Op Ed: Why Environmentalists Need to Embrace Changing Demographics

Student perspective on population growth and environmentalism...

comments

By Jing Jin via the Cornell Daily Sun, 2/25/13

Babies have always been a touchy subject for environmentalists. Thomas Malthus’ warning in 1798, when global population was at one billion people, still applies today, as our population begins to exceed seven billion people: population growth will be checked by famine, epidemics and war. These “checks” are signs of social problems as much as environmental ones, as it is indisputable that an increasing population puts excess strains on water, food and energy supplies.

Crudely put, babies are an environmental ill. For my birthday one year, I got a checklist pad of “eco-citations” to dole out to my friends, which ranged in seriousness from “taking a hot shower alone” to “procreating.” Everyone can appreciate such a gag, but no one actually wants to take an anti-babies stance. This is especially true for environmentalists, who fear charges of being misanthropic, and doubly true for American environmentalists, who fear charges of advocating birth control.

Environmental groups can be guilty of dancing around population issues or being ignorant of social issues arising from changing demographics. Environmentalists have usually steered clear of commenting on demographic trends and concentrated their efforts on reducing per capita consumption rather than slowing population growth. Even when environmental initiatives have had the backing of scientific and policy experts, they have repeatedly been thwarted by lack of political will. However, when considering the political reality of domestic policy changes, there is no skirting around district, state and national demographics.

Leveraging minority-majority demographic shifts, for example, can turn the tide on sorely needed environmental action at the state and national levels. Latinos, along with African-Americans and Asian-Americans, “demonstrate the highest levels of support for action against climate change and air pollution,” Mark Hertsgaard, wrote in The Nation.

If environmental viewpoints in California are any indication of the direction other states are headed in, there is hope — even for Texas. According to a 2010 poll conducted by the Los Angelse Times and the University of Southern California, 46 percent of Latinos worry a great deal about global warming, compared to 27 percent of whites. Someone will have to pinch me when Texas, which became a minority-majority state in August 2010, becomes a green state, but the possibility no longer seems as fantastical as the Emerald City of Oz.

As promising as these statistics are, the good fight will not be won if climate change fears and environmental values do not translate into action. Minorities must have a greater voice in decision-making and the ability to call out representatives for not enacting or enforcing policies or for touting “green” policies that do not actually reduce emissions.

Of the six million people living near coal-fired power plants in the U.S., 39 percent are minorities, according to the NAACP report “Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People.” This is one example out of too many around the nation — documented and still undocumented — of the disproportionate consequences that minority populations suffer.

For decades, U.S. environmental groups have been roundly criticized for their white, middle-class bent. In addition to the more important environmental justice argument, there is now a politically strategic argument for the push to fully include racially or otherwise marginalized groups in environmental campaigns.

The alliance between environmental groups and minority populations is also critical to singling out conversations on effective and progressive policies from the political noise of constituency grabbing. Winning elections should not be the only motivation for Republicans to stake a claim in reducing U.S. emissions and protecting all demographics from the negative effects of climate change and pollution.

Polling data also consistently show that young people and women both helped to elect President Barack Obama and show greater support for climate action. I disparage the political posturing exemplified by any strategy that begins with, “lawmakers are well-aware that older voters turn out more frequently and broad action to address global warming isn’t on the immediate agenda.

Republicans have woken up to the need to reevaluate their party’s relevance to the American populace. Their efforts to revamp the party platform can provide meaningful opportunities to address needs differently, and perhaps better, than other parties. Immediate action to safeguard long-term environmental health and to promote non-polluting economic development is one such need. Tailoring campaigns to specific demographics is a smart political move, but more importantly, it will focus attention on the needs of a growing and changing America.

Jing Jin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at jingjin@cornellsun.com. Ringing True appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Views expressed in News posts may not be those of Cornell University. No endorsement is implied.