By Jonathan Fisk, B.S. ‘16, M.S. ‘17
When I think of sustainable living, I not only think of reducing emissions, or conserving resources, but living in a way that cares for the environment around us. Sustainability not just in reducing how much we take in the environment, but increasing how much we reciprocate and give back to it. We all benefit from the environment around us, so it’s our responsibility to be responsible stewards to show respect for the land we’re on. However, this personal, local focus for sustainability is often not reflected by mainstream environmentalists and environmentalist movements; because of the exotification of regions such as Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa, Western environmentalists often neglect their own backyards.
That begs the question: who will be left to focus on the environmental issues, especially environmental justice issues, in the West? After all, we are far from being free of environmental issues. The water protectors are still fighting at Standing Rock. Flint, Michigan is still without clean water. Standard public education continues to fail to teach students about their local environments. Extensive monocultures are depleting our agro-biodiversity, and will continue to do so as companies like Monsanto continue to dominate the seed and crop industry. You would be hard-pressed to find a place in the West, especially in the United States, that doesn’t have environmental justice or sustainability issues.
But it is so much easier for us to point our fingers away from ourselves. To be drawn to regions depicted as exotic or in dire need – the ‘other’. When we look in the mirror, though, we see that the imagined differences dissolve, and we’ve simply turned a blind eye to our own backyard.
We, as environmentalists, decry the massive deforestation in Indonesia and Brazil for agro-business; yet we are quick to forget the massive deforestation that occurred along the very coasts of the United States, and the lasting effects.
We grieve over the recent reports that giraffes and cheetahs are nearing extinction from habitat loss; what about the near extinctions of our own bison and raptors, or the extinctions of countless other species in the U.S. from habitat loss (many of which we’ll likely never even know about)?
We stigmatize and condemn China’s industries for their contribution to pollution and greenhouse gases, but who are they producing for? Are we changing our own production and consumption habits to truly put our wallets where our mouths are?
We stand against the displacement of Indigenous groups in the Amazon; how much do we know about the land we’re occupying? If you’re not on your original lands, whose land are you on? How have you been allying with them, and fighting for the restoration of their sovereignty as well?
This is all not to make light of the situations occurring elsewhere. Effort does indeed need to be paid to those causes. However, the way we are currently fighting against these issues is based on an outdated, colonialist model of the West acting as the moral and environmental high ground, instructing other regions on how to change in order to appease our own ideals. Who are we to tell others how to develop or conduct themselves sustainably when we continue to allow atrocities to occur around us? When we have such violent histories of destruction, of people and the environment, for the sake of development and economics? When we continue to live in cognitive dissonance, driving the very economic pressures that fuel the industries and degradation we speak out against?
What we, as environmentalists and stewards, must do is listen to the voices of those in other regions, amplify their words, and ally them in the ways they ask us to. What we must do is reflect on how we conduct ourselves, and reorient our focus in the process. What we must do is assure that those we have left largely without support or who are fighting arduous but much-needed fights, again, such as those in Flint and Standing Rock, are equipped with the resources and advocates they need. What we must do is truly exemplify what sustainable societies can be, rather than focus on telling others what we want it to look like.
Our backyards might not be as appealing as these more ‘exotic’ regions, but they are where work needs to be done. These are the areas we are most intimate with – have the most connection with, and should have the most knowledge about – so why should we continue to neglect them?
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