My Pursuit of Happiness in Afro-Environmentalism

Not wanting to buy into the exploitations of racial capitalism, I find freedom in living with less stuff—but more nature, more time, and more joy.

Courtesy of Zaria Howell

The portrait of environmentalism has typically been a white one—composed of many faces, from Aldo Leopold to Rachel Carson to Greta Thunberg.

As a Black girl growing up in rural Pennsylvania, the place that nurtured my love for the environment, I often wondered where that left me. As much as I desperately wanted to engage in the work that protects the planet, I couldn’t ignore how environmental activism often didn’t coincide with matters of racial justice. For instance, through their wilderness explorations, some of the early pioneers of the conservation movement, such as Theodore Roosevelt, supported the displacement and genocide of Native Americans. And only in more recent decades did the environmental movement begin to seriously address the injustices that plague the health of Black people, from the air we breathe to the water we drink and the food we eat.

I saw how traditional environmentalism was failing people of color, so I had to reimagine what environmental activism looks like for me. Over the years, my environmentalism took the shape of a fight against racial capitalism. This is an economic system that was founded on exploiting Black and Brown people for profit through forced labor, and it continues its exploitation today, such as in the way polluting industries disproportionately harm our communities.

A 2018 study released by the American Journal of Public Health examined the exposure rates across the country to fine particulate matter, a type of air pollution that can cause or exacerbate lung and heart disease and often comes from the combustion of fossil fuels. The research revealed that compared with the overall population, people of color are exposed to 1.28 times more particulate matter. That exposure rate rises to 1.54 times the national average for Black folks.

Or look at “Cancer Alley” in central Louisiana, where Black communities have some of the highest cancer risk in the United States due to their close proximity to numerous industrial plants. The siting of such facilities in or close to Black and low-income neighborhoods is a trend seen across the country. Our governments also fail to protect us. Consider Flint, Michigan, where after the discovery of lead in their drinking water six years ago, affected residents—the majority of whom are people of color—are still waiting to be able to trust their taps.

A cemetery surrounded by chemical plants in “Cancer Alley,” where a dense concentration of oil refineries, petrochemical plants, and other chemical industries resides alongside suburban homes

Giles Clarke/Getty Images

Racial capitalism exploits Black bodies in other ways, too. It places fast food chains and liquor stores in Black communities instead of grocery stores, limiting our ability to put healthy, fresh food on our tables. It urges sustainable businesses to target white consumers, yet use Black and Brown bodies for labor. And all the while, racial capitalism keeps sending a message to people of color to “strive for” or “work toward” but never acknowledges the myriad of obstacles it throws their way.

So I decided to reject this value system as much as I could. It started in 2015 when I went vegetarian after learning about the environmental and social impacts of the livestock industry, such as the hog farms in North Carolina that spray pig waste on and around the property of residents nearby, who are most often people of color, forcing them to seal their drinking water wells and shut their windows to keep out the contaminants and suffocating stench. A year later I began practicing minimalism and renouncing materialism in an effort to lead a more intentional life, one that acknowledges the impacts my actions have on the world and people around me. And last year, I began living a low-waste lifestyle, giving up plastic in order to reduce my contributions to climate change and to a waste stream that is relentlessly polluting lands, seas, and wildlife habitats in even the most remote parts of the planet. Suddenly I felt more connected to the world around me. I looked up and felt I had reclaimed some of my power.

All of these lifestyle shifts are inextricably linked to my desire for liberation for my people, and I have since dedicated my life to this sort of Afro-environmentalism. I felt that each denunciation of the norm, whether that be meat or plastic, was a way of rejecting the racist system that is woven so deeply into the fabric of our country and getting closer to the true meaning of life, which for me is to enjoy it, fully.

I want to feel the intimate connection my ancestors once had with their lands—before they were forced into bondage and that relationship was strained by exploitation and racism instead of nourished by love and respect. Through racial capitalism, it was the work of their bodies that fed and clothed this country. Yet even once my ancestors were free, or free-ish, exploitative sharecropping, unjust housing practices, and Jim Crow laws continued to uplift whiteness at their expense and further hinder their enjoyment of nature. Even the environmental movement disregarded their struggles while it worked to protect white bodies and white priorities. So now, I see the act of communing with the environment as a form of resistance against the constraints of racial capitalism. And though systemic hurdles continue to limit access to resources—such as time, money, and green spaces—for many Black people, I think slowing down and deepening our connection to the land in the ways we can is almost revolutionary. These activities do not feed into a system that profits from lack, because where there is nature there is abundance.

Courtesy of Zaria Howell

So I live mindfully, cherishing the items I already own and being more discerning about the ones I bring into my life. When I make new purchases, I prioritize secondhand items. I eat plant-based foods, shopping at farmer’s markets and supporting small businesses in the process. I eat with gratitude to the earth for providing me with fresh food. I live with less, and instead of things, I pursue joy—an emotion of happiness but also an expression of defiance in the face of oppression.

This has become a source of strength for me when affronted with injustices such as the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others, and the alarming and disproportionate rates at which Black folks are dying of COVID-19. Of course, true liberation can come only with the dismantling of our society’s insidious racial frameworks, but until that happens, I find freedom in nurturing my connection to the earth, living more slowly and more mindfully, and learning to find joy and peace in less. For me, appreciating these seemingly small things makes me feel less like I am merely surviving and more like I’m alive.

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