The Intersection of Racism and Environmental Crises

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The first in a two-part interview with Carl Anthony and Paloma Pavel, PhD.
This part features Carl Anthony.
Part Two with Dr. Pavel follows.

Interviewed by Molly Brown (MB)

Carl Anthony (CA), architect, regional planner, social justice activist, and author, is the founder and co-director of Breakthrough Communities, a project dedicated to building multiracial leadership for sustainable communities. He is the former President of the Earth Island Institute, and co-founder and former executive director of its urban habitat program, one of the first environmental justice organizations to address race and class issues.

MB: Welcome to you, Carl, and to you, Paloma.  I’d like to start by asking Carl: what do you see as the primary challenges facing humanity today?

CA: A very small question! The short answer is the challenge of resolving our differences to collectively respond to the multiple challenges that are coming at us from many directions. The heart of the matter is to realize that we live in many diverse societies with diverse perspectives. Hopefully, we can create some order about our differences and realize that each individual has his or her own story and purpose.  These need to be blended to promote the survival of humanity and of the planet.

MB: We have to resolve our differences, incorporate them, or use them to our mutual advantage.

CA: We could set as our highest priority the vulnerable and marginalized populations within our communities and look for collaboration on things that will clearly advance their interests.

MB: We would collaborate with those populations as opposed to deciding what is good for them and imposing it.  

CA: The alternative, which I don’t recommend,  is to help the richest and most powerful people agree, let it trickle down, and then people scramble for the results.  

MB: I have another question: How do you see the relationship between racism and the environmental crisis?

CA: They overlap and interlock to a much greater degree than has been commonly recognized.  In the dominant frame of reference, racism and the environmental crisis are seen as separate issues that only casually interact. In reality, if you can imagine a Venn Diagram, these two circles do not just overlap slightly, but overlap much more completely than we have used to accepting.

MB: So there might just be a thin margin of separateness on each side?

We need to reevaluate E pluribus unum, a traditional motto of the USA

 CA: It requires a radical imagination to see more diversity within different populations. Many different racial and ethnic groups are demanding attention, and may be working at cross purposes.  We need to reevaluate E pluribus unum, a traditional motto of the USA,  and bring it into alignment with our 21st century problems. A solution to our racism may exist if we use our radical imaginations to recognize how all populations, even the most privileged, have suffered and may suffer more in the transformation that has to happen. We also need to imagine the way communities of power can provide leadership. That will help us with previously areas of agreement that are not well-defined.

MB: So all populations, including the wealthy, are going to suffer in the transformation?

There has been suffering by many groups…There were horrible “witch burnings.”

CA: The abuses of slavery and how that is being brought into the present arena is not the only issue. There has been suffering by many groups, including the Irish, Eastern Europeans, the Italians. There were horrible “witch burnings.” Jews have their own stories, as do the Native Americans, Latinos, and all the abused populations in Central and South America, and there are also struggles in Asia. In this moment, when many of these populations are coming into the United States and bringing their struggles with them, and we have to find some way to accommodate that. I believe we can accommodate them by listening to their stories.

There is an order in the universe such as the earth going around the sun, night and day,  a multiplicity of species needed to keep life functioning, and the atmosphere as important elements of the Commons. We need a greater recognition of all these elements. We have been using the earth and atmosphere as a garbage can, such that the garbage can is now overflowing and spilling over. We need a humbling experience of how each of the 9,000,000,000 of us have a relationship to the sun and to the health of the planet.

MB: No matter what racial issues we have, we are all dependent on the life support systems of the earth to survive.

CA: Yes, and we get into trouble when we have different relationships to that. One dominant group is making decisions about these life support systems, with very damaging effects. As different communities seek ways to express their understanding of these life forces, we need to find a language to express the rights of many different kinds of people as well as the rights of nature!

MB: I, too, am a fan of the notion of the “rights of nature;” it makes so much sense to me.

CA: Focusing on the most vulnerable populations is imperative, because these populations are facing life and death problems. We need solutions that honor the needs of these most vulnerable populations and understand that populations need to be able to eat and have a clean environment that is not poisoned. This affects marginalized people much more than everyone else.

MB: Wealthier people can insulate themselves from the problems to a certain extent.

CA: That’s exactly right.  Most of the options are framed in luxury, “Should I go off to this island for a vacation or should I buy another one?” That may hurt, but for poor people it is about whether or not they get to eat–much more urgent.

MB: Some of us who are wealthy (and all of us in this country are wealthy as compared to many others in the world) may have to give up some of our luxuries in order for everyone to be fed, for example.

By paying more attention to the vulnerable populations, we will all be better off.

