Reflections on "Shades of Darkness: Race and Environmental History"

Title page for Shades of Darkness
Title page for Shades of Darkness

As I promised to the CEPB community in the spirit of #shutdownstem, and also to support the actions in the CEPB statement on Black Lives Matter, I took some time today (tonight...) to read Carolyn Merchant's article "Shades of Darkness: Race and Environmental History."  I will note that I could not fully participate in #shutdownstem:  I attended a virtual graduate ceremony for environmental policy and management master's students, many of whom are entering careers focused on environmental justice.  I also spent three hours on Ph.D. qualifying exam for somebody working on Native American participation in California fire management.  In one minute, I will take a break from writing this blog to participate in a college executive committee meeting, which will hopefully also discuss diversity issues.  Zoom fever! So despite the intentions of #shutdownstem, there was no way that I could deny these students the opportunity to celebrate or achieve milestones in their graduate careers.  But at least I could try to fulfill the promise of reading this article, and providing some reflections.

"Shades of Darkness" is a compelling analysis that highlights how Native Americans, African Americans, and the Global South suffer injustices at the intersection of racism and environmentalism. The following quotes illustrate the article's main points:  

  1. "I shall argue that whiteness and blackness were redefined environmentally in ways that reinforced institutional racism." (p.381)
  2. "Boundaries created by natural-resource regulations restrained opportunities for people of color, while protecting white power and privilege" (p.386)

Dr. Merchant advances the argument with a dual focus on structural institutional factors, along with dissecting the belief systems of leading conservation thinkers in American History such as John Muir, Henry David Throreau, Aldo Leopold, Mary Austin, and Rebecca Solnit. Interestingly, while mostly she delivers a message of pessimism, there are also some more hopeful themes. 

For the structural argument, Dr. Merchant describes how the European settlement of the West and the origins of the ideas of National Parks and wilderness is really a story of colonization and the violent displacement of Native Americans. Europeans arrived in North American with an "Arcadian" view of nature stressing orderly beauty--the Garden of Eden. The wilderness was evil and filled with "wild beasts and wild men". Removing these evils and orderly management would allow nature to be experienced in its full bounty. National Parks and wilderness areas reflect these ideas through forcible removal of Native Americans, at first in the name of tourism in National Parks, and later through leaving wilderness "untrammeled by man".  John Muir's writing and wanderings reflected this racism, with descriptions of Native Americans as dirty, savage, and degraded, and dodging the Civil War despite its fight against Southern slavery. 

Similarly, slavery and the enduring legacy of racism shaped how African Americans were perceived, and how they were integrated into cities after slavery was ended. Slavery and the over-exploitation of agricultural and natural resources in Southern plantations went hand in hand.  Europeans also viewed Africans as generally evil, associated with decay, witchcraft and Satan. After slavery was ended, African American populations migrated to cities and were greeted with segregationist land-use and housing policies, which concentrated African-Americans in less valuable regions that became the dumping ground for the detritus of capitalism--toxic waste, polluting industries, and other environmental harms. Dr. Merchant points out the racist stereotypes employed by John Muir, and argues that if not outright hostile towards African Americans, the leading conservation thinkers were at best indifferent and assigned more value to ecology than the human welfare of African Americans.  The white tradition of environmentalism continues to this day, as reflected in the lack of ethnic diversity in mainstream environmental groups. 

The same combination of structural factors and belief systems also apply to the globalized "Others....the colonized indigenous people, immigrants, and people of color who were outside the controlled, managed garden(p.389)." Hence, international environment and development projects often focus on creating protected areas that exclude local populations in the name of biodiversity.  This so-called "fortress conservation" approach continues to be hotly debated in international conservation, with increasing focus on more community-based programs.

However, Merchant does point to signs of hope in both structure and beliefs. She highlights Helen Hunt Jackson and Mary Austin as two late-19th, early 20th century writers who advocated on behalf of Native Americans at the national level. The fact that these two writers were female suggest an intersection with gender, which was perhaps Merchant's intent although it is not explicitly argued in the paper.  A more charitable interpretation of Aldo Leopold's "land ethic" also includes African Americans, and Thoreau wrote extensively from an anti-slavery perspective.  Structurally, landmark laws like the Emancipation Proclamation of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 clearly make important institutional changes.  Administrative actions like Bill Clinton's executive order 12898 attempts a structural remedy, by mandating federal agencies account for environmental justice.  My own impression is that the extent of administrative and legislative attention to environmental justice has accelerated in light of movements like Black Lives Matter, and dramatic instances of environmental racism like Flint, Michigan. Many environmental groups are adopting environmental justice as a core theme and attempting to diversity their work forces, and partner with a vibrant network of local environmental justice groups and leaders.

But despite changing beliefs and institutions, it is extremely difficult to undo the legacy of environmental racism that informed the foundation of conservation thinking and the early environmental laws of the United States. Such processes are path dependent--once we start down the path of environmental racism, it is hard to transform and switch to another trajectory. The rich Native American culture that existed in North America, deeply integrated into the ecology of the continent, is completely gone in many places and radically transformed almost everywhere. In their place (and often built on the human remains, ruins, and sacred places of Native Americans) are the "Edens" of wilderness, National Parks, and other public lands that will not go away anytime soon (and if anything, would end up in the hands of states or private owners....), and are fiercely defended by environmentalists.  The poor, African African communities that are so disproportionately affected by environmental harms (and pandemics, and policy brutality) are not going to suddenly reshape themselves and be integrated with richer, whiter communities.  Economics, racism, and institutions all work together to maintain the racist patterns of environmental injustice that have evolved for three centuries of Western European colonization of North America.

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