The following is a transcript of the conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full episode here.
[Paloma:] Today we’ll be talking about a lot of different ideas, specifically how our different cultural beliefs shape how we think about our environment, where those beliefs come from, and how they show up in the environmental movement today.
[Anna:] Today’s episode is not directly about a solution, but it’s important to remember that what solutions we choose to invest in and pursue are based on our beliefs about the environment. So that’s what we’ll be exploring today.
[Paloma:] First off, to give a bit of context of how I personally approach this whole thing: growing up near the United States-Mexico border, in a desert, the environment isn’t, I think, what most people would traditionally associate with nature. You know, it wasn’t a particularly pretty place. In fact, you could probably describe it as hostile, with the extreme heat and poor air quality.
In fact, I didn’t really think about environmentalism until I was in college because nobody ever connected the dots, I guess, that even this environment is also worth preserving, and this environment is also intrinsically connected to so many people’s health. So it wasn’t really until I got to college that I started learning all these different concepts, and started sort of dispelling this original idea of nature as something that’s pretty and preserved.
At its most basic, nature is the air we breathe and the water that we drink. It’s in the food that we eat. This idea that nature has to be green spaces and things like that– to me at least, our environment is much bigger than that, and I think it’s continuing this idea that we’re separated from it.
[Anna:] Yeah, this false sense of separation– it’s so interesting to unpack this because for the vast majority of human history, we’ve been in direct contact with nature. Today, we live in concrete boxes and we drive steel boxes, and cities and limited green space do make us feel like we’re separate from nature, but that’s all within the past couple hundred years, right?
Before that, honoring that connection between humans and nature is how we survived, for millennia.
[Paloma:] Yeah, I think it’s very interesting going back to see where these ideas even came from– about nature, about the environment, as something separate from us. It really is a very Western belief, especially in the United States.
I mean, we were founded by Puritan colonists. In society today, you still see a lot of that influence, and this idea from Judeo-Christianity that Earth is there for humans. [That’s] more of an anthropocentric viewpoint, [where] nature is a resource to be used for the benefit of humans– versus biocentric, as in nature’s value doesn’t come from its utility to humans, and humans are part of nature and not separate from it or above it.
It’s hard to emphasize how old that idea is. It predates Christianity. It predates modern society. [There’s] this idea from the Cherokee Nation that we are all related, and that relatedness is more than just humans to each other, but also humans to the natural world.
[Anna:] Yeah, to other animals, to the plants, the trees, the water, the air.
[Paloma:] And there’s an interdependence to that. And if you use more than you need, there are consequences to that, and we’ve been using more than we need for a really long time.
[Anna:] Taking more than what nature can naturally replenish at the rate of overconsumption.
I think the way that we think about our environment as something to extract from and use for the benefit of humans is informing what solutions we choose to focus on. A lot of the focus on environmental or climate action is on, for example, electric vehicles, or clean energy technologies, which we do need in a modern society– there’s no denying that– but those products and services are still embedded in a very extractive model.
They are relying on extractive industries– you know, not as bad as fossil fuels; it’s definitely a better alternative. I just feel like there could be more focus on allowing indigenous peoples to steward their own land, and do what they do best– what they have been doing best for thousands of years. You know, biodiversity is a key indicator of planetary health.
[Paloma:] Yeah, I think how we define our relationship with nature, with our environment, is also going to feed into how we think about environmentalism in our modern society today– maybe subconsciously as well, you know, if it’s been a narrative you’ve been fed your entire life.
[Paloma:] I know one of the common things that pop up is that there’s too many people and not enough resources for everybody.
[Anna:] Right, so part of what has emerged from our modern environmentalism framework is eco-fascism. Far-right folks use environmentalism as a way to justify their bigoted beliefs around overpopulation and things relating to that, like immigration. To be clear, there is more than enough for everybody on Earth.
We’ve manufactured scarcity. That’s what they don’t want you to know. Scarcity versus abundance, under capitalism, is beneficial. This kind of goes outside the realm of the environment; it’s actually getting into income and wealth inequality. And we need to close that gap if we’re going to be on top of human rights, and meeting people’s actual needs– just basic needs: food, water, shelter.
There’s more than enough food being produced around the world. So much of it goes to waste. At the end of the day, there is plenty. Earth provides for us. We just need to be more mindful about how we distribute those resources and be more equitable in that.
[Paloma:] Just think of how much further we could go if we could even just get that basic point across– that it’s not so much that there’s not enough resources for everybody, and it’s not so much that there’s too much people, it’s that there’s too much inequality.
It was a little weird seeing so many different think pieces after the Avengers Endgame movie, where Thanos just disappeared half of the population on Earth, using this rhetoric that there’s not enough for everybody. The fact that so many people agreed with him is very telling as to how prevalent this idea is– sort of the myth of overpopulation.
And to go back to your point about income and class, I think that’s also very deeply rooted– the idea that there’s even a type of hierarchy to humanity at all, you know, that there are some people who naturally deserve more.
[Paloma:] That is also why you don’t really see a lot of minorities in environmentalism. I think in recent years it has become more of a discussion and there have been more efforts– it’s tough, though, when you start thinking about why people might not be able to get involved in those environmental decisions, when there are so many other issues that they might be facing.
