Both inside and outside the environmental community, critics are voicing a common perception: Green groups are too white.
Van Jones, a former adviser to President Barack Obama on green jobs who was in town earlier this month, named the problem in an article in the Washington Post:
"We essentially have a racially segregated environmental movement," the article quoted him as saying. "We're too polite to say that. Instead, we say we have an environmental justice movement and a mainstream movement."
The lack of diversity among environmentalists could mean trouble for the green agenda. Daniel Kessler of 350.org, an environmental advocacy group, told Politico:
"We've seen stuff move over the last couple years since Obama's been elected, where you had a broad rainbow of people come together and you have seen legislation move ... The health care bill comes to mind. I think immigration reform, in this coming year, will be another example of a diverse set of people getting together, primarily led by the immigrant community in this country — Hispanic Americans. I think we're going to see progress there too. But the climate bill didn't have that kind of support behind it, and it crashed and burned."
A New York Times article in 2009 reported on a study sponsored by Earthjustice, an environmental advocacy group. The study's author, Cara Pike, said that the "greenest Americans" were mostly white and educated. "The focus of green groups has been to target the greenest Americans," Pike told the Times, leaving "other people out of the equation."
The relative absence of minorities and poor people in the environmental movement is a problem, advocates say, because theirs are the very communities most at risk from environmental degradation and climate change.
"Climate change will affect ... poor people in developing countries the most," says Oxfam International. "It is changing rainfall patterns, drying up river beds, giving rise to newer and more harmful pests and creating a situation where natural disasters like cyclone, floods and landslides in developing countries are becoming more serious and widespread. Poor communities already live on the front lines of pollution, disaster, and the degradation of resources and land."
LEARN MORE ABOUT GREEN DIVERSITY:
• Within mainstream environmentalist groups, diversity is lacking
"In fact, they say, the level of diversity, both in leadership and staff, of groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Sierra Club and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is more like that of the Republican Party they so often criticize for its positions on the environment than that of the multiethnic Democratic Party they have thrown their support behind."
In Environmental Push, Looking to Add Diversity
"Even organizations like the Sierra Club, which has incorporated social justice work since the 1990s, concede that their diversity efforts have failed to gain traction. The organization's executive director, Carl Pope, points at 'cultural barriers' that in effect shut the door to nonwhites regardless of good intentions. 'If you go to a Sierra Club meeting, the people are mostly white, largely over 40, almost all college-educated, whose style is to argue with each other,' Mr. Pope said. 'That may not be a welcoming environment.' ... Marcelo Bonta, 35, who worked for four environmental groups before becoming a diversity consultant in Portland, Ore., five years ago, said he found 'a need to conform,' down to the way to dress. 'It's the tyranny of fleece,' Mr. Bonta said. 'I always felt I had to dress down.'"