“The environmental movement is, in my view, the greatest threat to freedom and prosperity in the modern world,” said Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute at a gathering of climate change deniers in London in early 2017, rehearsing a common refrain among the Right. Donald Trump, who had earlier recruited Ebell to head his Environmental Protection Agency transition team, echoed this view by declaring in his May 2017 commencement speech: “I’ve loosened up the strangling environmental chains wrapped around our country and our economy.” According to this narrative—heard again in Trump’s justification for withdrawing from the Paris climate accord because it “hamstrings” America—protecting the environment is freedom-robbing. Only by unshackling ourselves from the concerns of the environment can we “free” ourselves and our society.

“Freedom has long been a word used to justify the political agendas of the powerful.”

Freedom has long been a word used to justify the political agendas of the powerful. As the noted critic of fascism Theodor Adorno lamented in mid-twentieth-century Europe, “people have so manipulated the concept of freedom that it finally boils down to the right of the stronger and richer to take from the weaker and poorer whatever they still have.”1Quoted in Eric Foner, “The Meaning of Freedom in the Age of Emancipation,” The Journal of American History 81, no. 2 (1994): 435-460.

Yet, the twentieth century also heard the cry of freedom in a different sense—in the Freedom Rides of the Jim Crow South, in the liberatory visions of civil rights and black power movements, and in the anti-colonial struggles of indigenous groups in the United States and global South. These were freedom dreams committed to the emancipation and self-determination of oppressed groups; to the idea, as Robin D. G. Kelley writes in the forward to Angela Davis’s The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues, that “freedom is a process of becoming, of being able to see and understand difference within unity, and resisting the tendency to reproduce the hierarchies embedded in the world we want to change.”2San Francisco: City Lights, 2012More Info →

Though not always framed explicitly in terms of “the environment,” radical understandings of freedom brought into focus some of the most challenging environmental injustices of the contemporary period: worker health, transit equity, urban segregation, rural and agrarian impoverishment, and land degradation, to name a few. Struggles for freedom also connected the dots between local struggles—which themselves were interlinked—and global formations of economic power, racism, and militarism. Building on black radical, feminist, and decolonial lineages, I want to suggest that we reclaim freedom as a key analytic through which to imagine our environmental future.3I recognize that my formulation of “environment as freedom” is similar to Amartya Sen’s pathbreaking book Development as Freedom. While I have gained much from his thesis, particularly his idea that severe deprivation and poverty are forms of individual unfreedom, my approach is grounded less in the liberal understanding of individual rights and more in a historically rooted and radical analysis of freedom as a terrain of struggle. Centering anti-racist and intersectional perspectives in our understanding of the environment as freedom might allow us to expose historical causality and the entangled nature of oppression. Ultimately, it might enable us to forge a broad-based counter narrative for tackling environmental unfreedoms.

Environmental unfreedoms

History does not move in a straight line from unfreedom to freedom. For many minorities, the gap between formal freedom, and what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor describes as “the self-determination and self-possession inherent in actual freedom—the right to be free from oppression, the right to make determinations about your life free from duress, coercion, or threat of harm” is particularly grave in environmental spheres.4Haymarket Books, 2016More Info →

One of the most publicized examples is the 2015 lead poisoning of Flint’s water that disproportionately affected the life chances of poor black children. Lead is a dangerous toxin for the young: it impedes developmental and neurological functions. It is freedom-robbing in the starkest of terms.

But lead leached from aging pipes is only one symptom of a longer history of federally-enforced segregation, the criminalization of poverty, and neoliberal austerity.5→Laura Pulido, “Flint, Environmental Racism, and Racial Capitalism,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 27, no. 3 (2016): 1-16.
→Malini Ranganathan, “Thinking with Flint: Racial Liberalism and the Roots of an American Water Tragedy,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 27, no. 3 (2016): 17-33.
Other symptoms include the lack of decent schools, poor food and nutrition, high maternal mortality, and the steady erosion of intergenerational wealth. This is the structural violence that marks environmental unfreedoms.

“Flint is a microcosm of the environmental unfreedoms many Americans face.”

Flint is a microcosm of the environmental unfreedoms many Americans face. Recent research shows that lead poisoning in America is graver and more widespread than reported, with low-income minority children living in badly maintained rentals most at risk. African Americans and Latinxs are exposed to a higher concentration of harmful airborne toxins (like NOx) and waterborne toxins (like nitrates) than whites. Across the country, Native American lands host uranium mining and the containment of nuclear and other wastes in return for federal compensation. Exposure to chemical toxins is compounded by a lack of access to affordable and healthy food and medical and psychological care. Minority women continue to bear the brunt of multiple embodied, social, economic, and environmental threats.

So disturbing is the multifaceted nature of discrimination that in 2016 a United Nations human rights panel declared with specific reference to African Americans: “The cumulative impact of racially-motivated discrimination faced by African Americans in the enjoyment of their right to education, health, housing, and employment, among other economic, social, cultural and environmental rights, has had serious consequences for their overall well-being.” This, put bluntly, is the travesty of freedom’s absence.