So, environmental justice also has to do with economic justice. It has to do with social justice. How accessible are the rooms where the decisions are being made? Are you able to attend a council meeting? Is that council meeting in your language? Do you understand what’s going on and how it’s going to impact your neighborhood?
[Anna:] That gets into intersectional environmentalism– an intersectional approach to environmentalism that advocates for protection of both people and the planet, at the same time. Because any kind of advocacy for either of those things that disregards the other– disregards their connection– is incomplete, and harmful. One of my favorite environmental communicators, Leah Thomas, coined the term intersectional environmentalism, and wrote a book on the topic, which Spaceship One has on our bookshelf.
[Paloma:] I do see the idea sort of being talked about a lot more. I think there have been challenges actually incorporating this into policy or research.
One instance that comes to mind is when I was working a couple years ago on a water quality exposure assessment, and we were talking about toxicology. And toxicology traditionally only looks at like a single toxin, one single chemical, when in reality you’re exposed to so many different things all at once, and the social issues that you might be exposed to might also impact your reaction to those chemicals.
So how do we go about looking at that? How do we go about incorporating those social factors in that type of scientific assessment? Do the outcomes of that influence how we’re gonna go about improving the water quality for those communities?
[Anna:] Yeah, I’m curious– when you say social forces that can impact how people are exposed to toxins– for example, if someone has PTSD, would they be more sensitive to a toxin? I don’t know, that’s just something I thought of.
[Paloma:] It’s a good question. There’s quite a few studies about chronic stress. So that’s stress that can be influenced by psychological issues like PTSD, and it can be influenced by being low income and just being subjected to that type of stress day in and day out. And that has real biological consequences on your body. It can actually influence your genetics. It can influence the epigenetic makeup of your cells.
[Anna:] Epigenetic, meaning how you are impacted by your environment based on your genetics?
[Paloma:] Yeah, how the environment affects your genetic makeup. And that can actually be inherited through generations. So if your family is in what we sometimes call the cycle of poverty, since social mobility has been so limited in the United States– it’s really hard to get out of being in poverty– that can translate into different biological outcomes for you, and your offspring, and their offspring.
One outcome of that might be a weakened immune system. If you have a weakened immune system, that means that you might be more susceptible to chemicals in your environment. You might not have as good of a defense system against them.
[Anna:] Yeah, that’s such a good point.
I don’t think it was until I got to college, kind of like you, where I started to learn more about what it means to be an environmentalist, and how we can make it more inclusive– or, maybe environmentalism carries so much baggage that we need a new thing. I don’t know. What are your thoughts on that?
[Paloma:] I agree that framing in terms of environmentalism is difficult. I think I’ve shared this with you before– a lot of people do things that environmentalists advocate for but don’t necessarily identify themselves as an environmentalist. They’re just doing those things out of practicality.
Like when my mom stores a plastic bag and instead of throwing it away or anything like that. It’s because she then just reuses it as a trash bag. That’s just for her to save money on not buying just trash bags. The same thing for reusing containers. I can’t tell you how many Mexican families I know that store the plastic butter container. They store all types of things in there, like salsa or rice– whatever you want, really. And whenever I see that in a fridge, I already know, like, that is not butter.
[Anna:] I can believe it’s not butter.
[Paloma:] Yeah. Exactly. And it’s better than having it end up in a landfill. But if you ask somebody why they do that, it’s just so they don’t have to buy Tupperware. And that reduces consumption.
[Anna:] Yeah. When you think of an environmentalist as an archetype of a person, what comes to mind?
[Paloma:] I’d say the idea has changed for me throughout the years. Growing up, it would be the person that you saw in the news living in a tree that they’re trying to cut down for whatever reason.
[Anna:] A literal tree hugger.
[Paloma:] A literal tree hugger, I think, is what comes to mind– sort of a white, hippie-dippie type person. I did grow up with a lot of kind of mean ideas about that– just like, why doesn’t this person have a job? There’s so many other things that they could be doing.
I think as I found myself sort of entering more of these types of spaces, now, when I think of an environmentalist, I actually think of my mom. You know, she’d always recycle, she’d always reuse anything. And part of that was just that she grew up in a poor household, and that’s sort of what she grew up doing and what she taught us.
I think when people think of an environmentalist, they don’t picture a 50-year-old Mexican woman, but why not?
[Anna:] Exactly. Being environmentally friendly is being practical, and being practical is being environmentally friendly, you know? Maybe that’s one way to bring more people into this movement who basically already effectively are.
There are so many different ways to be an environmentalist– or, you know, a good Earthling, shall we say. Even in the past five, maybe ten years, there’s been so much more representation in the media– on social media, obviously– around people of color environmentalists.
But, it’s not really translating into material conditions, or the lived experiences of people. That’s the thing. Representation only takes us so far.
[Paloma:] I’d absolutely agree. I think we’re getting more people involved and more people interested, but it’s also like, once they’re involved, it’s sort of: what now?
And I’ve been thinking about this a lot more recently– how intersectionality also means intergenerational communication. I think we could benefit a lot from talking to older people who have gone through a lot of different social movements who know how to actively organize for a movement for a cause they believe in.
You know, we’re not the first ones to think about intersectionality. We’re not the first ones to think about environmental justice. And I think just increasing communication between different groups of people in order to work towards improving your neighborhood can go a long way.