We need to honor the roots of environmentalism

As being ‘green’ grows more popular, we need to actively fight the whitewashing of the movement

Mahlet Sugebo, Staff Writer

When you think of a climate activist, what do you think of?

Come on, be honest and think about it for a second.

If the first thing that comes to your mind is a white vegan in their 20s who uses reusable straws and bamboo toothbrushes, then you have succumbed to the whitewashing of the environmental movement.

Growing up, I always knew to save plastic bags and stow them away in the designated drawer in our kitchen. I knew to reuse plastic, glass and metal containers rather than throwing them away. I knew to throw the leftover banana peels into the soil of our garden rather than in the trash. I knew to be especially mindful of my water and electricity consumption because not only were both necessities that could go scarce at any moment, but they were resources that not everyone had access to in my neighborhood.

These habits were second nature — practices you feel you were born with because you can’t even remember the first time your mom scolded you for not doing them.

I was 17 years old when my mother bought me my first at-home facial mask. Before that, we made our homemade versions for two main reasons — first, to counter the overconsumption that’s encouraged in the beauty industry, and second, to mindfully concoct mixtures that were safe both for our bodies and the environment.

Illustration by Connor Lawless

That’s the first concept in the three R’s of sustainability: reduce. But we didn’t practice these thinking of the three R’s. We practiced them because we thought that it was what we were supposed to do — when you’re on this planet, you don’t do anything that might degrade and destroy it. Rather, you do everything you can to take care of Mother Nature in your everyday life.

These principles have been passed down from generation to generation in BIPOC communities. They only recently got the labels “The three R’s.”

We applied the second R here, reuse, by repurposing our recyclables until they were completely worn down. As for the third R, recycling, it was the absolute last resort. It wasn’t even a service that was readily available in my hometown of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. So, frankly, reducing and reusing were the only options.

Everywhere you go in Addis, you can see mini structures made out of plastic bottles in neighborhood parks, makeshift planters transformed from tin cans, bags made from plastic milk-bags, shoeshine boys reusing metal cans, plastic jugs and many more signs of an environmentally-friendly society.

Even at home, we reused the plastic and metal containers that contained butter, produce from grocery stores like Fresh Corner and plastic to-go cups and take-out containers from local café chains like Kaldi’s. At home, they weren’t thrown out, but used to store spices like berbere, different flours that we use to make dishes like shiro, our homemade butter kibe and even used as Tupperware. The plastic bags we would so dearly collect were used as shower caps, processing caps for hair masks and as shields from rain and mud for your hair, shoes or purse.

Throwing them away meant you would get judgemental looks from strangers or a lengthy lecture from your mom, dad or auntie about human waste. So, whether we liked it or not, we’ve always been environmentalists.

As I grew up and was exposed to Western culture, I was confused to learn that the principles that environmentalists protest for are principles that have long been practiced in BIPOC communities. The “minimal” and “zero-waste” lifestyle environmental activists were seen as “radical” even though it was, and still is, part of the daily life of communities found in many countries in Africa, Asia and South America.

Being “zero-waste” was a given and being anything but “minimal” meant you were ungrateful for the abundant things you already had in your life.

Every year, my mom, older sister and I would sit in front of our closets as we sorted through what we wore and didn’t wear anymore. This wasn’t so we could figure out what we needed to buy, but to give it to those who needed it in our community and to reduce our consumption. Because of this, we were encouraged to wear our clothes until we couldn’t and to only buy out of necessity.

I later learned this is one of the foundations of sustainable fashion.

What was even more shocking was seeing mainly white faces as delegates of the environmentalism movement when all I saw growing up were Black people, my Habesha community, doing the work. And so, the white vegans that are widely celebrated for their environmentalism never represented me or my community.

I want to see the face of my older sister who spent her hours learning how to make shampoo, conditioner and body wash at home. I want to see the face of my mom who reuses plastic take-out containers and refuses to throw them away. I want to see the face of my dad who spends his Sundays returning glass bottles and plastic water jugs to stores to exchange them or refill and reuse them.

But to this day, their faces are replaced by people such as Greta Thunberg.

It’s something that, to this day, surprises me, and that I laugh about with my family over coffee, or known as buna in Amharic.

With environmentalists such as Rachel Carson being inaccurately credited for starting the environmentalist movement, it makes highlighting BIPOC voices in the sustainability movement difficult to accomplish.

BIPOC communities across the Global South have always reduced, reused and repurposed. But those communities are the most underrepresented in modern conversations around environmentalism.

And when our voices are left out, our power, influence and history in taking care of Planet Earth get erased. It’s then replaced with a shell of what we started.

If your climate activism doesn’t include BIPOC voices, it can no longer be accepted as activism.