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Intersectionality and Re-wilding Earth: Autumn 2020 Interview with Sandra Coveny

Editors’ note: Sandra Coveny is a long-time advocate for wild Earth, who in recent years has done much of her ecological restoration work with communities and Tribes in the Pacific Northwest.  Sandra authored a paper in Wild Earth’s first special issue on The Wildlands Project, almost thirty years ago, titled “Technology Isn’t Entirely Evil”, in which she argued convincingly that—notwithstanding the Luddite tendencies of many Wild Earth readers—technology could be used in positive ways to help protect biological diversity.  Sandra was a co-founder of the Society for Conservation Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and an early leader in using GIS in conservation work.  Since 2014, Sandra has been working with Tribal women in North America toward climate change adaptation strategies, cultural sharing, and environmental justice advocacy.  Sandra is also among the many rewilding advocates who has been asking and forming tentative answers to the questions about how rewilding advocates and social justice advocates can find common ground. 

Sandra’s views here will be controversial—as will many views on the intersection of biological diversity and cultural diversity.  We hope they encourage thoughtful dialog and fruitful cooperation between different forces working for a world that is fairer and more equitable for all species and all peoples. We invite respectful dialog and debate in the pages of Rewilding Earth, but more importantly, in-person around campfires and amid peaceful protests.

Rewilding Earth editors:  Sandra, you come from a white middle-class background, as does much of the conservation community in the United States, including your interlocutors here; but you have come to see the extinction and climate crises as inseparable from the racial injustice crises of today. How? Why do already overworked wildlife and wilderness advocates need to be involved also in struggles over racial inequities?

Sandra Coveny: While I do come from a white middle class background, my parents were children of refugees and immigrants who came here when they were forced from their homelands. My ancestors shared a homeland for nearly 30,000 years before that. As a young conservation activist I struggled to weave my commitment to re-wilding earth into understanding my place in this new space.

This led me to find affinity early on with the people who have, since time immemorial, been living in the places I also call home. One of my favorite Deep Green thinkers, Bron Taylor recently sent me a copy of a letter I sent him when I was a young graduate student. In part, I was asking him why we don’t work more closely with Original people and Tribes to better understand where we live.

The natural outgrowth of that line of inquiry for me has been recognition that indigenous justice IS environmental justice. And that environmental justice is at its core why I work toward re-wilding earth.  My personal opinion is that we can’t truly “save the wild” in a sustainable way without fixing the root causes of environmental destruction: colonizer culture and its inherent racism and classism, with foundations in white supremacy.

For me it came down to taking the time to really explore the roots of the Black Lives Matter movement, and understanding what it means to become anti-racist. Those explorations came on the heels of a period of time when I was actively seeking relationships with Original/Indigenous people where my skills could be in service to our mutual, overlapping goals of reversing climate change, protecting First Food sources, reducing fuel loads, and recovering salmon. The connections were very clear to me, but I struggle to communicate these ideas. I am grateful for this dialogue to help clearly draw the connections for myself, and for others who may share these views.Climate Crisis is a Racist Crisis

I do not believe that overworked wildlife and wilderness advocates need to focus on struggles over racial equality, but we do need to recognize that injustices toward other people and injustices toward other species come from the same root causes. I believe that social justice advocates and environmentalists are natural allies, and that there are many opportunities to form alliances and further mutual goals (for example, equity in food, medicine, and water security).

As the healing edge of the “environmentalist” movement, Rewilding Earth advocates are in a good position to lead the way for more mainstream environmental groups. We can significantly change our narrative on ‘wild nature’ to be more inclusive, and engage a broader spectrum of advocates.

RE editors: As you know, Sandra, many wildlife and wilderness activists feel thatwhile work for racial justice and economic fairness is crucialplanet Earth faces extinction and climate crises that could soon undermine any gains we make in social justice realms, even as thousands of other species go extinct. (To paraphrase the late great wildlands philanthropist Doug Tompkins: NO jobs on a dead planet!)  So, how do advocates for other species add yet another whole set of big causes to their already full agendas? Should we encourage ambassador and sibling programs to help wildlands activists engage in social justice issues while social activists assist wild campaigns?

Sandra: I don’t see this as an either/or situation. I see them as one and the same. I also do not see a big change in missions, but I do see an opportunity to reach a wider audience and have broader impact by illuminating the connections between mass extinction, the climate crisis, and social and environmental injustices. It’s not about jobs so much as it’s about survival of all life on Earth.

Here is the connection as I see it: Indigenous people and their places were exploited by colonizers, who came to live in the homelands of others and exploit/use the resources.

