BIPOC Authors to Support this Earth Day
Written by Aronya Waller
Cover Illustration by Aya Lechin
It is April so that means for many of us, we are considering how we can leave less of a carbon footprint on this planet as we get closer to Earth Day. We may consider using reusable bags for our groceries, walking instead of driving, or using old t-shirts as cleaning cloths instead of paper towels. On this 51st celebration of Earth Day, I also recommend you support environmental authors who identify as Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). Every year, the support for Earth Day grows, but it seems that BIPOC struggles are not always represented. The plight could be toxic dumping affecting water and land, air pollution from factories, pesticide exposure to farmworkers, or the desecration of sacred sites. The list is longer than the years that Earth Day has been in existence.
Earth Day is our annual call to the public about the state of our planet. Although now it is a celebration, the first Earth Day was a protest. Former Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin created an event to raise awareness about environmental issues affecting the country—from individual responsibility to federal authority. Senator Nelson had been vocal about improving the environment for all people, but he did not receive much support initially. He was trying to find a way to ensure that the environment became part of the political agenda.
It was not until after the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara that mainstream America took notice of Senator Nelson’s pleas. Thousands of birds and marine life died due to an estimated three million gallons of crude oil spilling into the Pacific Ocean. It created a 35-mile-long oil slick along California’s popular tourist coast. There were concerns about the economic effects to Santa Barbara’s tourism and commercial fishing industries. People were upset about the animals and marine life, but I could not find one news story during the spill that referenced the impact to the nearby Indigenous community. Santa Barbara is in the original territory of the Chumash people. Although they may have been forced out of Santa Barbara, the Chumash people were living in surrounding areas. What was the impact upon them? Why were they left out of the conversation?
Senator Nelson used this spill to galvanize his continued support for environmental awareness for people of all races, cultures, and creeds. What initially was meant to be on-campus workshops for college students quickly broadened to include more people by collaborating with a wide variety associations, civic organizations, and faith groups, as well as increased media attention. On April 22, 1970, more than 20 million people protested the ecological and health impacts of industrial development within their communities. Senator Nelson said on that day, “Earth Day can, and it must lend a new urgency and a new support to solving the problems that still threaten to tear the fabric of this society…the problems of race, of war, of poverty, of modern-day institutions.” Senator Nelson’s goal for Earth Day was inclusion.
The Earth Day 1970 Protest was so successful that in December 1970 Congress authorized the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate environmental policies and protect our communities from environmental distress. Sadly, BIPOC discovered that Earth Day became less inclusive throughout the years, and more specifically, the EPA did not protect our communities.
More than 50 years later, President Joseph Biden signed an executive order in January 2021 to address the disproportionate impact of environmental (in)justice in BIPOC communities. While this attention is well deserved, many BIPOC authors have been writing on the environmental issues affecting their communities and the lingering impact of colonization for years. BIPOC communities have been more vulnerable to the effects of climate change and the hidden actions of the government and corporations. It was through BIPOC environmentalists who continually wrote, spoke, and advocated for justice in their communities that many became aware of the disparities that are known today. Their perspectives may have been influenced by culture, but their outcomes and (in)justices continue to have long-lasting effects. I challenge you to read a book by an author outside of your community so that you can expand your understanding of the issues facing marginalized communities throughout this country and around the world.
“Most of my work explores the various ways in which racial inequality is actively produced, as well as the various means by which it is denied. I am particularly interested in how these processes operate in terms of environmental justice, landscape, cultural memory and political activism."
— Dr. Laura Pulido
“The primary threat to nature and people today comes from centralising and monopolising power and control. Not until diversity is made the logic of production will there be a chance for sustainability, justice and peace. Cultivating and conserving diversity is no luxury in our times: it is a survival imperative."
— Vandana Shiva
“My research is on environmental justice and inequalities, the relationship between social movements and policy implementation, and the areas of public and environmental humanities at the intersection of three interdisciplinary fields: environmental, urban and ethnic studies from the vantage point of American Studies.”
— Julie Sze
“We need to look at how equity, justice, injustice plays in the nexus of what we look at when we look at the natural environment, the built environment, future environments,” Taylor said in a recent interview. “You cannot leave out distributional issues. Even if the policies do not intend inequity, we have to look at how outcomes are shaped differently.”
— Dorceta Taylor
Robin Wall Kimmerer
“The very earth that sustains us is being destroyed to fuel injustice. An economy that grants personhood to corporations but denies it to the more-than-human beings: this is a Windigo economy.”
— Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants
Additional Book Recommendations
Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret by Catherine Coleman Flowers
As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock by Dina Gilio-Whitaker
The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World by Alison Hawthorne Deming (Editor); Lauret E. Savoy (Editor)
Packing Them In: An Archaeology of Environmental Racism in Chicago, 1865-1954 by Sylvia Hood Washington
Who Killed Berta Cáceres? Dams, Death Squads and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet by Nina Lakhani
Unbowed: A Memoir by Wangari Maathai
Writing the Goodlife: Mexican American Literature and the Environment by Priscilla Solis Ybarra
Latinx Environmentalisms: Place, Justice, and the Decolonial edited by Sarah D. Wald, David J. Vázquez, Priscilla Solis Ybarra and Sarah Jaquette Ray
A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind by Harriet A. Washington
EPA History: Earth Day
“How the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill led to 50 years of coastal protections in California”
The History of Earth Day
April 22, 1970: Earth Day
University of Oregon, Office of the Provost
University of Oregon, Department of Geography
Vandana Shiva’s Facebook
Eco Books, Vandana Shiva
University of Colorado Boulder, Environmental Futures
University of California, Davis, Department of American Studies
Julie Sze’s Website
The Regents of the University of Michigan, School for Environment and Sustainability
“A Voice for Equity and Justice In the Environmental Movement” by Timothy Brown
Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Facebook
Kimmerer, Robin. W. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants, p.376