Spacious ballrooms in the hotel, The name badges are green and blue. New reports are announced, or a new set of "recyclable by 2025" goals. This year, I went to enough sustainability conferences that I was enthralled by their mainly vanilla environments. But this one was special-I'm sitting on a panel for the first time.
"Peter Wang Hjemdahl of rePurpose..." My mind snapped into focus when the moderator announced my name to introduce me to the audience. I looked at my fellow panelists, and fought the glare of the limelight to scan through the room. Immediately, something I realized: I was the only young man of color in the hall.
The truth is our global environmental protection movement is overwhelmingly headed by white people. In this 2014 Green 2.0 report, colored people made up no more than 12 percent of the environmental organizations studied (the 2019 follow-up report showed the problem only got worse). A survey of 293 U.S. environmental government agencies, non-profits and foundations found no more than 16 percent of non-White minority staff across these establishments.
More proof of this issue can be seen on social media–the slightest interest shown in the climate change would fill your Instagram feed with mainly white eco-influencers. Ranked by a keyword-based algorithm, Onalytica's Top 100 Environmentally Sustainability Influencers list shows that almost all of these personalities are white activists–among the top 5 are Bloomberg, Greta Thunberg and Ed Marky.
This abysmal lack of representation of minorities is troubling, as it is marginalized people of color who end up carrying the greatest share of the costs of climate change. Take for example the plastic waste. Only after we discovered their devastating effects on sealife did the issue come into the public eye. Over 50 million informal waste workers across the developing countries (such as the Dalits in India) have struggled for decades to cope with the plastic crisis. Where then did we call for action? Advocating action against climate change to save our whales and turtles is a luxury that everybody can not afford and it is time we got to grips with it.
By this point, we all know that the great majority of plastic trash produced by the West is shipped to Asia, but while Indian waste pickers are having to deal with the load of American residues, sustainability panels are being studied with those who have never understood the genuine human impact of our usage. The campaign on climate change is intended to protect all people without exception, but there is hardly anyone who serves the interests of those who are most likely to be affected from its consequences.
It wasn't long before we decided to cash in on informal recycling, the world's second most common source of jobs among urban poor. Shanghai, Cairo, Mumbai, Jakarta, Nairobi–this trend spread throughout developing countries where a dynamic informal workforce recognized the importance of taking up where we left off and managing the mess we make every day. Even though most of these workers were unable to afford proper homes or real education, they regarded our garbage as their wealth and studied the material and its ins and outs.
Why, then, don't they have a table seat? What good is a climate change initiative if it does not include those most affected by it and capable of resolving it? We lose awareness when people of color lose their voices. We will always be neglected when minority leaders are in the center to serve their own interests. Until they get the recognition they deserve, our environmental conservation movement will always be short of achieving its ultimate goal–preventing our planet from dying out.
In addition to being victims of climate change, oppressed color groups often provide viable solutions which are often ignored by global discourse. As my co-founders and I started rePurpose as college students, we set out to create a global platform to reduce waste, rebuild lives and restore equilibrium. Instead of looking at the technical data on environmental pollution, we find our point of entry to the problem by asking ourselves a completely different question: "How do we double the income of 10 million people living in world poverty?"We come up with a solution rather than just crying out the problem. They recommend that all foreign non-profits for the environment, multilateral programs and intergovernmental organizations implement their board of directors with a "Reality Chair" The Reality Seat would be filled by a person below the age of 35 who expresses an impacted community's interests relevant to the primary environmental issue the organization has set out to address. Greenpeace, Greenpeace, EDF, Rainforest Alliance and many more of those groups will greatly benefit from first-hand experiences on the impact of climate change.
The Reality Seat will bring the climate revolution closer to interactions that will cause us to take off our privilege blindfolds and see the harsh reality of what it is–children in Malaysia pressured to divide our exported garbage instead of getting quality education, coastal families that don't earn enough to keep food on the table due to overfishing, and all marginalized communities in Malaysia
Although the Reality Seat is a good starting point, we should be mindful that it is not a silver bullet to the diversity problem of the climate movement. Incorporating young POCs as powerful voices within conservation groups is merely a segment which should lead to greater initiatives on a wider scale. We need to move the microphone to fully address this global crisis. Let the displaced activists report the battle their populations have experienced as a consequence of rising sea levels. Encourage them to initiate conversation and further accelerate creative solutions that will more inclusively address the global climate crisis.