An initiative in California to bring inner city kids from Oakland and LA to the Yosemite backcountry illuminates a growing concern within the environmental movement: lack of racial diversity. 92.7% of visitors to national parks in 2004 were white, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Shifting demographic trends indicate that, if this disparity continues, future generations of voters may not care about protecting open spaces.
Why are visitors to national parks so disproportionately white? It's a complex question with a long history. In a survey by the National Park Service in 2003, African-Americans were much more likely to say they received poor service from park employees and felt uncomfortable visiting parks. Latinos were more concerned than other groups about making reservations far in advance and personal safety.
That's a problem.
Environmentalism is somewhat unique among social movements because, at least in the US, it is not usually identity-based. Unlike the civil rights movement, or the women's movement, in which people were organizing to fight systems of oppression that personally hurt them, American environmentalism often deals with more abstract issues that don't directly affect the lives of the people fighting for them. This is one of the reasons environmentalism is often perceived as a movement of the privileged. The push for purchasing expensive products like organic food and near-luxury hybrid cars has been alienating to those who cannot afford to participate. How can we begin to address this chasm?
We have to learn how to talk to each other. But more importantly, we have to learn how to listen. We need to seek out difficult conversations, listen to opinions that are hard to hear, take them seriously, and begin to confront the issues of privilege laden in environmentalism. If we don't listen, there will be no reason for anyone else to listen to us. Bringing inner city kids into the wilderness is a nice gesture, but if we don't address the larger divide it won't have much of an impact. As climate change looms overhead, we will only worsen global inequalities if we don't prioritize communication.