Environmentalism at Middlebury has roots in exclusion

By Andrés Oyaga

Back in Los Angeles, my Latino working-class background didn’t turn heads at weekly meetings with Extinction Rebellion, a grassroots organization that uses nonviolent civil disobedience tactics to draw attention to government inaction in addressing climate change. It was the norm to find a diverse group of folks meeting to plan the next freeway blockade or die-in or other art-centered action folks from different racial, socioeconomic and religious backgrounds actively engaged with all comrades. It was a space where I felt incredibly comfortable and ready to advocate for climate justice that truly included all people, because I knew all people were included in the process. 

So when I arrived at this institution, I was shocked. I quickly came to see that there was a sort of problematic, yet normalized, expectation for environmentalists at Middlebury College. They are assumed to be straight, white and male, hailing from wealth and a suburb, able-bodied and with tremendous experience in the outdoors. They are vegan and deplore your inability to be vegan, paying no attention to the barriers to and gentrification of such a diet. They walk around in fancy clothing from outdoor brands and incessantly talk about their extravagant NOLS trips in a developing country. They focus on solar power but don’t ask if the lithium mined for those panels was acquired ethically. They weep at the sight of a precious animal poisoned by polluted water but do not fight for the communities of color downstream. 

There is nothing wrong if you see yourself in parts of this description; identifying as or advocating for one or all of these things isn’t inherently wrong. However, advocating and affirming this singular conception of environmentalism, and creating space for nothing else, is dangerously exclusive. 

Why is Middlebury’s environmentalist culture exclusive? For starters, not all environmentalists are white, straight, male, wealthy or able-bodied. By creating campus culture and spaces that cater to this ideal, we exclude so many crucial individuals who care for the environment and humankind’s future. By excluding BIPOC, poor, disabled, queer, female-identifying and city folks, we not only lose essential comrades to fight for the movement but also fail our community in advocating for real climate justice. I believe this exclusion is a mode of environmentalism inherited from problematic environmentalists in the past, from John Muir to Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt, three foundational influences on America’s conservation movement and the advancement of America’s eugenics movement and racist ideologies. We can no longer ignore the significant influence these histories have had on our environmentalism at Middlebury. 

It’s time Middlebury’s idea of environmentalism changes. Environmentalists on this campus should take a bold stance in denouncing their organizations’ hurtful words and actions and mobilize to fight for real climate justice. We need to center Indigenous, Black and POC voices and make an effort to include them in our actions, events and processes. It isn’t enough to “stand in solidarity” with #BlackLivesMatter, or any other movement, solely when it is trending. 

Real climate justice has to fight for racial justice, migrant justice, disability justice and class justice. So it is imperative that Middlebury environmentalists create inclusive spaces that prioritize the voices and needs of BIPOC and marginalized neighbors. As artist and activist Johanna Toruño says, “If your environmental advocacy doesn’t include folks of color, you refuse to acknowledge the impact of environmental racism on communities of color.” We cannot turn a blind eye to this ever-growing reality that low-income communities of color are subject to the disastrous (and disproportionate) effects of climate change. 

So I ask my predominantly white, wealthy, able-bodied and male environmentalists and outdoor organization members reading this right now: What are you doing to make sure your membership doesn’t look just like you? What are you and your organizations doing to serve as allies to BIPOC communities regarding racial and climate justice?

As for my fellow BIPOC environmentalists who have yet to find a safe space: I invite you to “BIPOC Sunrise” on Thursday, September 24 @ 7 pm EDT. The Justice, Equity, and Anti-Oppression working group at Sunrise Middlebury will be starting these monthly meetings to create a safe space for BIPOC persons with love for the outdoors, the environment, a healthy future for all and a desire to fight for racial and climate justice. A Zoom link and collaborative agenda can be found on Sunrise’s Instagram in the coming week. 

May this brief critique of Middlebury’s environmentalist culture not bring anger or disdain but instead inspire folks to start prioritizing this movement for our marginalized communities. 

Andrés Oyaga is a member of the class of 2023.