Sustainability and Social Justice: Why is Being Green So White?

By Melissa Mullins

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has become a day of service in many communities (including Waco), and this year I find myself reflecting on sustainability and issues of social justice.  I’m thinking specifically about  inclusivity and representation in environmental movements.  I’m too young to remember the civil rights movement, but old enough to remember being part of the letter-writing campaign at my public school to ask congress to make MLK Day a national holiday.  It’s natural to wonder at this time of year how far have we come, and how far do we still have to go, in relation to Dr. King’s dream of inclusivity.

Another thing that’s gotten me thinking about this issue is some reading I’ve been doing.  Last spring, I had the great pleasure of participating in a class at Truett Seminary  on the novels, poetry, and essays of Wendell Berry.  Berry has cult-like status as a spiritual farmer, environmentalist, social commentator and I had read some of his works prior to the class (he is, after all, from the same Kentucky county as my grandfather).  But, in addition to Berry, we also read an essay by  bell hooks.  I recognized hooks as a feminist writer (also a Kentuckian) but had never considered her in the context of environmental issues.  The essay made me want to read her 2009 book , Belonging:  A Culture of Place.  Next month, I’m attending the annual conference of the Informal Science Education Association of Texas  in Rockport, TX. The keynote speaker is Dr. Carolyn Finney.  Conference attendees are encouraged to read her book  “Black Faces, White Spaces:  Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors”  (2014) so they can participate in a book discussion with the author.  And I’m slowly (this one is very scholarly and not for the faint of heart) working my way through “The Rise of the American Conservation Movement:  Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection  by Dr. Dorceta E. Taylor

What have I learned from all this reading? Like everything else in our society, gender, race and class matter when it comes to environmentalism, conservation, land ownership, relationship to nature and the great outdoors — but it’s complicated and what we think we know isn’t always true. Poor communities are disproportionately affected by the negative consequences of poor environmental practices, but often have the least voice in environmental decisions made about their own communities. Marginalized people have been instrumental in environmental issues, but their contributions have often been ignored.

The final thing, and maybe the most important, that got me to thinking about this is that I went to the meeting of the Sustainable Resource Practices Advisory Board  this week.  I went for the same reason as pretty much everyone else there–because the Board was considering whether to advise the Waco City Council to adopt a resolution pledging to a goal of 100% green energy sources for City energy use by 2025 and renewable energy in all sectors by 2050. I found the meeting to be both hopeful and frustrating for a variety of reasons (that’s another story, one I’ll continue to follow,  you can read about it yourself in the Trib).  I also noticed that of the ten or so people sitting around the Board table and maybe another 50 in the room, there were definitely people of color, but only a handful. It made me reflect on the diversity (or lack thereof) of other environmental and conservation groups I am involved with or interact with in Waco – Master Naturalists, Master Gardeners, Audubon, etc. In other words, representation and inclusivity in the environmental movement isn’t just an issue in books, or in other places… 

Sustainability is often considered to rest on three main pillars: environmental, economic and social (planet, profit, people). We must move Beyond Recycling:  Reframing Sustainability as a Social Justice Issue and consider that sustainability is not just about picking up trash on MLK day (though I love doing that and it is kind of addictive). I’m generally not comfortable with white people asking why people of color do, or don’t do, some particular thing, but when diverse voices are not included or heard in our discussions of sustainability, this leaves out valuable perspectives that can strengthen decision-making. It is up to all of us to challenge the status quo and move the needle forward on critical issues such as climate change. For our efforts to be successful we must include consideration of topics that might be lacking from a traditional approach to sustainability – such as race and gender inequality, food insecurity, homelessness, and others.


Melissa Mullins is a Kentuckian who, as of next year, will have lived in Waco half her life.  She is an aquatic scientist and environmental educator and co-author of the paper Social and Environmental Justice in the Chemistry Classroom  (Lasker, et al. J. Chem. Educ., 2017, 94 (8), pp 983–987). 

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.

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