Shades of Darkness: Race and Environmental History

IN THE HIDDEN WOUND, published in 1989, environmentalist Wendell Berry writes that “the psychic wound of racism has resulted inevitably in wounds in the land, the country itself.” When he began writing the book in 1968 during the civil rights movement, he tells us, “I was trying to establish the outlines of an understanding of myself, in regard to what was fated to be the continuing crisis of my life, the crisis of racial awareness.” Berry’s book is an effort to come to terms with the environmental history of race as reflected in his family’s history as slaveholders, in his own childhood on a Kentucky farm in the segregated South, and in his adult life as a conservationist and environmentalist.[1]

In recent years, environmental historians too have reflected on the crisis of racial awareness for the field and collectively have begun the process of writing an environmental history of race. The negative connections between wilderness and race, cities and race, toxics and race, and their reversal in environmental justice have been explored by numerous scholars who have analyzed the ideology and practice of environmental racism. Throughout the country many courses now include multicultural perspectives on the environment.[2] We have learned important new ways to think about the relationship between race and environmental history. These include the following perspectives:

  • Slavery and soil degradation are interlinked systems of exploitation, and deep-seated connections exist between the enslavement of human bodies and the enslavement of the land. Blacks resisted that enslavement in complex ways that maintained African culture and created unique African American ways of living on the land.[3]
  • Native Americans were removed from the lands they had managed for centuries, not only during settlement, as is well known, but during the creation of the national parks and national forests. Indians resisted these moves in an effort to maintain autonomy and access to resources.[4]
  • American Indians and African Americans perceived wilderness in ways that differed markedly from those of white Americans.[5]
  • A “coincidental order of injustice”—in Jeffrey Romm’s phrase—reigned in post-Civil War America as emancipated blacks in the South were expected to pay for land with wages at the same time that free lands taken from Indians were being promoted to whites via the Homestead Act and other land acts.[6]
  • African Americans bore the brunt of early forms of environmental pollution and disease as whites fled urban areas to the new streetcar suburbs. Black neighborhoods became toxic dumps and black bodies became toxic sites. Out of such experiences arose African American environmental activism in the Progressive Era and the environmental justice movement of the late twentieth century.[7]

All of this work is an auspicious beginning to compiling an environmental history of race. But we need to do much more in integrating multicultural history and environmental justice into our courses and frameworks. We especially need more research on the roles of African Americans in the southern and western U.S. environment and in early urbanization and more research on Asian and Hispanic practices and perceptions of nature.[8]

I hope to contribute to this growing body of literature by looking at views held about American Indians and African Americans in environmental history. If an environmental justice perspective is to permeate the field of environmental history, we need to be aware of the racial ideas of the contributions of the founders of the conservation and environmental movements. I shall argue that whiteness and blackness were redefined environmentally in ways that reinforced institutional racism.

Indians and Wilderness

THE 1964 WILDERNESS ACT defined wilderness as areas where “man is a visitor who does not remain.” As environmental historians have pointed out, this characterization reads Native Americans out of the wilderness and out of the homelands they had managed for centuries with fire, gathering, and hunting. By the late nineteenth century, following the move to eliminate Native Americans and their food supplies, Indians were moved to reservations. National parks and wilderness areas were set aside for the benefit of white American tourists. By redefining wilderness as the polar opposite of civilization, wilderness in its ideal form could be viewed as free of people, while civilization by contrast was filled with people. Yet this was a far different view of Indians than had been the case for most of American history, where Indian presence in the landscape was prominent. For William Bradford, the New England forests had been filled with “wild beasts and wild men.” For Henry David Thoreau, forests and parks were areas where native vegetation would be restored and where even the “red man” might walk again. National parks initially were conceived by George Catlin as places where Indians would be free to roam and carry on their way of life. In the mid-nineteenth century, travelers going west expected to see Indians as part of the “untamed wilderness.”[9]

By the end of the century, Indian removal had became part of a program to provide tourists with access to wild animals and scenery, but without dangerous and negative encounters with Indians. The national parks were configured as living Edens containing beautiful scenery, rivers, animals, flowering trees, and carpets of wildflowers. They were “virgin” places of rebirth in which people could be spiritually renewed. The new wilderness areas were managed places in which the wilderness encounter was predictable within given parameters. There were “wild beasts,” but no “wild men.” Unpredictable elements such as Indians were removed or carefully managed for tourists so that they became part of the total “wilderness experience.” The parks were vast managed gardens in which the wild was contained for viewing. People could have a wilderness experience in a protected environment.

