By Dan Kirk
As individuals working at an environmental organization, it’s important to acknowledge the history of the environmental movement and the ways we as individuals fit into a historical narrative or attempt to break from a narrative. In the Bay Area, there is a defining and strong legacy of environmentalism most famously starting with John Muir, who before the turn of the 20th century became an outspoken advocate for the preservation of the environment. The industrial revolution along with urban land expansion was huge and happened rapidly, and those with the privilege to advocate for land, did so. Many more held on to the American West/Frontier dream, and sought for the conservation of land with this ideology in mind. The late 1800s was also when indiginous tribal people, who were pillars of environmental stewardship, were stripped from their homelands to either be killed off or put onto reservations and camps. Environmentalism as a social movement, began nearly a century later, in conjunction with other big movements like the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights. As grassroots organizations of all kinds grew at this time, there was a strong potential for an understanding of the intersectionality of these movements. More so what happened is that corporations sought to take advantage of these movements, especially as individual consumer action became easy bait. The environmental movement was quickly co-opted by corporations and advertisers who had and continue to have the largest negative impacts on the environment.
Co-opting social movements is part of the American culture. We see it everywhere, and especially, most recently, with the Black Lives Matter movement. Within the first month of murder of George Floyd, businesses of all kinds sent out solidarity statements on websites, newsletters, in commercials, social media, etc. That moment grew and we saw African American/Black bodies in commercials and television way more than ever before. This is the same thing as putting a black body at a company’s reception desk in the 1970s so as to signal that the company is aligned with integration policies that became popularized at the time. There is a difference between solidarity and performative solidarity. Also, there is now a shift within the Black Lives Matter Global Networks as the co-option has brought the influence of money and power to the fundamentally non-hierarchical organization. Now, smaller BLM organizers are breaking off from the global network – what was at once a glimmer of unity and action and justice organizing re-imagined across the world, is now falling into the seemingly unavoidable constraints of globalism and capitalism.
Companies like Pepsi, Coca-Cola and a multitude of oil companies (basically, every large plastic maker/producer) began to capitalize on the environmental movement of the 60s and specifically, the individual action/responsibility of consumers. For decades we have seen the term “carbon footprint” all over the place. Environmentalists saying “watch your carbon footprint!” and big corporations saying “take a look at your carbon footprint!” and in the meantime, we as a culture, just went with it without any kind of interrogation. The term “carbon footprint” was actually coined by Beyond Petroleum (BP) oil company, as a way to skirt their own responsibility in environmental and human degradation.
This year, The Watershed Project’s new education team, over the pandemic year(+), re-built our education programming with this in mind. How do we as educators shift the narrative in our K-12 programming from individual responsibility to the true source of the environmental and public health problems? At the same time, how do we encourage individual action? Well, it turns out it wasn’t that hard! Here are a few ways we shift the narrative: We acknowledge the first stewards of our land, the First Nations, who continue to steward this land. In all of our programming we make it a priority for students to practice saying the words: “Ohlone” “Chochenyo” “Huchiun” (depending on where the school is). In our K-8 programming, when asked the question, “Who were the first peoples on this land?”, one student out of 300+ has said Native Americans — many other students bring up cavemen, gods or pilgrims. Our climate/environmental action projects requirements for students vary greatly; from civic engagement, to art, to community engagement, to independent research projects, to storytelling, to pledges, to just building a stronger relationship with the environment through a willingness to be curious.