After some time, some of the settlers came to love the land in ways the indigenous populations had, and they began to fight for it, using a different language of course. Arguably this was the genesis of EarthFirst! for example. When I re-watched “Wrenched” recently, I was struck by how similar Ed Abby’s story is to some of the ranchers who are working with Tribes against the US government…they share a consciousness with a place, through time and experience. That reminded me that the Practice of the Wild is not just about wilderness…it‘s about how you ’are‘ in any place that you find yourself.  

Indigenous cultures have been fighting for their land rights, which translates to food and water and health security, since colonizers arrived. There is a natural (although not easy) bridge there for environmental activists. Black people, on the other hand, have been disenfranchised from placehaving been stolen from their homes and forced into slavery. Many of them do not have a place or a culture to hark back to because many of them have no idea where their ancestors came from before they were stolen into slavery. Institutional racism (the fundamental premise of slavery) continued the oppression with jails and poverty (which begets poverty more often than not). Black Lives Matter is the largest sense of common cultural identity for black people today. BLM has a broader reach too, notably, the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color) community.

There is a great opportunity in this moment in time for the environmental movement to ’decolonize‘, address the ”too white“ problem, and engage in uniting BLM and Indigenous justice activists and help broaden support against the issues that cause climate change and the social inequities that are inextricably related to environmental destruction and rewilding earth. Many avenues already exist, we just have to go down them.

We are in a time of reckoning (slow as it may feel). Exploitation is visibly coming back to bite the exploiters. If we work toward coalition buildingjoining Indigenous rights, Black Lives Matter, and Rewilding activists together around common issues (to quote one of the early Rewilding advocates, Henry David Thoreau, ”in the wildness, is the preservation of the world“), we have a greater chance of making a significant difference.

The Practice of the Wild is not just about wilderness…its about how you are in any place that you find yourself.  That is my reasoning for wanting to form more intersections and bridges, in a nutshell.

Intersectional environmentalism is a recently resurrected term used for that very idea: it merges and addresses the connections between social and environmental issues. I think this movement has the potential to positively impact the work Rewilding Earth does in defense and preservation of wilderness.

RE editors:  A careful reading of anthropology and human history shows that our species has been displacing and even eliminating other life forms for thousands of years, and that while European and American colonialism have accelerated the extinction crisis, extinction is not wholly a product of white colonialism.  New human colonists on most major land masses hunted out much of the easy prey remarkably quickly, causing many species’ extinctions even before we had guns and motors to accelerate the damage. Are you, then, suggesting we somehow go back to Indigenous ways, even if those were not always so pure as we might like to think; or are you suggesting people somehow adopt a new relationship with our wild neighbors and with each other?

Sandra: As an ecologist, I am no stranger to a species shaping landscapes for their benefit or by their existence. I do not believe there is any way of “going back” to anything, and I do not believe in the concept of “purity” as it applies to any species or culture…(to my mind that is a human-imposed construct that may be promoted as an ideal, though unattainable, goal). Life is messy and full of trial and error. But I do think that we can learn from principles of indigenous science that seemingly kept the balance for many thousands of years. We could at least increase our chances at keeping the earth alive. And yes, I am hopeful that we can all adapt to new relationships with our wild neighbors and each other—I am also saying we don’t have to reinvent the whole thing. It’s been done before by people who are still here—some of whom are willing to share their knowledge in defense of the earth.

As may be clear by now, I do not believe that all humans on Earth should perish in order to resurrect the planet. Instead, I hold a sliver of optimism that allows me to envision a world where humans respect the rest of the living world as a natural extension of who we are, instead of something to be used, abused, tamed, and oppressed for the benefit of the very few.

RE editors:  Perhaps the most powerful part of the social justice movement today in the US, at least, is Black Lives Matter.  Can and should white conservationists—not just as individuals, but as representatives of their conservation groups—seek alliances with Black Lives Matter?  Should we collectively advocate justice for all: Black, Brown, White, furred, feathered, finned…? Is it appropriate to advocate ecological justice at the same time we protest for social justice?

Sandra: Yes. Absolutely. Paradigm shifts seem to happen in stages—like eating a pie—we don’t eat the whole thing at once, we take it in slices. I think re-wilding advocacy, environmental justice, and social justice are pieces of the same pie. Black Lives Matter is such an important movement on so many levels, and the name of the movement is the message itself. Black Lives Matter. If people get their heads around this, really and truly, I believe that opens the pathway to the next levels of understanding. To my way of thinking, the whole “pie” is that humans are not inherently superior to any other life forms, and that ‘life forms’ are not limited to animals—trees and rivers and mountain forests and wetlands also have equal rights to pursue their livelihoods.