Mainstream environmentalism has been slow and unwilling to engage this reality. It has historically been hostile to or ignored nonwhite communities, writing out the labor and agency of African Americans and other nonwhite groups in land stewardship and environmental ethics, the creation of ecological commons (to grow food, for instance), the preservation of wilderness, and the production of scientific knowledge.6For more information on this silencing, see Dorceta E. Taylor, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection (Duke University Press, 2016). For a rich literature on black and feminist histories of the environment, broadly conceived, see
→Carolyn Finney, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors (UNC Press, 2014).
→Britt Rusert, Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture (NYU Press, 2017).
→Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (2003): 257-337.
→Chelsea Frazier, “Troubling Ecology: Wangechi Mutu, Octavia Butler, and Black Feminist Interventions in Environmentalism,” Critical Ethnic Studies 2, no. 1 (2016).

Civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis protests the PCB landfill in Afton, NC, upon which Robert Bullard’s book was based. Credit: Atlantic CityLab

A further silencing is the fact that given the elite leadership of prominent environmental organizations, many problems that afflict poor urban and rural communities—white and nonwhite alike—are not taken seriously as “environmental.” This, despite the challenges raised by environmental justice activists since the early 1980s with the publication of Robert Bullard’s landmark Dumping in Dixie, the United Church of Christ’s report on race and toxics, and pivotal new fronts of activism and scholarship.7Key contributions to race and environmental justice scholarship deploying qualitative and historical methodology include
→Robert Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (West View Press, 1990).
→David Pellow, Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago (MIT Press, 2002).
→Julian Agyeman, Sustainable Communities and the Challenge of Environmental Justice (NYU Press, 2005).
→Laura Pulido, “Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 90, no. 1 (2000): 12-40.
One of the crucial hurdles facing the future of the environmental justice movement, then, is to push mainstream environmentalism not to tack-on justice concerns as an afterthought, but to make the abolishment of inequalities spawned by bigotry, capitalism, and patriarchy a more general objective.

Anti-racist, feminist, and decolonial freedom struggles

“ Crucially, this history reveals how activism explicitly connected embodied discriminations with larger matrices of colonial power and demands for human rights.”

The long history of anti-racist freedom struggles gives some insight into how to forge such politics. Crucially, this history reveals how activism explicitly connected embodied discriminations with larger matrices of colonial power and demands for human rights. As Clyde Woods recounts in Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta, it is no coincidence that Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists were simultaneously helping to organize the safety of Memphis’s sanitation workers while these activists were also working to resist the white supremacy of plantations in the Delta: here was a deliberate strategy exposing the relationship between the lack of labor rights for minorities (indeed, their premature death in the case of sanitation workers), monopoly agriculture, and environmental ruin in the Delta.8Verso Books, 1998More Info →

An early effort to link scale and the intersectionality of racism, capitalism, and patriarchy that prefigured the central tenets of late-twentieth-century environmental justice came from Trinidad-born activist Claudia Jones. A journalist and member of the Communist Party of the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, Jones focused on what she recognized as black women’s triple exploitation as racially stigmatized, as workers, and as women. She thereby articulated a liberatory vision that connected embodied experiences of discrimination with historical and translocal relations of coloniality.9Black left feminists, from communist intellectuals in the 1950s to the BLM activists of today, have argued similar connections. For overviews and case studies of US black Left feminism, see
→Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Routledge, 2009).
→Erik McDuffie, Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism (Duke University Press, 2011).
→Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (UNC Press, 2003).

From an environmental justice perspective, what is notable about Jones’s writings was her interweaving of myriad struggles in a manner that many would regard today as the vanguard of global environmental justice and human rights struggles. A regular column she wrote for the Daily Worker from 1950-1953, called “Half of the World”—a title she used to assert the importance of women’s rights, literally, given their numbers in the world—focused on everyday difficulties facing Harlem, including segregated housing; a lack of affordable food, childcare, and jobs; and the poor health of working women.10Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008More Info → These are issues that Harlem-based environmental justice organization WEACT and others continue to be dedicated to, and are now connecting to a broader discourse of climate justice.

Claudia Jones. Credit: African American Intellectual History Society

Crucially, Jones’s politics, like that of W. E. B. DuBois and other black internationalists, extended beyond the specific predicament of black people in America to critiques of imperialism and the global color line writ large. As Carole Boyce Davies explains, Jones’s “anti-imperialist politics linked local struggles of black people and women against racism and sexist oppression to international struggles against colonialism and imperialism.”11Left of Karl Marx, 60. This was notable in Jones’s implicit analysis of global environmental issues. For instance, in her essay “American Imperialism and the British West Indies,” she concluded that investment in oil, sugar, bauxite, and agricultural commodities by American capital was a well-disguised form of imperialism in which natural resources were seized by American monopolists, and workers (including women) exploited for cheap wages. As environmental historians have shown, the net result was a disruption of tropical ecosystems; heightened racism, sexism, and classism; and an eventual galvanizing around worker rights across the African diaspora. Jones was convinced struggles waged on these fronts were core to the global quest for freedom.

