Author: Jed Lee


Opinion: American Environmentalism is Erasing Lives

Upper middle class white environmentalists who praise pescetarianism or hail the straw ban as the most pressing policy solution practice an environmentalism that is narrow minded and incomplete.

These people fail to realize the full extent or cause of environmental problems by failing to be critical of the system that created them. Thus, they focus in on solutions that are surface level which often don’t really help, or even make the problem worse. Assuming good intentions, it’s ignorant at best, apathetic at worst, but problematic all around.

In addition, while the people most impacted by environmental degradation are poor, people of color, often in the Global South, white environmentalist tend never to focus their attention on the issues of these communities.

“Save the polar bears!” They cry out about the melting glaciers or the clear cut rainforests but forget about the communities that are displaced from their homes in Polynesia or the Amazon. They stop eating beef and pork because of the methane emissions or the rights of the animals but somehow don’t stop to think of the exploited migrant workers who picked the avocados they’re eating instead. They still eat fish though, because they “just love sushi so much” and claim that it’s not as bad as red meat.

After spending time with impoverished fisherfolk in rural Philippines, I can tell you that eating fish is just as bad, worse even. Besides the fact that when you eat fish you’re likely to be consuming a bunch of ocean plastic, the global fishing industry, which catches 77.9 billion tonnes of fish annually, has done tremendous harm to both the environment and marginalized fishing communities, often of whom are also indigenous peoples. Large scale commercial overfishing has decimated the ocean’s fish population, with fishing stock seeing a 90% decrease from 1950 to 2011 (PEW), which poses a serious threat to biodiversity and the future of our marine ecosystems. A 2006 study reported by National Geographic projects that global fisheries are projected to entirely collapse by 2048, and a 2016 report by the World Economic Forum expects there to be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.

Small fisherfolk communities, like the one I visited in Calaca, Batangas, Philippines, are experiencing the harmful effects of overfishing, pollution, and climate change firsthand. It becomes increasingly challenging for them to support themselves and their families primarily through fishing. The ocean’s fish population has already declined significantly and these fisherfolk have to compete with commercial fishers who have capital, technology, and harmful fishing practices. While most of these fisherfolk use small rowing boats and nets that they pull by hand from the shore, those with motorboats are often forced to go further and further away from their homes to find fish to catch. This not only increases the time they are out fishing but also the amount of gas they have to use, which puts a greater strain on their already poor economic status. Many fisherfolk have been forced to find work in other sectors in order to feed their starving families. The global fishing industry has effectively been displacing and destroying the livelihoods and cultures of indigenous fishing communities.

So when people say they’re cutting out chicken, pork, and beef for environmental reasons, but still eat fish, it is incredibly contradictory and hypocritical. In fact, if these people are eating more fish in order to make up for the protein they forgo by not eating red meats, they actually are increasing their environmental impact on these communities. A better course of action might be to completely cut out seafood and do research and purchase fish/meat from sustainable farms. The effort that these folks expend in trying to do what they can to help is appreciated, but falls flat when they do not comprehend the full scale of the issue and the impacts their choices might have.

We must not let our environtalism be American centric and ignorant of the pressing issues all across the globe. It is imperative that one examines the intersections of the environment, race, class, nationality, etc before coming up with solutions that may end up harming marginalized communities. We must be weary of advocating solutions that perpetuate issues and make us complicit in the system that creates them in the first place.

* This op-ed was authored by Jed Lee, Students of Color Environmental Collective Membership Coordinator