also felt that way, and worse that they were “outmaneuvered” by the oil companies yet again. But Jones offers a blueprint for survival, and he is absolutely right that it will take a coalition between different sectors of society to get it right. What is most useful in his critique is not the navel gazing that I’ve seen among some environmental activists, but a necessary deconstruction of the practices of the divergent coalitions who have traditionally not worked well (or not at all) together.

Jones argues that the division between environmental and social justice activists falls into three polarities: ecology versus social justice; business solutions versus political activism; and spiritual/inner change versus social/outer change. He calls for moving from opposition to proposition by replacing the “versus” with a “plus,” and to get better at defining what we are for rather than what we are against. The solution -- “three P’s: price, people, and the planet”-- mirrors the corporate responsibility model for the three stakeholder solution of economics, environment and equity. If such a formula were applied to the situation in Santa Fe when environmental activists battled Hispanic loggers -- or even the case of the Spotted Owl, which unfairly pitted workers against the environment -- I believe a more lasting solution would have resulted. Not only would sustainable forest harvesting be encouraged, but traditional land-based cultures would have equity and subsistence, and the rift that has divided New Mexico’s new comers and old would be bridged.

Thankfully lessons are being learned, as evidenced by the Pond Foundation’s efforts to brown the greens, and vice versa. Unfortunately, due to my physical distance from the Obama campaign’s work in New Mexico, it’s unclear to me whether these multihued coalitions are emerging in the aftermath of the election. My hope is that Jones’s well-conceived plan becomes the norm, and not the exception in this turbulent transition to declining economy and rising stakes of environmental degradation.

Image by James Burnes, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

1 comment:

Fishbowl said...

Thank you for sharing these insights. I agree there needs to be a holistic approach to activism inc operating the necessity of both environmental concern with social justice. If you have not you should read What is Social Ecology? by Murray Bookchin. He discusses a lot of the issues you brought up and links the social issues of our time, with the ecological issues, and in order to deal with one efficiently we have to deal with the other, and does not separate them as two separate issues.

and nice job with the blog!