Who Speaks for the Trees?

The Lorax famously says, in the Dr. Seuss book named after him, “I speak for the trees.” Although the book never really addresses it, the next question is clearly, “What about the rest of us?” Besides, if you believe as I do that being an environmentalist goes far beyond the trees, there’s a question of “who speaks for everything else, including people?” A film festival and discussion I attended last weekend sparked a lot of these questions.

The films were all very short, so we had the chance to see a good number. I came in late and still saw 5 or 6.  One thing I noticed that differentiated them was who controlled the story.

In one film, a vaguely British-accented woman described how their group taught African women about sustainable gardening techniques because they “didn’t have the skills to grow their own [food].”  Of course, it was accompanied by Save the Children type pictures of children with half-lying on the ground with huge, listless eyes. The narrator described how their group’s techniques helped the women grow food, become independent, and teach women in neighboring villages. Obviously, all very good things. But what the film didn’t answer in its paternalistic fashion was why the women didn’t know how to grow food in the first place. It took that fact for granted and was all about the good work “we” did for “them.” I suspect that if you dig deep enough, much of the issue would be related to the Green Revolution, where the Western world introduced and forced pesticides and herbicides on rural farmers. It drastically increased food yields – for a while, but not forever. At the time, they used the same justification as the film did – that people didn’t know how to grow their own food properly. Although there was no question that the outcome of the project described in the film was good, I wanted deeper, more systematic analysis, but the film refused.

Similarly, a clip sponsored by Green Mountain Coffee talked about how they are finding ways to support their coffee growers in South America. Not only did the film largely focus on what the company was doing rather than figuring out why the farmers were so dependent on coffee in the first place, but the company’s representative kept emphasizing that the healthier the farmers were, the better product they would have. As if having people not starving wasn’t enough reason. It reminded me of how I convince people to buy sustainable meat – happy pigs are tastier! But while I’m referring to animals in a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner, his bringing up the point at all was disconcerting and drew a barrier between him and “those people.” Neither film gave its subjects the dignity to represent themselves – they just held them up as an example of the good work of Westerners.

On the other end of the spectrum were Water Warriors and The Next Wave. Both revolved around groups that were in the process of being displaced from their homes. Water Warriors followed a group of community activists in the Detroit suburb of Highland Park who were fighting against the privatization of their water treatment plant. The city had gone bankrupt, been turned over to a city manager (a problem covered on Rachel Maddow just a couple of days ago), and had been forced to sell off its assets, including the plant. As a result, water prices had skyrocketed and many people had their water shut off. As I found out a couple of months ago, getting your water shut off is absolutely frigging terrifying, especially if it’s without notice. The Next Wave followed the Carteret Islanders, a native group in the South Pacific who can no longer live on their islands because of rising water levels caused by climate change. The movie chronicles their quest to find a new place to live and the negative reaction of the people living on the mainland. Neither had voice over narration, relying on the protagonists to tell their own story. They showed people with little control over their fate, but with substantial control over how their fate was going to be described.

The theme of who had the right to speak for the movement followed us into the discussion. The panel was made up of an Environmental Law Institute lawyer, the CEO of a sustainable water treatment company, and the co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Unsurprisingly, they had extremely different viewpoints, especially when compared to the people in the audience.

The CEO, an inveterate businessperson, had a particularly conservative viewpoint. Which seemed odd enough, but took a right turn into seriously offensive when he described the citizens of Highland Park as a “failed society.” Because the city was bankrupt, he had the attitude that the people there who had their water turned off got what they deserved. He also advised in a totally non-joking way that if college students had issues with their administrations’ policies, they should stop paying tuition. He was dripping in privilege and had no idea. To me, this point of view should disqualify him from a panel like this, which was meant to highlight reclaiming food and water resources on earth, presumably for all people. Although not nearly so horrifying as having a only pseudo-repentant abuser present himself as a feminist spokesperson, it still seems intrinsically wrong. Except that environmentalism is vastly different than feminism. Although I would like environmentalism to be perfectly entwined with social justice, it often isn’t and many environmentalist philosophies have a very strong streak of paternalistic technocracy. And despite his highly questionable perspective, this man creates and produces a technology that has great potential for sustainably cleaning water using natural systems. His actions via his technology could do great things in the world. So what role do and should people like this play in the environmental movement? I have no idea.

The conversation got even more interesting when the audience started speaking up. One of my fellow volunteers from Ecolocity has a tendency to start on “The Man is oppressing us! Let’s overthrow the man!” type rants with a dose of black pride tossed in, so it didn’t exactly surprise me when he spoke up. Most of the time, we’re in the middle of an organizational meeting and redirect the conversation back to our specific tasks at hand for Ecolocity. But this time, an Angry Young Man piped up and said, “Dude, I’m white and I’m on your side!” He sounded quite distraught and clearly took my friend’s rant personally. They then got into a rather angry conversation about race and class where neither of them were listening and just kept yelling over each other. Despite the awkwardness, both of them had valid points. While white people have had an incredibly long history of oppression, it also seems like there should be a place for us in environmentalism, even when it ties in with stopping racism.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers for any of these issues. Who does get to speak for and have a voice in a movement is an important question for it to answer. But environmentalism has so many facets that it’s hard to pick and choose who should be included. However, as I talked about in this Slacktiverse post, serious problems can result when people try to take over others’ stories. Perhaps if we all stick to telling our own stories and allowing others to tell theirs, we would all be a lot better off.

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