At the same time that parks and wilderness were being reconstructed as white and pure for the benefit of white tourists, Indians were being characterized as dark and dirty. John Muir envisioned national parks as pristine wilderness, without domesticated animals or Indians. In My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), a saga of his Sierra Nevada travels in 1868, Muir wrote disparagingly of the Indians he encountered there, equating Indians with unclean animals that did not belong in the wilderness. In 1868, he visited Brown’s Flat near Yosemite’s Merced River, where he encountered a group of Indians denigrated as Diggers whom he found dirty and unclean. On another occasion, he was visited by Indians from Mono and commented that the clean air and water of the mountains “cover and cure the grossness of their lives.” He wrote: “A strangely dirty and irregular life these dark-eyed dark-haired, half-happy savages lead in this clean wilderness.” He described a band of Indians from Mono collecting acorns on their way to Yosemite: “They were wrapped in blankets made of the skins of sage-rabbits. The dirt on some of the faces seemed almost old enough and thick enough to have a geological significance. … How glad I was to get away from the gray, grim crowd and see them vanish down the trail! Yet it seems sad to feel such desperate repulsion from one’s fellow beings, however degraded. To prefer the society of squirrels and woodchucks to that of our own species must surely be unnatural.”[10]

Muir continually contrasted Indians with wilderness, writing of them as polar opposites of the pristine lands in which he found them. He was particularly appalled by Indian women, writing of one: “Her dress was calico rags, far from clean. In every way she seemed sadly unlike Nature’s neat well-dressed animals, though living like them on the bounty of the wilderness. Strange that mankind alone is dirty. Had she been clad in fur or cloth woven of grass or shreddy bark, she might then have seemed a rightful part of the wilderness; like a good wolf at least, or bear.” On another occasion, he happened upon some Indian women collecting wild grain and beating out the seed, commenting, “the women were evidently enjoying it, laughing and chattering and looking almost natural. … Perhaps if I knew them better I should like them better. The worst thing about them is their uncleanliness. Nothing truly wild is unclean. Down on the shore of Mono Lake I saw a number of their flimsy huts on the banks of streams that dash swiftly into that dead sea,—mere brush tents where they lie and eat at their ease.”[11]

In his excursions into southeastern Alaska in 1879 and 1880, in the company of several Indian guides and missionary S. Hall Young, Muir moderated his view of the Indians he encountered there. He expressed admiration for their totem poles, ideas of the world, and dignity, while nevertheless preferring the “clean wilderness” to Indian encampments and the depravity of Indian fighting and addiction to alcohol. He was especially moved by the oratorical ability of his guide Toyatte and deplored the latter’s subsequent sacrifice of his own life to save his people. When questioned by Indians as to his purpose there, Muir insisted that he had only come to see their glaciers, forests, and mountains, but assured them of God’s love of all of them and of “the brotherhood of all races of people.” While Muir did not become an advocate for Indians, he came to appreciate those whom he considered as living closer to a state of wildness than those degraded by their encounters with “over-civilized” whites. In preparing his Sierra journals for publication in 1911 and his Alaska journals for publication (posthumously) in 1915, he did not modify his earlier impressions of either Indian group.[12]

Muir’s responses to the Indians he encountered during his first summer in the Sierras contrasted sharply with those of another writer of the same period and place, Helen Hunt Jackson. Jackson wrote about her experiences in Yosemite National Park and the California “wilderness,” where her initial negative reactions to the Indians, as Rebecca Solnit points out, were soon altered, and she became an activist on their behalf. On her visit to Yosemite Valley in 1872, Jackson had characterized the Digger Indians as “loathsome,” “half-naked,” and “dirty,” while admiring their legends, poetry, and language. But in 1881, she completed A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government’s Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes, a volume so critical of broken treaties and inhumane treatment of Indians that it shocked the nation. Ramona, her novel of the southern California mission Indians, was written in 1883 and serialized in the Christian Union in May 1884. Its elegant literary style and ethical message of Indian mistreatment surpassed her earlier work in arousing the public to the cause of Indians.[13]

Another environmental writer of the same period who championed the cause of American Indians was Mary Austin. In 1903, Austin published The Land of Little Rain. Like a number of other environmental advocates around the turn of the nineteenth century, Austin was also an advocate for Indians. She began her book with an appreciation for the Indians of the western deserts whose lives blended with the limits of the West’s arid lands in what she called the “the country of lost borders.” “Ute, Paiute, Mojave, and Shoshone inhabit its frontiers, and as far into the heart of it as man dare go,” she wrote. “Not the law, but the land sets the limit.” It was a land that “will not be lived in except in its own fashion,” a land which the Shoshone Indians called their home, a place of awesome beauty, with sculpted vermillion hills and radiant flowers that bloomed in the rare rains. In contrast to Muir, Austin concluded: “Not the weathered hut is his home, but the land, the winds, the hill front, the stream.” Here the Indians were not removed from the land or written out of the narrative as “visitors who do not remain,” but were integral to a sense of the land as home.[14]

Blacks, Blackness, and the Environment

AFRICAN AMERICANS presented more difficult problems for European colonizers than did Indians. Although both Indians and blacks were regarded as savage, Africans and Indians were constructed differently and treated differently. Although Indians were of a different color than whites, white-black differences seemed more pronounced than those between Indians and whites. Whereas the English colonizers’ “errand into the wilderness” of America was to live there, civilize the land, and Christianize the Indian, their business in Africa was to trade and enslave. Europeans associated blackness with witchcraft, Satan, beasts, and putrid, decaying matter. The concept of whiteness itself emerged as a contrast and “Other” to blackness.[15]

The slave system caused both the destruction of black bodies and the rapid degradation of southern soils, as tobacco, rice, sugar, and cotton became cash crops in an expanding world market. Environmental justice advocate Robert Bullard puts it bluntly: “The nation was founded on the principles of ‘free land’ (stolen from Native Americans and Mexicans), ‘free labor’ (cruelly extracted from African slaves), and ‘free men’ (white men with property).”[16]

Like Indians, blacks resisted enslavement and degradation. Slave rebellions such as those of Denmark Vesey in 1822 and Nat Turner in 1831 were overt demonstrations against repression. But slaves also covertly appropriated food from their masters’ gardens and kitchens, slacked off or ran away from field work, and retaliated against their owners when the latter became too old or sick to enforce their superiority. In addition, blacks, like Indians, retained many of their own cultural traditions, foods, stories, religious practices, songs, clothing, and dance. Many believed that their owners would receive due punishment after death, while they themselves would end up in paradise.