Because of the class and race inequities exposed as a result of the Covid19 pandemic, and the concurrent mobilization of racial justice advocates since George Floyd’s pivotal murder, we have a window of opportunity to help propel a new paradigm forward—one founded in coexistence which many of us in the environmental movement have been advocating for decades.

RE editors: Say a little more, if you would, Sandra, about how we can diversify conservation groups. Most folks in the conservation community work as volunteers or modestly-paid employees for small non-profit groups.  We are not typically high-paid executives with mainstream groups.  Still, our organizational cultures probably reflect the wider culture, with many of the same problems you decry here.  How can we make our groups more balanced and sensitive, in terms of the intersectionality you advocate?

Sandra: Many conservationists are very well paid. The brand of activism that attracts people willing to work for nothing or very little is noble, and I can’t overlook the fact that most are either fighting for their lives (literally) or have the luxury of class that allows them to fight for very little compensation. I think if we are going to diversify, we need a whole new paradigm around how to support people who do this sort of work for a living.

To your question: When I work with organizations who want to become equitable, diverse, and inclusive, the first step together is to assess the actual diversity of the entire organization (board, staff, members), and take a hard look at the power structure and the hierarchy. What percentage are men? What percentage are white? What percentage are LGBTQ? What is the age diversity? What is the cultural diversity? If the organization is diverse and inclusive, and the power dynamic equitable, wonderful. If not, what is the group willing to do about it?

Some potential next steps include examining the lexicon of the group and the assumptions conveyed in the written and digital communications. It’s important to open this group dialogue in a supportive context and with willingness to respectfully challenge ourselves and each other.

I ask the group to consider whether there is an organizational bias toward “educated professionals.” My personal opinion is that not all people with knowledge and wisdom to share have been to school, or are steeped in “professionalism”; nor are they necessarily young or new to the issues. This professionalism bias can perpetuate gender bias at best, and white supremacist values at its worst. How can we support other measures of what a person knows and how they communicate? How can we support people to come forward and lead, and exert their own power on their own terms? If we choose to, how do we make room for cultural differences?

I also look at the groups’ ‘heroes’ or role models for diversity. If they are mostly living or dead white males of European descent, I help provide additional role models of more diverse backgrounds as well.

If the organization is hoping to engage with Tribes or First Nations, the work is figuring out how to support the conveyance of Traditional Knowledge, where it is willingly shared, without creating opportunities to appropriate or commodify it. I asked the question of some of my colleagues in various Tribal and First Nations. Their answers were:

  • First: Know, and tell your personal story: where you come from and what motivates you (this is different from a resume).
  • Second: Read, explore histories, listen. Take emotional risks. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake (you will). People will sometimes say the wrong things to each other. It’s how we recover and move on from there that allows for growth. It is important to learn how to resolve the tense and awkward situations with humility and a clear heart.
  • Third: Keep showing up.

RE editors:  Are we capable as a species of coexisting peacefully with other species, or even with other types of our own species; or are we inherently selfish and exploitive?  Again, history and anthropology suggest that people’s violence against each other and even more against other species goes back at least 10,000 years.  Where do you find hope for “the generosity of spirit” (to borrow Dave Foreman’s lyrical phrase) that would enable us to learn to coexist with other species, as well as others of our own species?

Sandra:  I think that capability to coexist comes from being part of a community and a culture that depends on, and has respect for, the immediate world around us. Every species on Earth has a desire to survive and to perpetuate their existence. I think humans realized a power and took advantage of it in ways that are coming back to bite every living thing on Earth. But the hope I have is that because we could make such big changes on Earth, we are also capable of reversing the trends if we get the momentum. Getting the momentum is what we are about.

Personally, I find inspiration in Re-wilding earth, with Black Lives Matter, Indigenous/Environmental justice advocates, and in personal relationships.

I have also found inspiration (and exasperation at times) in the work I do at the community and landscape level. I have worked with diverse groups of people with a broad spectrum of world views—and often with strongly opposing opinions. I have been successful in helping groups find common ground that leads to a collective effort recovering landscapes and species. Granted, I have zero experience working outside of the realm of the “99%.”

RE editors:  What are some examples of successful collaboration between native tribes or other people of color with white conservationists?  Maybe some Bison or Wolf or Salmon recovery efforts?  Maybe the big National Monument campaigns in Utah?

