Freedom without exploitation: On environmentalism and its effects on minorities

Remy Gates

South Park’s recent episode, “Nobody Got Cereal?” may have been the best of its 22nd season. It follows the familiar fourth-grade boys trying to combat global warming personified as the inciteful “ManBearPig,” or MBP. MBP has shown up on time to collect its part of a contract signed by one of the boy’s grandfathers. They invoke the aid of Al Gore, writer and star in 2006’s Academy Award-winning An Inconvenient Truth. They also summon Satan, who is swiftly defeated by the raw force of MBP. Having no other choice, the boys sit down with MBP to settle the debt. At the end, when the main characters are supposed to negotiate MBP away by giving up their closest material desires, they answer the same way their forefathers did by signing off the future for today. In this instance, they sign off the future of “Third-World kids.” 

I turned to my partner during the credits. “Everything about this episode reminds me of that white guy speaking at the Log today,” I said. Specifically, Third-World soldiers and slaves are being sacrificed and exploited to erase the guilt from white people and the upper class’ nostalgia. The talk at Log Lunch on Nov. 16, featuring alumn Peter Kelly-Detwiler ’83, was that moment. What was booked as the transformation of the energy market quickly left me feeling uneasy. A student commented to Kelly-Detwiler that he seemed overly optimistic about this profitable green future. I, too, was left with similar questions as he mentioned the extraction of rare earth minerals for high tech components. He answered that those parts can be tracked to make sure they are conflict free. It didn’t help and I was still stuck. But what about slavery? What about land? And peoples’ homes?  

As a white, educated man, of course you can be optimistic about a future; you’re never the one facing the cleanup. Clean energy is full of great investments to be made at the cost of increasing land erosion and degradation of developing nations. It is great that China is at the helm of bolstering reusable energy, but hegemony should not be our reason for finding ways to work with the planet instead of against it.  

This talk reminded me of a rift that many of us, mostly neoliberal caucasian elites, are ignorant of: 1. Centering environmentalism around white wealth and health. 2. Immigrants being locked out for the same reason antebellum blacks were locked into slavery, and now into prisons: to ensure subhuman labor forces for the wealthy minority. I see this when prisoners are fighting wildfires caused by careless policies of the U.S. I see it when immigrants trying to flee proxy wars fomented by mineral conflicts and land/labor disputes are the ones being turned away at borders. As soon as there is a better way to increase profit, they’ll be left without jobs and won’t reap any of the benefits that their labor helped produce (solar panels, electric cars, etc.) They’ll be left just as vulnerable to natural disasters. In this pre-singularity landscape, wealthy whites are again feigning ignorance of their faults.  

You cannot speak for the advancement of civilization’s architecture expecting the waste to devolve itself. The waste of your advancements, the fallout, the runoff, have time and time again been handed to the underprivileged peoples of society. People who don’t want to engage in your games of war, or your silly cis-het (cisgender, heterosexual) dick-measuring contests. Just as the unchecked work of oil giants has led to this current moment, the irresponsible practices of high-end environmental economics will lead to the next. And for some odd reason wealthy, educated whites refuse to interrogate the integrity of the structures they are building in the name of capitalism. They refuse to understand that the Earth too is reactionary when acted foully upon.  

As people of the Earth, amongst other planetary systems, universalities and faiths, my friends and I cannot afford to be remiss of the forces that bring us together. I implore anyone working in environmentalism to think beyond money, carbon footprints, and more efficient solar farms, to remember those whose voices go unheard because they are being suppressed. How will you make sure that poor people, that black and brown people, that Third-World and trans peoples are receiving the same, if not better, benefits of environmentalism? In your work, remember that caring for the earth is more than just a profit margin, the mother we share is linked deeply between all of us. We must treat such work with the sacred love that it commands. 

Remy Gates ’16 was a Japanese major with a concentration in Africana studies. They are from St. Louis, Mo.