But one environmentalist protested slavery. Henry David Thoreau refused to pay poll taxes that supported the Mexican War and a government “which buys and sells men, women, and children like cattle at the door of its senate-house.” As Patricia Nelson Limerick argues, “Nature-loving and slavery-hating were compatible and matched projects in Thoreau’s mind.” While living at Walden Pond in July 1846, Thoreau was arrested for failing to pay taxes and spent a night in jail as a consequence. He wrote “Civil Disobedience” (1849), “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854), and “A Plea for Captain John Brown” (1859) in defiance of slavery. “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also,” he wrote. More reprehensible even than southerners, Thoreau asserted, were Massachusetts farmers and merchants, who were far more interested in making money than they were “in humanity, and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico, cost what it may.” Thoreau argued vehemently against a citizen’s utilitarian duty to submit to civil government and insisted instead that “this people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.” Thoreau’s concept of community not only included minorities, it encompassed both humanity and nature; he “regarded sunfish, plants, skunks, and even stars as fellows and neighbors—members, in other words, of his community.” His ethic was one of the individual self in partnership with the entire human community and the natural world.[17]

READ MORE: The History of Slavery: America’s Black Mark

During the 1850s, northern and southern abolitionists joined in the moral condemnation of slavery. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed the slaves, and the American Civil War (fought between 1861 and 1865) released slaves from bodily bondage and reconstituted the nation. But a new system of oppressive sharecropping and segregation of free blacks ensued.

With increasing urbanization after the Civil War, many African Americans found themselves living in segregated areas in America’s cities. While the intermingling of races existed in the three decades following the war, neighborhoods began to organize themselves along color lines by the 1890s. Black main streets co-existed with white downtowns and racial zoning arose as Jim Crow laws were enacted in southern cities. By the turn of the century, rigid separations occurred with segregated black and white parks, schools, train stations, and streetcars. In the minds of many Americans, the valence of wilderness had been reversed. The city had become a dark, negatively charged wilderness filled with blacks and southern European immigrants, while mountains, forests, waterfalls, and canyons were viewed as sublime places of white light. Robert Woods wrote The City Wilderness in 1898 to describe deteriorating urban neighborhoods that were morally and socially depraved, while Booth Tarkington, in The Turmoil (1914), portrayed them as sooty, polluted, and diseased.

During the same period that John Muir was describing Indians as dirty and unclean, cities were perceived as dirty and polluted. Dark, smoke-filled cities contrasted with the purity of mountain air and the clarity of whitewater rivers, waterfalls, and lakes. Sublime nature was white and benign, available to white tourists; cities were portrayed as black and malign, the home of the unclean and the undesirable.[18]

Environmentalism and African Americans

THE CONSERVATION movement at the turn of the nineteenth century emerged during the same period in which cities became negatively signed black areas and as blacks struggled for advancement. As environmental-policy advocate Jeffrey Romm argues, the two movements existed in separate spheres, but were tightly bound together in ways that produced negative consequences for African Americans. The creation of the forest reserves (1891), the founding of the Sierra Club (1892) with John Muir as its first president, the progressive conservation movement (1900–1913), and passage of the Antiquities Act (1906) that preserved Mesa Verde by removing the Ute from their homelands occurred during the same period as Booker T. Washington, Louis Hughes, George Washington Carver, and W. E. B. DuBois were engaged in struggles to liberate blacks from the oppressions of post-Civil War sharecropping, soil degradation, and racial prejudice.

Romm maintains that a “coincidental order of environmental injustice,” evident in the late nineteenth century, hardened existing forms of institutional racism. “The Supreme Court’s ‘separate but equal’ doctrine of its Plessy v. Ferguson decision [1896] legitimized racial segregation in the United States for the next seventy years. … While the forest reservations reduced people’s access to land, racial segregation reserved ownership of the remaining private land for whites.” In the South, freed slaves were expected to purchase land with wages at a time when lands in the West were promoted to whites as free lands. Boundaries created by natural-resource regulations restrained opportunities for people of color, while protecting white power and privilege.[19]

