Cover Image: P.H. Polk, George Washington Carver (painting flowers), 1938
As we begin Black History Month, we at Sabai are inspired to look at those that came before us. As we often say at Sabai (as taught to us by some of our current sustainability communities' great innovators and leaders), sustainability is rooted in indigenous and black communities. How sustainability has been shaped throughout time would look nothing like it has today without the deep love and respect that past generations have held for the planet and their determination to leave a better world than they came in with.
As whiteness, colonialism, and capitalism have steered us away from the bright path carved by forefathers in the movement, we are in the final moments where we still have an opportunity to right the course and do justice to the black and brown people who cultivated and brought upon the inherent concept of sustainability.
One important thing in doing that is looking to history. This month, we want to celebrate black sustainability leaders throughout history.
Some long-lasting legacies come to mind like George Washington Carver, whose agricultural practices replenished the soil and communities with his innovative crop rotation, and whose understanding of the interconnectedness between the land and the health of our people has cut through to modern day environmentalism. Carver, two months before his death, wrote “plants are just as sensitive to narcotics and drugs as a human being,” suggesting that we should treat our earth and crops like we treat our bodies.
Others were steadfast stewards of the land like Captain Charles Young, who managed and preserved much of California with his troops - fighting logging, encouraging sustainable forest fire practices, and spotlighting the need for important water management. As the first Black national parks superintendent, Captain Young made efforts to conserve the park’s ecosystem by preventing local livestock grazing, illegal hunting, and illegal logging — practices that were quite progressive for his time but clearly the basis for contemporary park management.
And as urbanism grew, so did the racial disparities in the way the environment was treated around communities of color. In 1979, Sociologist Robert Bullard served as an expert witness in a landmark case, Bean vs. Southwestern Waste Management inc. Bullard’s wife, Linda McKeever Bullard, was the attorney for the black Houston couple who believed that the decision to build a waste factory in their neighborhood was decided based on the racial demographics. Bullard’s ensuing studies sounded the alarm on the ways in which racial inequalities have led to environmental racism - and leaders such as Catherine Flowers of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, have continued to fight against these forces in rural and disproportionately African American communities.
This month, as all months, it’s important to remember the way intersectional politics has informed our understanding of sustainability and its history. When climate change is poised to disproportionately affect low income communities and people of color, it is important to remember the way in which people of color and black leaders have pioneered movements of sustainable practice and living. Celebrating these leaders helps to rewrite the narrative of sustainability and helps us remember that history and sustainability are not without their own biases.
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