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August 31, 2007

Green Politics and Racial Inequality?

Will green solutions exacerbate economic inequality? An economist addresses what may become a vexing issue for the environmental cause

Economists are bone deep materialists. We “follow the money” in any argument, on the sound theory that most political and social fights are about unfair or sour deals, because nobody complains about fair or good deals.

I was reminded of economists’ materialism the other day when I ran across an online article about the wealthy “whiteness” of the environmental movement in America. The author was upset about the white face of environmentalism and climate change activism, suggesting that it inadvertently reeks of racism, creating special disdain for green politics among non-white people.

I was struck by this critique, not because it is wrong (it isn’t) but because green politics and climate activism are, at present, an expensive activity that only the white and rich can afford. Expensive activities like climate change activism will tend to be disproportionately white activities so long as so long as the American color-caste nexus is what it is.

The reverse side of this coin is that movements to clean up the American model of consumer capitalism will be resisted by poor and working people, especially folks of color, precisely because the operation is so expensive. This is the big yet quiet racial problem at the heart of green politics in America, not race per se.

Hard-edged economic materialism helps us see what’s going on. Consumer capitalism has conquered the globe by delivering a wide array of cheap goods and services through the miracle of mass production. Environmentally aware people know that these goods are cheap because market mechanisms usually pay no attention to environmental and climate costs under lightly regulated capitalism, delivering lots of goods and jobs now at the cost of a hot, hostile planetary climate in the ensuing decades and centuries.

Our dirty model of capitalism can only be cleaned up at a stiff and escalating price, according analyses of the economics of climate change including last year’s Stern Report put out by the British government and this spring’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The clean up requires us to change everything from how we work to how we get around to how and what we eat, including such mundane yet vital matters as the price of homeowner’s insurance in hurricane zones. The clean up also involves reliance on all sorts of technological innovations that are either in the pipeline or, in many cases, exist as vague smears on the global laboratory’s intellectual chalkboard.

The move to new, greener technologies is likely to exacerbate racial inequality for two reasons. First, new technologies are the work of highly educated people in universities, government laboratories and high tech companies dominated by white and Asian Americans, but mainly white people. Second, these technologies, new products and ways of work will be created by companies founded, financed and managed by mainly white people to whom knowledge, capital resources and therefore power via white families across generations and the logic of race and class segregation. White Americans will lead the nation’s response to climate change and will earn the lion’s share of the eye-popping profits earned from innovations designed to meet the climate challenge.

Should black and brown Americans be annoyed that the battle against climate change will be directed by white people who have inherited their positions of power as a legacy of American racism? That would be silly since the same thing can be said of every single American institution. The white face of the climate change movement is just another of history’s sick jokes on America’s darker citizens.

The best response of the young and dark in this instance is not to get mad about the “whiteness” of environmentalism, but to get ready by gaining skills and getting into the technological marketplace. Some will say that young black and Latino men and women can only enter the advanced sectors of the economy if a new movement for social justice creates real equal opportunity across all color lines. True enough, but there is now room for a new “grand bargain” across color lines. Since the browning of America means that the white majority disappears by 2050, “white” climate activists and “brown” social justice activists have a lot to talk about.

Others might say that there is no need for this sort of “grand bargain” since we all face the same risk from climate change. To that, I have a one-word response: Katrina.