African American environmentalist Carl Anthony points out that John Muir’s encounters in the pristine wilderness of Canada and the Cotton South actually were made possible by the “occupied wilderness” of the Civil War and Native American battles. Muir, Anthony states, had been a Civil War draft-dodger who went to the Canadian wilds rather than fight. Environmental historian Roderick Nash concurs: “Muir’s first encounter with the idea that nature had rights came as a consequence of draft-dodging. … Muir, who was twenty-six and single, felt certain he would be called, and he apparently had no interest in the fight to save the Union or free the slaves.” Biographer Stephen Fox portrays him instead as a pacifist who “was paralyzed by the threat of conscription” and who “had no strong feelings about the moral aspects of war.” After Lincoln signed an order to draft 500,000 men, Muir fled to Canada and spent the war years as a fugitive, seeking peace in the “wilderness” north of Lake Huron and failing to communicate with family and friends for fear of being discovered. While whites and blacks alike lost their lives fighting for freedom, Muir worried about maintaining his solitude: “Only once in my long Canada wanderings,” he wrote, “was the deep peace of the wilderness savagely broken. … I was awakened by the awfully dismal howling of the wolves.”[20]

After the war, in 1867, Muir made his “Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf” to study natural history through lands that had been ravaged by war and now were protected by soldiers of the U.S. government, but whose wilderness delights seemed to him Edenic. Here he encountered mountainous streams lined with “forest walls vine-draped and flowery as Eden,” in the very place where “General Scott had his headquarters when he removed the Cherokee Indians to a new home in the West.”[21]

Muir was unsympathetic toward the “savages” he encountered on his thousand-mile walk. Of his visit to Murphy, North Carolina, he wrote: “For the first time since leaving home I found a house decked with flowers and vines, clean within and without and stamped with the comforts of culture and refinement in all its arrangements. Striking contrast to the uncouth transitionist establishments from the wigwams of savages to the clumsy but clean log castle of the thrifty pioneer.”[22]

Muir’s account of his walk likewise reflected cultural prejudices against blacks. Although he described some as “well trained,” “extremely polite,” and very “civil,” he viewed most as lazy and noisy. He wrote that “the Negroes are easygoing and merry, making a great deal of noise and doing little work. One energetic white man, working with a will, would easily pick as much cotton as half a dozen Sambos and Sallies.” He described an evening campfire he attended as akin to deviltry: “In the center of this globe of light sat two Negroes. I could see their ivory gleaming from the great lips, and their smooth cheeks flashing off light as if made of glass. Seen anywhere but in the South, the glossy pair would have been taken for twin devils, but here it was only a Negro and his wife at their supper.” Muir’s environmental ethic included wilderness, but, unlike Thoreau, he was insensitive to much of humanity. He embraced nonhuman nature from bears to orchids to rattlesnakes as “fellow mortals,” but his theocentric ethic, which was grounded in a God manifested within nature, did not explicitly include the entire human community.[23]

In contrast to John Muir’s descriptions of blacks and nature in the South as disconnected opposites, African American writer Zora Neale Hurston wrote of blacks as part of Florida’s environment. In Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Hurston portrayed blacks who were planting and harvesting beans in the Everglades as engaging with a wild, animate, spiritualized nature that produced “big beans, big cane, big weeds, big everything.” The dirt was “so rich and black that a half mile of it would have fertilized a Kansas Wheat Field. Wild cane on either side of the road. … People wild too.” While waiting for the beans to grow, blacks fished and hunted alligators as did the local Indians, who were “calmly winning their living in the trackless ways of the ‘Glades.” But Indians left the Everglades in an impending hurricane, while blacks stayed to combat and succumb to the fury of its winds.[24]

For Hurston, unpredictable chaotic forces were male not female. “The two hundred miles an hour wind had loosed his chains. He seized hold of his dikes and ran forward until he met the quarters; uprooted them like grass and rushed on after his supposed to be conquerors, rolling the dikes, rolling the houses, rolling the people in the houses along with other timbers. The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.” Here nature and the human community are at odds, life hanging by a thread, a time of dying for all that lived. A time to face the desolation, a time to bury the dead and go on: “The time of dying was over.” Here too was an ethic at odds with Muir’s ecstatic experience of a lightning storm in a sublime Sierra wilderness apart from civilization. Hurston’s ethic was one of living on the land and of acceptance of nature as active and alive—”a bloom time, and a green time and an orange time.”[25]

Patricia Limerick argues that Aldo Leopold’s 1949 “Land Ethic,” which advocated enlarging the bounds of the community to include “soils, waters, plants, and animals,” ignored communities of people of color. Leopold began his essay with the sentence, “When god-like Odysseus returned from the wars in Troy, he hanged all on one rope a dozen slave-girls of his household whom he suspected of misbehavior during his absence. This hanging involved no question of propriety. The girls were property.” To Leopold, Limerick asserts, both slavery and gender violence seemed to exist only in the deep past, although segregation (and patriarchy) were both alive and well in twentieth-century America. “Not a word of the essay,” Limerick writes, “suggested that the end of slavery left any unfinished business in the United States.” Leopold’s obliviousness to the legacy of slavery in Jim Crow America, she argues, echoed the conservation movement’s own obliviousness to a legacy that excluded people of color from equal access to natural and recreational resources.[26]