CA: Yes, we need a different accounting system that takes into account the income and wealth gap that exists in the world. Technology gives some flexibility for people making $400,000 a year will not work for the people making $1,000 a year. Wealth is being extracted from the poorer people without some of the wealthy people even being aware of it. By paying more attention to the vulnerable populations, we will all be better off.  This is not the only solution but we need to imagine a new baseline. For instance, the people in the U.S. consume a great deal more that rest of the people in the world, and if we had to make a radical adjustment quickly, this would really hurt. I am saying we could make less radical adjustments but with deliberate speed. And there needs to be some generosity in how people adjust to a new reality. Of course, the earth can help us with this. People live on different continents and hold different resources and so we could adjust. But I don’t think we need to make more parking spaces as a priority, for example.

MB:  “Generosity” in looking at more vulnerable populations would mean that you have to care.

Many people are so focused on wealth and power that they don’t give a thought to vulnerable populations. They would say, “Well, why?”

CA: Some people care. Joanna Macy, for example, has a message in her approach that is completely compatible with this. The spiral is a message that could be adopted by a lot of people. But if only a small group is hoarding the wisdom…

MB: The wealth of wisdom also needs to shared.

CA: Emerging population groups in the U.S. have voices that have not been heard; we need to find a way to make room for their origin stories. We need school systems designed to teach these and to develop other systems that are responsive to the different population groups.  The idea of “regional equity” points to divisions such as between the cities and the suburbs. Poor people lived in the worst parts and rich people lived in the suburbs. This is shifting now. There are a number of encampments that are now growing up in Oakland.

MB: Oakland was considered economically depressed, but now houses in Oakland are costing almost as much as those in San Francisco. My husband and I once rented an apartment for 95 dollars a month in the Sunset district.

CA: Silicon Valley is reorganizing the whole global economy. The workers get paid an enormous amount of money. Do they need all that money? Could it be distributed more fairly and some of it be turned back to the countries it is coming from? These are questions we normally wouldn’t ask, but when we look at the displacement of populations, where are they going to go? And where is the revenue going to come from?

MB: As people are shut out of San Francisco because of housing costs, where will people live who hold low level and service jobs?

We have an opportunity to revisit the idea of property. It is a community creation.

CA: We have an opportunity to revisit the idea of property. It is a community creation. Property rights are not sacrosanct. We are repeating the Rosa Parks story where Black people had to sit on the bus from the back to the front, and white people took seats from front to back. When the bus was full, the Black people would be required to give up their seat. Now we’re doing that with housing. With a million dollars you can buy a piece of property, perhaps run down or occupied by those “funny people,” but you buy it and they have to move. They are turned out. This is pushing us to realize that housing is a human right. It is not something that can be totally reduced to ownership, property, and wealth. It may take us the rest of the 21st century to make that point. We’ve faced similar problems before, like in recognizing childhood. It was not automatic. Children have rights and we have to make space for them.

Gender challenges are also very severe. In a farming society where most people take care of animals and land, there may have been some logic around the gender hierarchies created about what people did for their share in the labor. In a world where preconditions like physical strength are not the dominant requirement for labor, we have to rethink about what it means to have a society organized around what a man needs or does. We are not moving quickly enough in the area of equal pay for equal work, for example.

MB: We may not have until the end of the 21st century to make these changes, what with climate change and the disasters caused by climate disruption.

Basically we have to shift and it has to be with some generosity left in it. 

CA: We may not have more than until 2020 or 2030. And it will be different for different parts of the world and for different economic groups and so forth. But basically we have to shift and it has to be with some generosity left in it. If we don’t, we are giving up our humanity.

MB: I think about the fact that the luxuries and extras don’t seem to make people happy, and somehow, that needs to be understood by a larger section of the population. They are not actually being asked to sacrifice, they are actually being asked to move into a happier way of life. They could give up some of the things they are spending their life on…

CA: … which they are going to throw away anyway. We have identified so much of our hope for ourselves and our happiness with what we have and what we can control that we have lost the ability to realize that there are a lot of things we are not paying attention to.

We get herded around like sheep, divided into these racial groups.

We get herded around like sheep, divided into these racial groups. We think we are making decisions but somehow the engineers live in one neighborhood and our artists are living in another.  Our society is divided up so that it is difficult for people to find common ground.

MB: They don’t have an opportunity to talk together or be aware of each other’s needs to find common ground.

How does the history of genocide oppression and slavery in the US continue to impact us today?  A lot of people today say, “Oh that’s history. We had the civil rights movement in the 60s and everything is fine now.”

CA: We go from one episode to another. I think that, on many of the issues like slavery, we are still living with a lot of the mindsets that were formulated in 1492. There were many parts of the world that had slavery, but not on the scale of what happened in 1492. Black people were actually sold to European pirates. The European pirates didn’t invade Africa. They sold 12,000, 000 people and put them in chains and put them to work. As if that was okay and would somehow resolve itself. And eventually people began to say, “We have to abolish slavery,” but its effects are still moving throughout society. We have a situation now where, for instance, the imprisonment of African Americans is astronomical. This is not right. We know that no population group is more guilty than another for all the criminal acts in society. It’s crazy when 30-40 percent of a population can’t get high school diplomas and jobs. You look in the prison system and you see a huge percentage of people are Black and Latino: way disproportional!

