The principles that call us to protect human health and the environment from polluters impel us no less to stand up for inclusion and decency in our civic life.
Racism, ignorance, and xenophobia do violence to American values—and to values essential to environmentalism. This gives environmentalists a particular responsibility to speak out against these evils.
President Trump recently called for four women of color, duly elected to the House of Representatives, to “go back” to their country of origin. He then provoked and reveled in menacing chants of “Send her back” at a campaign rally in North Carolina.
The targets of Trump’s comments are U.S. Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. All are U.S. citizens. And all are U.S. natives except Omar, who was born in Somalia, fled that country’s violence as a child, and grew up in the United States.
Each of these accomplished women is worthy of respect. They have all stood up to Trump, whose response has been to demonize, disparage, and attempt to delegitimize them, with no concern for consequence or tone.
He lambasted them in a July 14 tweet:
“So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe . . . now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came? Then come back and show us how it is done.”
This kind of racist rant may fire up the baser instincts of “the base,” but it coarsens our politics. It’s both ugly and dangerous. Nearly three-quarters of the country worries, with reason, that this kind of bombast will fan hatred, anger, and fear, inciting violence.
If an employee of NRDC told a colleague or coworker of color to “go back” to his or her country of origin, that employee would likely be fired on the spot—and deservedly so. That’s how deeply ideas of tolerance and inclusion are embedded in our culture, or should be.
Why should environmentalists speak out against Trump’s attack on the congressional women of color? Why not just stick to the narrow lane of fighting air and water pollution? After all, the president and his appointees wage a weekly war to roll back or rescind long-standing, commonsense protections for the environment and public health, threatening ruin to public lands and waters, marine life, and coastal communities. His ignorant denial of the climate crisis invites more drought, wildfires, severe weather, and the other calamities of a destabilized climate.
We speak out because one origin and organizing principle of our work is respect for the sanctity and worth of all life, of the natural world and all it supports. We revere the intricate web of connections that nourish and sustain that world. How we treat one another and the world we share with others is a core environmental issue.
That principle prompts us to fight for the polar bear, the butterflies and bees that pollinate our crops, the endangered North Atlantic right whale, and the million species now on the path to extinction. It prompts us to fight for clean drinking water for the citizens of Flint and Newark. And it prompts us to fight every day and night for cleaner, smarter ways to power our future without destabilizing the climate and fueling the ever more visible ravages of climate change.
Environmentalism flows from a spirit of inclusion, from a humility and generosity in the way we treat the natural world and its inhabitants. This includes people.
The subject of the president’s rant is a person who expressed her beliefs, exercising a freedom at the core of the American ideal. Subjecting her to scorn and the derogatory chants of a volatile mob does violence to that ideal.
The principles that call us to hold polluters and our government to account to protect human health and the environment impel us no less to stand up for inclusion and decency in our civic life. The two are inextricably bound.
By denigrating the dignity of his fellow human beings, Trump is setting a national tone of callousness that echoes his reckless disregard for the natural resources on which all life depends. His administration treats the natural world as an industrial commodity to be plundered for short-term corporate gain. On both fronts, he’s violating fundamental American values and core environmental values. That these offenses occur almost daily should not inure us to them. We have to keep fighting back. As one of NRDC’s cofounders said to me: “It’s too dark for pessimism.”
Environmentalists strive to save the planet. The planet we’re striving to save is full of diverse life, all of which deserves respect. We stand for that in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in the inner city, and in defiance of the forces of exclusion and hatred. This is an integral part of our mission.