For a while now, I’ve been noticing a worrying trend in certain environmental activist circles here in the UK. Namely, the attempts to exclude and silence feminists, anti-racists and other ‘social justice’ campaigners (the reason for the sarcasm quotes will shortly become clear). I don’t have any interest in naming names and pointing fingers, but I will say that I have been speaking to an increasing number of people, predominantly women, who feel excluded and isolated from environmentalism, and have had their concerns dismissed as unimportant rather than engaged with.
A few days ago, environmental activist Paul Kingsnorth wrote an article for ABC that I think shows us exactly why this is happening. I have a degree of respect for Paul. He has done some fantastic things, and written articles that have completely blown my mind, however he raises certain issues in this latest piece of his that give me cause for concern.
The wider point of the article is something he and I can agree on: that the co-option of environmentalism by the mainstream political left is hugely problematic, predominantly because it makes the issue ‘safe’ and neatly glosses over the fact that our attitudes towards industrial and technological progress (and the sickening levels of consumption it has created) are at the very root of what we’re supposed to be fighting against. This is the sort of attitude that leads us to green capitalism, and does precisely nothing to address the deeply unhealthy relationship we have with the world around us, in favour of selling us more stuff and making us swallow yet more mainstream political agendas.
However, Paul goes on to make an argument which explicitly states that ‘social justice’ (by which I presume he means feminism, anti-racism, and other forms of social activism etc) is the same as, and equal to, the mainstream left agenda. And as a woman who is both a feminist, and environmentalist, and an anarchist, I can’t agree with that.
In short, lumping issues of ‘social justice’ in wholesale with the political left is just as problematic and destructive as equating the left with environmentalism—which is more or less exactly what he is arguing against. It makes the way we treat each other as human beings, how we discriminate against and oppress each other, an issue that is solely the preserve of the political mainstream, as opposed to what it actually is: another issue that has been adopted by political parties in order to preserve the status quo.
To my mind, social justice and environmental activism are two sides of the same coin: one addresses the deeply problematic relationships that we have with the world that we live in, and the other addresses the problematic relationships that we have with one another. Both are ultimately caused by the same things: greed, and the concentration of power among the few.
In fact, Paul seems to get this sort of argument a lot:
“The common response to this is to claim, as many environmentalists do, that ‘environmental justice and social justice go hand in hand’ – or even that ‘you cannot have environmental justice without social justice.’”
However, he never really seems to articulate why he doesn’t agree with that. Or, if he does, then it’s only to say that social justice is a ‘human-centric’ issue, and that environmentalism is about moving away from that, towards a more eco-centric standpoint. And this is at the root of the problem that I have with this article, the unfortunate (and I’m sure also unintended, or at least unconsidered) subtext that flows beneath it: that by engaging with issues about how we treat each other as human beings, we are actually hurting environmentalism—that we are, in part, responsible for making environmentalism about people instead of about the wild.
As a feminist, I can’t help but see this sort of thing and read: “If you are a woman involved with environmentalism, and you are concerned about the way that you, and other women, are being treated? Then you need to shut the hell up and keep it to yourself. If you don’t, you’re hurting the cause that we’re all supposed to be fighting for.”
This argument has been used pretty much since the dawn of social activism as a way of dismissing and silencing people rather than engaging with their concerns, and it troubles me immensely to see it unconsciously perpetrated by someone I respect.
The problem, of course, is that eco-centric viewpoint or not, we are all human beings, and how we engage with each other as such doesn’t just magically disappear from our interactions with one another just because people like Paul Kingsnorth say so. Groups of eco-centric activists are going to be as riddled with the same sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination (conscious and unconscious), as any other group. The only point that’s served by refusing to acknowledge that is that the people already on the fringes of our society are further alienated and excluded.
In fact, he pretty much explicitly says this:
“Sometimes, circles have to be squared, and sides have to be taken. Sometimes the desires (sorry, the ‘needs’) of humans need to come second, not first. The greens exist to make that case. But the green left rarely, if ever, does.”
So, if you’re one of the unfortunate people who isn’t privileged by our society as it stands at the moment? If you feel discriminated against and cut off, if you feel talked over, frustrated and furious because you cannot make yourself heard amongst all the white, middle-class men? Suck it up. Sometimes what human beings want has to come second. And by human beings? I mean you. I’ll still continue to reap all the benefits of being in the cultural majority, of course, but that’s just a coincidence. It has nothing to do with what we’re doing here.
In response, I want re-iterate the argument that Paul seems to be hearing so much of:
Both ‘social justice’ and environmentalism are important. They both deal with the consequences of human selfishness and greed, with the centralisation of power amongst the few and the silencing and disempowerment of everybody and everything else—from women and queers, to rivers, forests and mountains. They both arise from the knowledge that the system we are living under at the moment is broken, and we can and should be fighting for them both.
Wanting to do that does not make me the enemy, Paul, or mean that I’m trying to co-opt or water-down your message. No more than it makes me part of the political left, which you seem to believe is the only place where we should be allowed to talk about about treating human beings, as well as the environment, with respect and equality.