MB: Slavery is still happening through mass incarceration. In prison, they are given jobs and earn 5 cents an hour. Somebody is making money off them.

CA: Once they are caught in that system, it becomes their whole life. It’s like you’re GONE. You don’t get a chance to vote, you’re not part of the society, you don’t go to school, you don’t get to do any of the things that make it possible to be a part of this society. It’s like 50 years of solid oppression and prison-like systems.

MB: When you get out, you can’t get a job, and you can’t get public housing.

CA: Some adjustment needs to be made and we need to be about it fast.

There are things we can do. I know that the issue of the environment does not just belong to the white people. But if the white people maintain all the conversations and keep the resources that go with that issue, then we are bound to have more conflicts. So we have to lift up other segments of the population and develop new leadership.  We can do that; it just requires thinking about things in a new way, which we have done in the past.

Look at the Native Americans whose lands were taken away. We can’t reverse history, but we surely can make adjustments and balance out the needs of human populations.

We can’t reverse history, but we surely can make adjustments and balance out the needs of human populations.

In Berkeley, the development of the waterfront is privileged lands along the bay. Developers who want to put luxury houses there, and the Native Americans are saying, “This land is a sacred burial mound on land that was settled by us 1000 years ago, and we need to be able to reclaim it.” We need to confront the reality that some of our most privileged landscapes need to be returned to native use. This is not a big jump but it is hard for some people.

MB: How do you think the Work That Reconnects (WTR) can contribute? You have mentioned how the spiral is compatible with what you are suggesting.  

CA: Efforts are moving in the right direction, just need to move faster and in a more inclusive way. Some of the frameworks developed need to be understood and shared, especially across racial groups. You need some new leadership. I think Joanna has contributed a lot, just from her own personal experience.

MB: So the WTR needs to be shared more with marginalized groups because, up until now, it has been in the province of people who can pay to go to a workshop. I struggle with how to make this work available to people who are financially unable to attend a workshop. You are doing a lot of events that don’t cost anything.  Is there some wisdom or models there that we could follow?

CA: How can we create a program that would reach different audiences?

MB: Are you talking about bringing the WTR into public schools?

CA: That would be something to consider! Doing this work for the upper class or wealthy people is not a bad thing. Yet we need to go forward and capture the goodness as the reality expands to include all of the people. Also, it is great when people can afford to pay but, as it expands, we need to think about when people can’t pay. If only white people who can do this, that won’t work.

MB: Right, more people of color are becoming facilitators and bringing the work into their communities but just a handful in the Bay Area.

CA: What do they say?

MB: There is a lot of conversation about “decolonizing” the WTR and make it more inviting to other populations. We are working to identify the areas where intrinsic white privilege assumptions in the WTR is a problem and make changes. Joanna has been a part of that. For example, the three stories are Business As Usual, The Great Unraveling, and The Great Turning. The Great Unraveling was originally described as the industrial revolution but, for the people of color, it started before 1492. We are revising that material. Things have been unraveling for non-whites before that.

CA: It is an opening for another generation to re-examine and find a new way to put it forth. I can imagine, given Joanna’s career in the atmosphere that she found when she started, that the economics and focus of gatherings fit the need for upper income people. That reality doesn’t exist by itself anymore; there has been such an outpouring from other directions since then. So revisions would be needed.

MB: The Deep Times Journal is a part of the WTR network that has the intention of looking at these issues. We are also concerned that Joanna will be less active and pass on, and we wonder how we will carry on the WTR afterwards. We want to be guided by her for as long as she is available to guide us and we want to consider the future.

CA: New people and subgroups have potentially different directions and have needs that aren’t identical. People are from all over the world in different societies. But WTR has been found very useful. Perhaps you have a critical mass of people who want to make the shift, and the question is – what do they think?

MB: Many people who come to the workshop are relieved to have finally found what they’ve been looking for. They found that even one workshop can change their lives and shift their perspective on what is happening in the world and what they can do. There is an emphasis in the work on going forth, how each person is called in a different way to develop this given their own gifts and resources.  

Carl Anthony, architect, author, and urban/suburban/regional design strategist, is co-founder of the Breakthrough Communities Project. He has served as Acting Director of the Community and Resource Development Unit at the Ford Foundation and directed the Foundation’s Sustainable Metropolitan Communities Initiative and the Regional Equity Demonstration in the United States. Carl funded the national Conversation on Regional Equity (CORE), a dialogue of national policy analysts and advocates for new metropolitan racial justice strategies. He was Founder and Executive Director of the Urban Habitat Program in the San Francisco Bay Area. With his colleague Luke Cole at the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, he founded and published the Race, Poverty and the Environment Journal.  In 1996, he was appointed Fellow at the Institute of Politics, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

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