Subduing Nature, and People of Color

Racism is a significant factor in how environmental issues are dealt with. The attitude Americans have toward people of color and people in developing countries often gets mixed in with whether we think a particular environmental problem is something that even ought to be addressed. It is rooted in the attitude that certain people are not valuable.

The view in the developed world often doesn't take the affected people into consideration. It starts with the questions, What is to our benefit? and, How are we impacted by whatever is happening somewhere?--rather than the question, How are the native people being impacted?

As Americans moved through history seeking to "subdueö nature and to have "dominion" over creatures deemed "lesser than human", white people often forgot that people of color were not included in whatever it was that God was giving human beings dominion over. It was forgotten, or maybe it was never learned, that using what one needs from the environment to help sustain life is very different than striving to control and dominate the environment.

The idea of dominion and domination of people of color has become quite the norm in many instances. Westerners historically have had the idea that, as a technologically advanced place, we can use any other place on the globe for our benefit. For instance, Europeans bring their waste and dispose of it in Gambia, out in the bush--and the people who live there have no idea what is going on. If people are not seen as valuable, then we don't have to value whatever environmental problems confront them as people.

Overpopulation is not a problem in this country the way it is in some other parts of the world, and we don't think about it in the same way. We often don't think about including the people in the discussion who are from the particular region that is mainly affected. It is the same old pattern: "We can figure out what the problem is, and we can figure out how to deal with it, and we won't ask you if that's even a legitimate problem for you."

People in developing countries often don't think in terms of having "too many children." In the first place, the child mortality rate is high, so people feel the need to make sure that they have enough children that manage to stay alive. People are concerned with having families and how the family has to function and the roles that members play. Many people are more preoccupied with the mortality rate of children than they are worried about having too many children.

Some of the discussion about "overpopulation" is rooted in a sense of threat, that there are so many of "those people" and that they are going to take things away from "us"--and they might even take the world over. Racism heavily undergirds that analysis. It does not have to do with thinking that there is not enough space on the globe for everybody, it has to do with thinking, I might not be able to keep my lifestyle in the manner to which I'm accustomed.

The analysis of "overconsumption" speaks more to people who are solidly middle class and above. It is people in that category who can make choices about not buying things and reducing consumption out of a sense of solidarity with people who do not have anything. That generalization cannot fit everybody. There are an awful lot of poor people who are hardly overconsuming; they barely have enough to eat. I've known people who don't have enough money to buy food to eat three meals a day in a country where we are so quick to overgeneralize about overconsumption.

The basic issue in the discussion about consumption and population seems to come to this: "I [a white person in control and affluent] do not wish to have my consumptive way of life challenged by the plight of the poor. Therefore I don't care to see the role that I play in maintaining their poverty or the ways in which I benefit from a society where economics keeps some people very poor while others get very rich."

It is far easier to blame poor people for being poor than to assess individual habits of consumption. The blinders of racism and classism are profound, and white Americans who will not see the truth in this matter do not help to relieve the tensions and rage that are brewing among the poor.

CATHERINE MEEKS is associate professor of African-American studies at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, and a Sojourners contributing editor. She is married to Modou Ngie.

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