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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.

About The Author

Julie Schwietert

Julie Schwietert Collazo is a writer, editor, researcher, and translator currently in New York, formerly of Mexico City and San Juan.

  • Kate

    Yes. A true environmental movement make being environmentally friendly widely accessible.

    It’s funny, because if we were all outfitted for solar power, we’d save tons on power and why wouldn’t that benefit the poor?

    It’s governmental restrictions that can make these options a logistical nightmare – that and the fact that solar outfitting is a hefty investment up front.

    Still, if policy were geared toward helping out the little guy instead of the power brokers, there might be ways to help poor people save money and be environmentally friendly at the same time.

    I’ve never been that well to do, and I would roll my eyes when people would talk about buying organic. I didn’t have money to pay my phone bill – I wasn’t going to worry about organic farmers and eating healthily and being environmentally conscious.

    I see what she’s saying, but she needs to go further.

  • joshywashington

    because polar bears are people too darn it. I think it is a fallacy to think that you either choose this or that…you can’t say polar bear or people because ultimately it is the same thing. if you have to make a choice the one and the other are invariably screwed anyways

  • Shreya

    If ignoring poor people is detrimental, then so is ignoring polar bears, whales, tigers and trees. It’s time we stopped being so reckless about anything that’s not human and giving them equal status on our priority lists.

  • James

    the writer’s comments don’t give the context of Majora’s response. In the Newsweek column, Majora was not advocating for us to make a choice between the poor or the polar bears.
    She said that poor people are not going to be motivated to care about polar bears while their own basic needs are not being met.
    Majora has, in numerous other articles and talks, stated that, “if we treat all people with environmental equality, the polar bears will do just fine” ie wildlife is suffering due to dirty industrial practices that only the poor are intended to suffer (environmental injustice).
    Moreover, she is also quoted as saying “if we placed power, transport, waste, and agri-business facilities near affluent people like we do with the poor, we would have had a clean and green economy decades ago” – if we treated poor people with environmental respect always, there would likely not be a global atmospheric environmental problem affecting polar bears.
    This article and other comments here reflect a basic perceptual issue here in the US that poor people are poor because of their own fault and therefore ‘ugly’ in some way/not worthy of real care like the ‘innocent’ animals.
    the plight of many endangered animals can be traced back to our collective and careless disregard for our fellow citizens. Those who reflexively jump to the defense of animals, see the symptom of a problem but ignore the cause.

    • Julie Schwietert


      Thanks for your comment. I’m sorry that you’ve misunderstood my interpretation of Majora’s remarks as they were printed in the Newsweek article. Rather than a clear, direct articulation of the ideas you draw out here, I think the Newsweek article reflected a kind of sound byte snazziness that appeals to mainstream media but which ends up obscuring the real issues.

      I actually agree completely with Majora’s position as you articulate it here. I lived in the South Bronx (and now live in Queens near the polluted Newtown Creek) and I haven’t just seen firsthand how poor people are affected by the kinds of issues described- but I’ve lived them myself and as a former social worker, have had direct experience working with people affected by these issues. So it bothers me that you think I am conveying a message that “poor people are poor because of their own fault.” I simply don’t believe that at all and I’m not a person who “reflexively jumps to the defense of animals.”

      I simply believe that none of us has to choose between animals and people. Advocating and embracing a philosophy of living that recognizes the value and importance of both and is committed to protecting the rights of both is the value I hold. I believe Majora holds it, too; I just wish she wouldn’t have copped to such a simplistic, sensationalist expression of her belief.

      • Julie Schwietert

        Sorry, James, but I’m not going to take your bait.
        Regardless of the mainstream media’s distortion–and that’s certainly an issue we examine constantly here– I was writing based on what was presented in that piece, and I concluded that the idea being conveyed by Majora was one that was a false opposition.
        Not quite sure why you think we disagree, but I’m not really interested in running around in a rhetorical circle.

  • T.C.

    I’ll take saving polar bears any day of the week, and I’m poor as fuck (by American standards).
    What’s with the “in the ghetto” phrasing though?

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