Yet Leopold’s ideas were more complicated than Limerick suggests. In his writings, there is neither evidence of the exclusion of minorities from his ethic, as in the case of Muir, nor of inclusion, as in the case of Thoreau. Leopold’s early skepticism toward Indian uses of fire and game predation evolved to one of admiration for Indian insights into ecological management. Moreover, he seems to have implicitly assumed the equality of all persons and biota in an era when slavery had been officially abolished. Although Leopold was not an advocate for the rights of minorities, he was neither insensitive to minorities nor a racist by the sin of omission as Limerick implies. His wife and her family were of Hispanic and Jewish descent. He was appalled by the “near pogrom in Germany,” to exterminate Jews during World War II. And his ethical sequence decried the slavery of both humanity and the earth.[27]

In his elaboration of the ethical sequence proposed by Leopold, Roderick Nash argues that Leopold’s ethic does in fact extend to African American emancipation and American Indian citizenship. Nash explicates an environmental ethic that expanded rights to oppressed minorities first in Great Britain and then in the United States. The Magna Carta of 1215 and the Declaration of Independence in 1776 were followed by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, the nineteenth amendment giving women the right to vote in 1920, the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

READ MORE: Abraham Lincoln

Nash makes explicit the connections between the rights of minorities and the rights of nature implicit in Leopold’s ethical sequence. “Assuming one regarded slaves as people,” Nash writes, “the new natural-rights philosophy made a strong case for including them in the ethical community. The abolitionists quickly seized on this idea as a powerful argument for terminating an institution that denied slaves something all people possessed by birth and which could never be alienated—namely their right to life and liberty.” Those who extended the natural rights principles across the boundaries of species, he notes, “employed the same liberal faith that had served the antislavery partisans.” My own view is that Leopold’s “Land Ethic,” which is based on “the tendency of interdependent individuals or groups to evolve modes of cooperation,” might be seen, not as an extension of a Eurocentric rights-based ethic, as Nash presumes, but as one foundation for an ethic of partnership among humans and between human and nonhuman communities, an ethic that explicitly includes minorities.[28]

Limerick points to two positive junctions between environmentalism and civil rights. In 1964, two acts were passed by the same Congress: the Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act. Thirty years later, in 1994, President Bill Clinton created a federal mandate for environmental justice with the issuance of Executive Order 12898. He directed all federal agencies to “make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.”[29]

Colonized “Others”

LEGISLATIVE AND LEGAL victories that linked human rights and nature’s rights, however, are belied by the realities of life in twenty-first-century America. Segregation and poverty still militate against equal access to resources and encourage toxic waste “Dumping in Dixie.” Wilderness has been redefined in ways that exclude Native Americans and discourage access by minorities and disadvantaged peoples.[30]

With the taming of wilderness, the removal of Indians, and the repression of blacks, the American Eden became a colonized Eden that could be extended to other countries. The control of the wild represented the kind of state that Western societies could export throughout the world to colonized “Other” lands. That state was the “Self” of western European countries, in particular, those that exported their science, technologies, and methods of controlling resources to the “Others.” The “Others” were the colonized indigenous people, immigrants, and people of color who were outside the controlled, managed garden. Throughout the world, as land was transformed into irrigated gardens filled with monocultures controlled by agribusiness, what lay beyond the periphery were wastelands and deserts, the places of outcasts, of waste, of people of color, and of immigrants—in short, those colonized “Others” not admitted into the enclosed space of the reinvented garden.[31]

From the perspective of the western European “Subject,” such wastelands are the locales of the “Others.” The sequence—first the forest, then the city, then the desert—intimates an impending decline if cities and civilizations are not managed properly. The idea of the desert encroaching on the city—of wastelands arriving at the city borders—is symptomatic of the global ecological crisis, exemplified by desertification, the failure of irrigation systems, and the salinization of soils.

The crisis of racial awareness continues in the current reaction against multiculturalism and affirmative action. Other symptoms of crisis are policies directed against the environment—the property rights movement, erosion of the Endangered Species Act, efforts by ranchers to preserve “free” grazing on the western range, and the persistence of lumber companies in cutting old-growth forests.

Waste, pollution, landfills, and incinerators have been located in deserts, in inner cities, in ghettos, and on American Indian reservations and are often targeted for the neighborhoods of people of color. This became particularly apparent in 1987 when the United Church of Christ released its report on “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States.” The struggles for environmental justice have taken place in various geographical and bodily locations. When bodies are sick, polluted, or cancerous, people fight against the illness. The home, where many women and children spend much of their time, is polluted. Many communities are toxic, especially those of poor people, such as rural communities in Appalachia, Hispanic communities in California, Indian reservations, and urban inner cities. They have become sites of local contestation and local movements for environmental justice. On a more hopeful level, many grassroots organizations that arose in opposition to toxic dumping have become multiethnic and multiracial. Many local movements are organized by women and many are led by minority women. The mainstream environmental movement, however, remains largely white, and environmental organizations, with some exceptions, still work on issues most relevant to white communities.[32]


MANY PEOPLE of color found themselves colonized or enslaved as European civilization spread throughout the globe over the past several centuries. As the Western narrative of progress has taken shape, they have been left out or depicted as victims. Indians who lost their lands and blacks whose forced labor helped to create degraded soils find themselves again threatened by wastes dumped on their homelands and in their neighborhoods. For them the progressive story is a decline. They envision, instead, a new story—the possibility of a post-colonial world that could be a better place for indigenous peoples and people of color.[33]

The environmental justice movement includes justice for people of color, justice for women, and justice for nature. It reverses past environmental injustices disproportionately experienced by minorities. Environmental justice is the righting of the inequities of the past through laws, regulations, compensation, and removal of the causes of eco-injustice. Ecojustice entails the redistribution of wealth through the redistribution of environmental goods and services. With hard work and awareness, the crisis of environmental injustice, noted by Wendell Berry and a host of environmental historians, could result instead in justice restored.