Sandra:  Among successful efforts I’ve seen up close are those between ranchers and Tribes. The alliances have come about over 5 generations and have led to some incredible results. For some really inspirational reading I suggest a book by Zoltán Grossman called Unlikely Alliances. This book gives case by case examples from around the US of such alliances.

Farther afield (for me), I have met park rangers from various countries in Africa who work with local officials to use GIS and GPS to track and hunt poachers in order to protect elephant herds.

Some more recent examples I have found, but not been closely involved in, include those activists within the First Foods and Regenerative Agriculture movements. The movement to protect and restore First Foods is particularly inspiring because those foods are part of a healthy functioning ecosystem.

RE editors: Given that wildlife governance in the United States and Canada outside of tribal lands tends to be dominated by white men, and that these wildlife officials tend to favor management for “game” species over conservation of biological diversity, might diversifying and democratizing wildlife governance be a goal for which conservationists of all colors might fruitfully work?  What can we learn from tribes about coexistence with wildlife?

Sandra: I can’t speak for the Tribes and First Nations, but in my experience so far, working with colleagues from North America, South America, Mexico, New Zealand, and many countries in Africa, as well as my experience working for one of the Oregon Tribes, has taught me that fundamentally, Tribal, First Nations, and Aboriginal philosophies and world views definitely support the ideas of environmental justice. All creation is sacred and valuable both intrinsically and in support of human lives. And these peoples see themselves as managers and caretakers of the land, part of the process, not apart from it. It’s a very different world view. I have been told many stories about times when things didn’t work, which are there to remind people to take care, not to exploit, and to practice reciprocity. Those are common themes I have personally observed. It doesn’t mean there are never mistakes, but having a bottom line of respect for all beings would be a great improvement from what wildlife managers practice today.

As Re-wilding Earth-ers we eschew surplusage—we try to live within our means (personally, ecologically), reject mass consumption, embrace place-based and sustainable practices, and enjoy, heal, protect, and celebrate wild nature. The goals around working in concert with social and environmental justice are to move toward reciprocity with, rather than dominion over, Earth so that the eventual survivors are not just the rich white power elite. When we finally begin to emerge from this pandemic and everything else that is pummeling people right now, we must have a plan to prevent things from going back to business as usual. And if a human perspective is needed, then consider that food and water security are at stake.

Further reading:

Chow, Denise. NBC News. ”Why ‘I can’t breathe’ is resonating with environmental justice activists.“ June 10, 2020. https://www.nbcnews.com/science/environment/why-i-can-t-breathe-resonating-environmental-justice-activists-n1228561

Gilio-Whitaker, Dina. As Long As Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock. 2019. Print. https://www.akpress.org/aslongasgrassgrows.html 

Grad, Shelby. The Los Angeles Times. “Sierra Club calls out the racism of John Muir.” July 22, 2020. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-07-22/sierra-club-calls-out-the-racism-of-john-muir

Hanson, Chad. PhD. ”Who was John Muir, Really?“ California Chaparral Institute. Sept. 4, 2020. https://californiachaparralblog.wordpress.com/2020/09/04/who-was-john-muir-really/

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2013. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Braiding_Sweetgrass

NoiseCat, Julian Brave. Vice. ”The Environmental Movement Needs to Reckon with Its Racist History.“ Sept. 13, 2019. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/bjwvn8/the-environmental-movement-needs-to-reckon-with-its-racist-history

Rodriguez, Majandra. 350.org “Facing climate change through justice and intersectionality.” Sept. 3, 2015. https://350.org/facing-climate-change-through-justice-and-intersectionality/

Willow, Francesca. Ethical Unicorn. “Intersectionality Is Important for Environmental Activism Too.” Feb. 9, 2018. https://ethicalunicorn.com/2018/02/09/intersectionality-is-important-for-environmental-activism-too/ 

Featured Image Source: Audre Lorde Quote Graphic, https://350.org/facing-climate-change-through-justice-and-intersectionality/

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Bruce Morgan - November 6, 2020

Though I am not necessarily a loonie Luddite, I would much prefer that the re-wilding movement steer clear of any “intersection” between the reality of problems facing the natural world and the invented angst of urbanites and their divisive racist emphasis on identity, fairness and equality, attributes that do not exist in nature.

Intellectual rubbish of this sort taints the conservation movement. Association with leftist ideology is the primary reason why rural landowners so often reject environmentally progressive legislation.

Is the staff of Re-wilding really naïve enough to believe in the myth of the “Noble savage”? If so you should get out in the woods more!

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