Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment has been praised for its potential to make the environmental crisis a central religious concern for people of all faiths. This should bring new, diverse voices to the environmental movement, which historically has attracted affluent, white participants.
Numerous studies since the 1980s have shown that environmental racism plays a key role in environmental decision-making. Toxic waste sites, landfills and polluting industries are located disproportionately in minority communities.
Because examples of environmental racism are so prevalent, people assume that minorities’ experiences of the environment are defined by environmental problems.
Indeed, discussions about minorities and environmentalism – whether it’s in news articles, among members of religious groups or within environmental organizations – tend to focus narrowly on environmental justice: the idea that minority communities deserve equal protection from environmental hazards.
But is this actually the sole reason that minority communities care about the environment?
In my research, I’ve found that in many cases, the answer is no.
A 2014 national survey of over 3,000 Americans found that Hispanic Catholics were twice as likely as white Catholics to be concerned about climate change. Black Protestants were more likely to be concerned than white mainline Protestants or white evangelicals.
Clearly, communities of color demonstrate concern for the planet. Yet environmental groups have failed to attract them and continue to be “predominately white,” according to one study.
Mainstream environmentalism grew out of the efforts of conservationists to protect wild places from development. Since the 1960s, environmental groups have expanded their conservationist agendas to include issues such as toxic waste, pollution and environmental justice. But environmentalism has retained an elitist reputation, as the movement focused on protecting nature to benefit the wealthy.
Meanwhile, vociferous climate change denial by evangelical leaders such as Calvin Beisner and the Cornwall Institute (see, especially, this series of DVDs) contributes to popular ideas that conservative religious groups do not support environmental causes.
A historic connection to homegrown food
My research among participants with Faith in Place, an interfaith environmental organization in Chicago, showed that people develop environmental values for many reasons.
In keeping with Pope Francis’ argument that climate change is a moral issue that disproportionately affects the poor, Faith in Place leaders framed the environmental crisis as a social justice issue. Religious communities should care about the environment, they insisted, because environmental degradation hurts poor people “first and the worst.”
But Faith in Place participants also engaged in eco-friendly behaviors for other reasons. Veronica Kyle, director of congregational outreach, recruited more than 800 African-American Protestants from Chicago’s South and West Sides to the organization. She did so by focusing on topics besides social justice. Instead, she talked about positive relationships with nature, and the economic opportunities that can come with involvement in mainstream environmentalism.
For example, in a Bible study she led on food and faith, Kyle encouraged African Americans to identify with environmentalism by embracing their agricultural histories. African Americans don’t celebrate the history of slavery or sharecropping, for obvious reasons. But Kyle encouraged the Bible study participants to celebrate the positive aspects of their historic relationship with the land.
“We used to eat local all of the time!” she declared, eliciting participants’ memories of their Southern childhoods when their families grew their own food.
Kyle also urged African Americans to become “environmentally literate” so they could benefit from opportunities in the emerging green economy. At Faith in Place, she developed programs to provide training and temporary employment in weatherization and organic gardening projects. Kyle hoped alumni of these programs would harness their new skills in “green” careers.
Kyle acknowledged the legacy and persistence of environmental racism. But she sought to move conversations beyond that singular focus, encouraging African Americans to cultivate and celebrate positive experiences in nature instead of strictly combating negative experiences.
For Hispanic Catholics, nature is sacred
Meanwhile, my research on Hispanic Catholics in Los Angeles also suggests their relationship with the environment goes beyond opposing environmental injustice.
In focus groups that my bilingual students Stefanie Fajardo and Carlos Santiago helped me conduct at a Hispanic Catholic church in May of this year, immigrants from Latin America expressed deep environmental convictions. Those beliefs grew from connections to their ancestral homelands and an understanding of nature as inseparable from God.
“We become conscious of nature as soon as we become familiar with God,” one participant told us. “The simple fact of being Catholic and believing in God and the Bible means we’re conscious of nature and the environment.”
Another participant added, “As a Catholic, I believe that God and nature are one. We need to raise consciousness about climate change and conservation.”
The Hispanic Catholics I met cared about the environment because they’d had positive experiences with nature. Their concerns about environmental degradation arose from values like love and respect – values they’d learned through their families, culture and religion, which were inextricably linked.
Both the African American and Hispanic communities I studied challenge the generalization that theologically conservative groups tend to not prioritize environmental concerns. Such generalizations seem to rely on considerations of environmental values among high-profile white evangelical leaders. They assume mainstream, white ideas of what constitutes environmental activism.
Environmental organizations remain predominately white in part because they are not connecting with the actual concerns of minorities. If new communities are going to embrace environmentalism in the aftermath of the pope’s encyclical, that needs to change.