READ MORE: The Chicano Movement

READ MORE: The Civil Rights Movement

Carolyn Merchant is professor of environmental history, philosophy, and ethics in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley. This article was her presidential address to the American Society for Environmental History, at Providence, Rhode Island, 27 March 2003.


Portions of this essay appeared in Carolyn Merchant, Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture (New York: Routledge, 2003), ch. 7, and are used by permission. I thank J. Baird Callicott, Susan L. Flader, Dianne D. Glave, Curt Meine, William Swagerty, and Sarah Thomas for assistance and references.

1.� Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound (Berkeley, Calif.: Northpoint Press, 1989), 112, 48.
2.� For example, the University of California, Berkeley, has an American Cultures requirement that can be fulfilled by “American Environmental and Cultural History” (see The requirement states: “The courses focus on themes or issues in United States history, society or culture; address theoretical or analytical issues relevant to understanding race, culture, and ethnicity in our society; take substantial account of groups drawn from at least three of the following: African-Americans, indigenous peoples of the United States, Asian Americans, Chicano/Latino Americans, and European Americans; and are integrative and comparative in that students study each group in the larger context of American society, history, or culture. The courses also provide students with the intellectual tools to understand better their own identity and the cultural identity of others in their own terms.” “Berkeley Campus American Cultures Breadth Requirement,” General Catalog, University of California, Berkeley.
3.� Mart A. Stewart, What Nature Suffers to Groe: Life, Labor, and Landscape on the Georgia Coast, 1680–1920 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996); Mart A. Stewart, “Rice, Water, and Power: Landscapes of Domination and Resistance in the Lowcountry, 1790–1880,” Environmental History Review 15 (Fall 1991): 47–64; Timothy Silver, A New Face on the Countryside: Indians, Colonists, and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 1500–1800 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Judith A. Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001); Carl Anthony, “The Big House and the Slave Quarters: Part II, African Contributions to the New World,” Landscape 25 (Autumn 1976): 9–15; Dianne D. Glave, “Fields and Gardens: An Environmental History of African American Farmers in the Progressive South,” (Ph.D. diss., State University of New York at Stony Brook, 1998); Dianne D. Glave, “‘A Garden So Brilliant with Colors, So Original in Its Design’: Rural African American Women, Progressive Reform, and the Foundation of an African American Environmental Perspective,” Environmental History 8 (2003): 395–429; Dianne D. Glave, “The African American Cooperative Service: A Folk Tradition in Conservation and Preservation in the Early Twentieth Century” International Journal of Africana Studies, 6 (November/December 2000), 85–100; Carolyn Merchant, The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 39–58.
4.� Mark David Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); J. Baird Callicott, “The Wilderness Idea Revisited: The Sustainable Development Alternative,” The Environmental Professional, 13 (1991): 235–47; William Cronon, “The Trouble With Wilderness: Or Getting Back To The Wrong Nature,” in William Cronon, ed. Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995), 69–90; Philip Burnham, Indian Country, God’s Country: Native Americans and the National Parks (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2000); Robert H. Keller and Michael F. Turek, American Indians and National Parks (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998); Rebecca Solnit, “Up the River of Mercy,”Sierra 77 (November/December 1992): 50–84; Rebecca Solnit, Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Hidden Wars of the American West (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1994); Merchant, The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History, 140–58.
5.� Elizabeth D. Blum, “Power, Danger, and Control: Slave Women’s Perceptions of Wilderness in the Nineteenth Century,” Women’s Studies 31 (2002): 247–65; Callicott, “The Wilderness Idea Revisited.”
6.� Jeffrey Romm, “The Coincidental Order of Environmental Injustice,” in Justice and Natural Resources: Concepts, Strategies, and Applications, ed. Kathryn M. Mutz, Gary C. Bryner, and Douglas S. Kenny (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2002), 117–38; Patricia Nelson Limerick, “Hoping Against History,” in Ibid., 337–54; Roderick Nash, The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989).
7.� Eileen McGurty, “From NIMBY to Civil Rights: The Origins of the Environmental Justice Movement,” Environmental History 2 (July 1997): 301–23; Edie Yuen, Lisa J. Bunin, and Tim Stroshane, “Multicultural Ecology: An Interview with Carl Anthony,” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, 8 (September 1997): 41–62; Robert Gottlieb, “Reconstructing Environmentalism: Complex Movements, Diverse Roots.” Environmental History Review 17 (Winter 1993): 1–19; Robert Bullard, ed., Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots (Boston: South End Press, 1993); Andrew Hurley, Environmental Inequalities: Class, Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945–1980, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); Martin Melosi, “Equity, Eco-Racism, and Environmental History,” Environmental History Review 19 (Fall 1995): 1–16; Dorceta Taylor, “American Environmentalism: The Role of Race, Class, and Gender in Shaping Activism 1820–1995,” Race, Gender and Class, 5 (1997): 16–62; Elizabeth D. Blum, “Pink and Green: A Comparative Study of Black and White Women’s Environmental Activism in the Twentieth Century” (Ph.D. diss., University of Houston, 2000); Elizabeth D. Blum, “Protecting Home and Race: Black Women’s Environmental Activism During the Progressive Era,” (paper presented to the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, San Francisco, 3–6 January, 2002); Colin Fisher, “African Americans and the Frontier of Leisure: The 1919 Chicago Race Riot and Access to Nature,” (paper presented to the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, San Francisco, January 3–6, 2002).
