How are race, environment linked? Start here

© Conservation International/photo by S. Kēhaunani Springer

The protests that swept across America — and the globe — in recent weeks laid bare the deep racial inequality permeating society. 

And as Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan said recently, “the conservation community is not exempt from this legacy.” 

With that in mind, here is a list of books, podcasts and more recommended by Conservation International staff that explores the link between race and the environment. 

A critical look at how the American conservation movement was formed and how it has evolved from the 1800s onward, Dorceta Taylor brings a race, class and gender lens to a topic that is often only told from a single perspective. Her work shows how many contemporary environmental concepts are linked to deeply racist and misogynistic ideals of 19th-century America, while also presenting a nuanced view on how social minority groups still participated in the advancement of landmark environmental policies. This book is a critical read for today’s conservationist looking to stop perpetuating the systems of violence the environmental movement is often unintentionally guilty of. — Nikola Alexandre, restoration lead

Part personal story, part historical examination, part artistic inquiry, Carolynn Finney explores why African-Americans are so underrepresented in environmental NGOs. Going beyond the racist assumption that “environmental justice” is the only sub-sector of environmental work that communities of color can be involved in, she examines the barriers facing Black communities who want to be “professional environmentalists,” while amplifying many of the ways Black folk have historically been environmental stewards. Finney seeks to reimagine the stories we tell about who gets access to nature — and why. — N.A.

“Land Justice” edited by Justine W. Williams and Eric Holt-Gimenez  

A collection of essays by some of the United States’ leading land stewards and environmental academics, “Land Justice” explores how an intentional lack of land access has systematically disenfranchised indigenous groups and communities of color. It focuses primarily on questions of food sovereignty, but also provides a critical look at how we got to a point where 98 percent of the U.S.’s land became “owned” by white people, what that means for the environmental movement and how we can reimagine our relationship to land, community and the commons. — N.A.

"Future Ecologies” podcast co-hosted by Adam Huggins and Mendel Skulski

A brilliantly produced mix of ecological, anthropological and historical inquiry, “Future Ecologies” looks at how race, power and environmental factors combined to produce the American and Canadian landscapes we see today. By intentionally looking at those intersections, we can begin to design better stewardship models. I cannot recommend this podcast enough for every conservationist out there. — N.A.

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

For those who are interested in science-fiction and fantasy, The Broken Earth trilogy is one of the most Earth-shattering series ever written. For the first novel in the trilogy, N.K. Jemisin was awarded best novel in one of the major science-fiction award categories, becoming the first Black author to win the award. The trilogy’s next two novels followed suit, making her the first person in history to win the award three years in a row. The Broken Earth trilogy explores what happens to the Earth, to the environment and to society when a group of people is feared and subjugated for centuries. Like all good fantasy, it casts a light on the choices we make as a society and offers perspective on what those decisions mean for humanity. One particular quote speaks directly to the current events: “Some worlds are built on a fault line of pain, held up by nightmares. Don't lament when those worlds fall. Rage that they were built doomed in the first place.” — N.A.

Few authors have the ability to challenge our dominant assumptions like Indian scientist and activist Vandana Shiva. In this book from 2007, Shiva makes a compelling case for rejecting a development paradigm of a fossil fuel-dependent and commercial agricultural economy that has slowly siphoned sovereignty and power from farmers and indigenous communities. Shiva contends that rights, justice, poverty and climate change are all interdependent — and the solutions to them are the same. — Shyla Raghav, vice president, climate change

“Environmentalism’s Racist History” by Jedidiah Purdy in The New Yorker

This is my recommended starting point for anyone wondering how racism has shaped the environmental movement in the United States. At best, the founding figures of the conservation movement ignored Black and Indigenous perspectives. At worst, they were outright eugenicists. Purdy does a great job of exploring these views from a modern perspective while contextualizing them in contemporary racial attitudes, and of explaining how these views have contributed to the overwhelming whiteness of the conservation movement today. — Raul Quintana, senior writer

“The Home Place” by J. Drew Landham

After New York City resident and Black writer Christian Cooper was harassed and threatened in Central Park and a video of the encounter went viral, a lot of people revisited — and discovered — “Birding while Black,” a powerful and haunting essay excerpted from Landham’s memoir about becoming an ornithologist in rural South Carolina. It’s worth reading the whole book, a beautifully written and deeply incisive reflection on race, outdoor spaces and people’s evolving relationship with nature. — R.Q.

“Aftermath” by NPR’s Throughline

NPR’s Throughline podcast is all about understanding the historical origins of current issues. While every episode is worth a listen, I keep coming back to the investigation of the 1927 Mississippi flood and its aftermath. It’s a powerful story of how differently the federal government responds to Black and White communities in the wake of natural disasters, and how a man known as “The Great Humanitarian” exploited those differences to become President of the United States. — R.Q.

“Going it alone” by Rahawa Haile

Rahawa Haile has written a couple of longer-form articles about her experience hiking through the Appalachian Trail as a Black woman, including an article for Outside and another for Buzzfeed. As somebody who has always wanted to hike the Appalachian in its entirety after spending a two-week stint there in high school, I was so excited to read a woman’s account of her experience after consuming many male authors’ memoirs on the subject. Her writing, however, brought to light that our experiences were and would not be the same. The way in which we police Black people in how they engage with nature is systemic and pervasive. It made me think about why so many hikers are white and called me to examine the roots of so-called “color-blindness” within these hiking communities. She is working on a memoir of her full experience, which I am eagerly anticipating. — Marta Zeymo, global strategy coordinator

This book is an eye-opening read on the history of how white society has commodified and made natural spaces exclusive to white enjoyment. It dives deeply into not only environmental and cultural history, but also examines film, literature and other popular culture to understand how and why our society has drawn lines around who nature and the environment is for. — M.Z.

 

Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International.

Cover image: People joining hands in Hawai‘i (© Conservation International/photo by S. Kēhaunani Springer)

 
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