What would it mean to reimagine the environment as freedom?

If freedom is indeed “one of the most revolutionary ideas available to us,” and yet we have failed to grapple with its political and analytical importance,12Penguin Random House, 2003More Info → how might we bring freedom back?

“To remember history is not to lament it.”

Remembering history is a crucial first step in reimagining the environment as freedom. We have seen that Flint’s crisis was decades in the making. We have seen that the land grab in the Dakota Access Pipeline is part of a longer legacy of settler colonialism. To remember history is not to lament it. Rather, it is to purposefully take stock of the magnitude of damage wrought by various forms of discrimination and to devise interventions that redress the source of that discrimination. As Nik Heynen argues in an essay on “abolition ecology,” such an approach would push environmental scholarship to internalize “the deep spatial historical logics”—the plantation, the colony, the reservation—that mark contemporary racialized environments.13Nik Heynen, “Urban Political Ecology II: The Abolitionist Century,” Progress in Human Geography 40, no. 6 (2016): 839-845. It would also be to decolonize what and who counts in/as “the environment.”

Second, among the many things that feminism has taught us, it is not only that people’s visceral experience of environmental harm matters, but also that harm is experienced across multiple identities and issues.14Sapana Doshi, “Embodied Urban Political Ecology: Five Propositions,” Area 49, no. 1 (2017): 125-128. This means that imagining a just environment must necessarily entail imagining beyond “the environment”—including making atypical connections to housing, labor, and education, and identifying how global dimensions of capitalist resource exploitation articulate with localized race, class, and gender politics.

Making atypical connections would enable, finally, a broad-based counter narrative. It is not environmental protection and climate change agreements that rob us of freedom, but threats to our water, air, food, land, schools, and homes that constrain our individual and collective potential. When you can think straight because your water is not poisoned with lead, you are free. When the land you sow crops in is not awash with chemicals, you are free. When extreme storms do not destroy the only house you will ever own, you are free. It is time to reclaim the narrative of freedom from those who would truly rob us of freedom.

Posted on June 13, 2017

References:

1
Quoted in Eric Foner, “The Meaning of Freedom in the Age of Emancipation,” The Journal of American History 81, no. 2 (1994): 435-460.
2
San Francisco: City Lights, 2012More Info →
3
I recognize that my formulation of “environment as freedom” is similar to Amartya Sen’s pathbreaking book Development as Freedom. While I have gained much from his thesis, particularly his idea that severe deprivation and poverty are forms of individual unfreedom, my approach is grounded less in the liberal understanding of individual rights and more in a historically rooted and radical analysis of freedom as a terrain of struggle.
4
Haymarket Books, 2016More Info →
5
→Laura Pulido, “Flint, Environmental Racism, and Racial Capitalism,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 27, no. 3 (2016): 1-16.
→Malini Ranganathan, “Thinking with Flint: Racial Liberalism and the Roots of an American Water Tragedy,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 27, no. 3 (2016): 17-33.
6
For more information on this silencing, see Dorceta E. Taylor, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection (Duke University Press, 2016). For a rich literature on black and feminist histories of the environment, broadly conceived, see
→Carolyn Finney, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors (UNC Press, 2014).
→Britt Rusert, Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture (NYU Press, 2017).
→Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (2003): 257-337.
→Chelsea Frazier, “Troubling Ecology: Wangechi Mutu, Octavia Butler, and Black Feminist Interventions in Environmentalism,” Critical Ethnic Studies 2, no. 1 (2016).
7
Key contributions to race and environmental justice scholarship deploying qualitative and historical methodology include
→Robert Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (West View Press, 1990).
→David Pellow, Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago (MIT Press, 2002).
→Julian Agyeman, Sustainable Communities and the Challenge of Environmental Justice (NYU Press, 2005).
→Laura Pulido, “Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 90, no. 1 (2000): 12-40.
8
Verso Books, 1998More Info →
9
Black left feminists, from communist intellectuals in the 1950s to the BLM activists of today, have argued similar connections. For overviews and case studies of US black Left feminism, see
→Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Routledge, 2009).
→Erik McDuffie, Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism (Duke University Press, 2011).
→Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (UNC Press, 2003).
10
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008More Info →
11
Left of Karl Marx, 60.
12
Penguin Random House, 2003More Info →
13
Nik Heynen, “Urban Political Ecology II: The Abolitionist Century,” Progress in Human Geography 40, no. 6 (2016): 839-845.
14
Sapana Doshi, “Embodied Urban Political Ecology: Five Propositions,” Area 49, no. 1 (2017): 125-128.