8.� On African and Asian Americans in the American West, see William Loren Katz, The Black West: A Documentary and Pictorial History of the African American Role in the Westward Expansion of the United States (1971; reprint, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996); Sucheng Chan, This Bittersweet Soil: The Chinese in California Agriculture, 1860–1910 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); Sylvia Sun Minnick, Samfow; The San Joaquin Chinese Legacy (Fresno, Calif.: Panorama West, 1988); Silvia Anne Sheafer, Chinese and the Gold Rush (Whittier, Calif.: Journal Publications, 1979); Devra Weber, Dark Sweat, White Gold: California Farm Workers, Cotton, and the New Deal (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1994).
9.� William Bradford, Of Plimoth Plantation (Boston: Wright and Potter, 1901), 94–95; George Catlin, North American Indians (1844; reprint, Philadelphia: Leary, Stuart, 1913), 1:294–95.
10.� John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (1911; reprint, New York: Penguin Books, 1987), 205, 218.
11.� Ibid., 58–59, 226.
12.� John Muir, Travels in Alaska (1915; reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1978), 31, 71–72, 77, 123, 131, 133–38, 163, 171, 197–204, quotations on 239, 136. On Muir’s “sermons,” see pp. 135–36, 171–73. On Muir’s attitudes toward Indians, see Richard F. Fleck, Henry Thoreau and John Muir Among the Indians (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1985). Fleck reprints Muir’s unpublished typescript from about 1908 containing one of his “sermons” in Alaska (referred to, but not included by Muir in his Travels in Alaska, pp.135–36, 171–72), with words in brackets either added([ ]) or crossed (< >) out by Muir: “Then I spoke of the brotherhood of man—how we were all children of one father; sketched the characteristics of the different races of mankind, showing that no matter [how far apart their countries were], how they differed in color, [size, language] etc and no matter how < different and how > various the ways in which they got a living, that the white man [& all the people of the world] were essentially alike, < and that all the races of the world were alike; that > we all had ten fingers and ten toes, and in general [our bodies were the same whether] < whether our limbs were the same, although we might have] [white or brown or black different color and speak different languages, > just as though one family of [Thlinkit] boys and girls [has been scattered far abroad, formed] < should be sent abroad to different places and > [different tribes] forget their own language, and were so changed in < each form a habit of talking of their own after be > [color by the winds & sunshine of different climates that when after a long] < ing separated so long. …” (Fleck, Henry Thoreau and John Muir, 89–90). For more on Muir’s view of Indians in Alaska, see Linnie Marsh Wolfe, ed. John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1938), 270–75.
13.� Rebecca Solnit, personal communication. Helen Hunt Jackson, Ah-Wah-Ne Days: A Visit to the Yosemite Valley in 1872 (San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1971), 39, 46, 47, 70, quotations on pp. 20, 38–39; Helen Hunt Jackson, “My Day in the Wilderness” Six California Tales (San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1939), 6:1–19; Helen Hunt Jackson, A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government’s Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes (1881; reprint, Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1888); Helen Hunt Jackson, Ramona: A Story (1884; reprint, Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1899); Ruth Odell, Helen Hunt Jackson (H.H.) (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1939), 155–70; Carlyle Channing Davis and William A. Alderson, The True Story of “Ramona” (New York: Dodge Publishing Co., 1914); Valerie Sherer Mathes, Helen Hunt Jackson and Her Indian Reform Legacy (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), 21–54.
14.� Mary Austin, The Land of Little Rain (1903; reprint, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950), quotations on pp. 1, 33, 63. On Austin’s view of Indians and the desert see Vera Norwood, “Heroines of Nature: Four Women Respond to the American Landscape,” Environmental Review 8 (Spring 1984): 34–56, see pp. 41–44. In 1873, Joaquin Miller who had lived with the Modoc Indians wrote about the simultaneous defeat of the Indians during the 1873 Modoc War and the destruction of the California environment from gold mining. See Joaquin Miller, Life Amongst the Modocs (London: R. Bentley, 1873; reprint, Chicago: Moril, Higgins & Co., 1892), 18–22, 54–55. Another environmentalist sympathetic to Indians was John Wesley Powell, author of the Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States (1878) and director of the Bureau of Ethnology (1879–1902). Powell’s attitudes, however, were complex. On the one hand, he agonized over Indian poverty and hunger and desired to help Indians adapt to what he considered inevitable change, and, on the other hand, he believed that civilization meant the displacement of a nomadic, hunting lifestyle and the dispelling of Indian animism and myths. He was fascinated by Indian languages and lifestyles, but believed that their way of life was doomed and that Indians must adapt to white ways in order to survive. See Donald Worster, A River Running West; The Life of John Wesley Powell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 261–96.
