Environmental and social justice activist Majora Carter says environmentalism means making a choice between polar bears or poor people. But why can’t we choose both?

Photo: oxfam international

If you don’t know Majora Carter, you will soon.

Carter, founder of the New York City-based Sustainable South Bronx, is a leader in the urban environmentalism movement. She’s a MacArthur Fellow and frequently appears on who’s who and “most influential” lists, widely admired for her ability to engage disparate interest groups to work together on a single cause.

Carter’s work, first as the founder and director of Sustainable South Bronx, and more recently as the president of the Majora Carter Group (a consulting outfit), as a policy advocate, and as a TV and radio show host, has raised urban awareness about environmental issues.

But her accomplishments notwithstanding, Carter’s vision of environmentalism may end up dividing more people than it unites.

In a recent interview with Newsweek, Carter was asked “How do you make green matter in the ghetto?”. She replied:

“If you’re speaking to someone whose first priority is survival, no one is going to give a crap about the polar bears—nor should they.”

The question was intended to invite conversation about environmentalism as an elitist movement, which has been confined, as the interviewer put it, “to the latte-sipping set.” True, as is the case with so many “movements.”

But the framing of the question and the response it elicited from Carter are troublesome because they imply that environmentalism forces a choice between polar bears and people, between latte-sippers and instant-coffee-from-corner-bodega drinkers.

I agree with Carter’s claim that the environmental movement has, to its detriment, overlooked urban communities and poor people. And I agree that the environmental movement needs to make its arguments and calls to action less theoretical and more tangible, relevant to people’s own daily lives.

But choosing between polar bears and people? It’s a false opposition, Majora. A true environmental movement can–and should–work on saving both.

Community Connection:

It’s true that cities could form the core of a dynamic environmental movement. Check out Six Reasons Why Cities Can Be Sustainable Places and join the conversation.

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