15.� Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550–1812 (1968; reprint, New York: W. W. Norton, 1977), 23–28; Carl Anthony, personal communication.
16.� Bullard, Confronting Environmental Racism, 15–16.
17.� Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience (1854 and 1849; reprint, New York: Penguin, 1983), introduction, 29–36, quotation from “Walden” on p. 216; quotations from “Civil Disobedience,” on pp. 389, 390, 391. On Thoreau’s concept of community see Nash, The Rights of Nature, 37. On Thoreau as an opponent of slavery, see Limerick, “Hoping Against History,” 343. The English actress Frances Anne Kemble (wife of Philadelphian Pierce Butler, who owned a Sea Island Cotton plantation off the coast of Georgia) was likewise an opponent of slavery and an advocate for nature. See Frances Anne Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838–1839 (1863, reprint, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), 3–4, 10–11, 202–3, 215–16. Frederick Law Olmsted traveled through the South in 1853 and in 1856 published A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States, noting both the brutal treatment of slaves and the exhaustion of soils. See Frederick Law Olmsted, The Slave States (1856; reprint, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959).
18.� Thomas W. Hanchett, Sorting out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875–1975 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 116–44; Robert Woods, ed., The City Wilderness: A Settlement Study (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1898), 1–2; Booth Tarkington, The Turmoil, a Novel (1914; reprint, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1915), 1–5.
19.� Romm, “The Coincidental Order of Environmental Injustice,” 122–23.
20.� Yuen, Bunin, and Stroshane, “Interview with Carl Anthony,” 50; Nash, The Rights of Nature, 38–39; Stephen Fox, John Muir and his Legacy: The American Conservation Movement (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1981), 41–43, quotations on p. 42; John Muir, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991), xvi.
21.� Muir, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, 25.
22.� Ibid., 25.
23.� Ibid., 30, 31, 60.
24.� Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1937; New York: Harper Collins, 1990), 129, 130.
25.� Ibid., 161–62, 169, 25.
26.� Limerick, “Hoping Against History,” 340–42; Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949), 204.
27.� On Leopold’s changing attitudes toward Indians, see his 1937 essay, “Conservationist in Mexico,” in The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays by Aldo Leopold, ed. Susan L. Flader and J. Baird Callicott (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 239–44. In the “Conservation Ethic,” an early draft of the “Land Ethic” written in 1933, Leopold wrote: The “sense of right and wrong may be aroused quite as strongly by the desecration of a nearby woodlot as by a famine in China, a near pogrom in Germany, or the murder of the slave-girls in ancient Greece.” Aldo Leopold, “The Conservation Ethic,” in The River of the Mother of God, ed. Flader and Callicott, 182. The legacy of slavery as extended to the earth led Leopold to an ethic of cooperation among people and between people and nature. He wrote: “Civilization is not … the enslavement of a stable and constant earth. It is a state of mutual and interdependent cooperation between human animals, other animals, plants, and soil, which may be disrupted at any moment by the failure of any of them”: Leopold, “The Conservation Ethic,” 183.
28.� Nash, The Rights of Nature, 6–7, 200–213, quotations on 202, 203; Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 202. Nash points out that “slavery in the United States was not negotiated away. For similar reasons it might be unreasonable to expect that what Aldo Leopold was the first to call ‘the enslavement of … earth’ could be abolished without profound social disruption.” (Nash, The Rights of Nature, 8). A. L. Herman, in Community, Violence, and Peace (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999) argues that Leopold, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, and Gautama the Buddha each developed an ethic rooted in a concept of community that arose from a transformative experience within the individual.
29.� Limerick, “Hoping Against History,” 344–45.
30.� Robert Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1990).
31.� Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (London: Macmillan, 1988), reprinted in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin (New York: Routledge, 1995), 24–28.
32.� Hawley Truax, “Minorities at Risk,” Environmental Action 21 (January/February 1990): 20–21; Charles Lee, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites (New York: United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, 1987); Jesus Sanchez, “The Environment: Whose Movement?” Green Letter, 5 (Spring 1989): 3–4, 14–16; Philip Shabecoff, “Environmental Groups Faulted for Racism,” San Francisco Chronicle, 1 February 1990; Robbin Lee Zeff, Marsha Love, and Karen Stults, Empowering Ourselves: Women and Toxics Organizing (Arlington, Va.: Citizen’s Clearing House for Hazardous Wastes, n.d.); Andrew Szasz, Ecopopulism: Toxic Waste and the Movement for Environmental Justice (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994). Kevin DeLuca and Anne Demo, “Imagining Nature and Erasing Class and Race: Carleton Watkins, John Muir, and the Construction of Wilderness,” Environmental History 6 (2001): 541–60.
33.� J. M. Blaut, The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History (New York: Guilford Press, 1993); Ashcroft, Post-Colonial Studies Reader.

By Carolyn Merchant