Enough of a Movement?

Leyla Vural is a current OHMA student. In this post, she discusses Professor Christopher Sellers' views on the power of narrative in building a mass environmental justice movement. Watch the full lecture on YouTube.

Chris Sellers has been active in the environmental justice movement since before anyone called it that. Recognizing that concerns for the environment can’t be separated from issues of economic and social justice is still relatively new. But ever since his days of protesting nuclear arms in the 1970s, Sellers has been making the connection between the way we mess with the earth and the disregard we show for certain people.

Trained in American Studies and medicine, Sellers uses oral history to study the relationship between people and the planet. His book on the roots of the environmental movement, Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in 20th Century America, is based on interviews. His February 26 talk in the OHMA Oral History, Health and Medicine Workshop Series, “Stories of Environmental Danger: A Collective Approach,” focused on his latest work, a comparative study on the effects of lead smelters and petrochemical complexes on communities in Mexico and Texas.

Sellers is interested in “actual change in the political, economic regime” because the consequences of treating the earth like an unimportant backdrop to the real business of life is just too alarming. Stories of environmental danger all too often mutate into stories of environmental devastation.

But Sellers is not all doom and gloom. In a recent post, “Beyond Environmentalism: Marching Toward Climatism,” he expressed hope that the People’s Climate March last September might be the beginning of a new environmental justice movement. I’m always looking for hopeful takes on our chances of affecting change given the dire news about the environment. So when Sellers met with the OHMA students before his Feb. 26 talk, I asked him about his thinking. 

“You’re picking up some on of the connections I make in my head,” said Sellers. “One of the big things I found is the importance not just of single issues but of issue linkages. That’s what the people in the ‘60s discovered with the new rubric ‘the environment.’ You could bring together issues that people thought were separate and show their coherence. But the coherence was really in people’s lives. It was on the ground, first, before people brought it together in a political agenda.”

Sharing experiences of environmental danger and disaster through oral histories, says Sellers, can be a useful way to help people connect their local concerns to the larger issue of climate change.

It troubles him that consumer-driven environmentalism gets touted as a solution to climate change when it’s really just “a form of environmentalism tailor-made for the rich” wherein making green choices “becomes a status thing.” Much as it may feel good, we can’t shop, or not shop, our way out of climate change. “That’s not the way a whole society can green itself,” Sellers points out. Ultimately, the choices we make have to be collective; they have to be about pushing for, and achieving, major changes in corporate practices and public policy.

The People’s Climate March on September 21 brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets in more than 150 countries – all taking a stand for environmental justice. About 400,000 of us marched just in New York City. It sure felt like something momentous was happening. But it’s easy to join a march. It’s easy to donate to a cause. It’s even easy to live a greener life. It’s only a growing movement that will give people, all people, a fighting chance against climate change. And growing a movement is hard.

So while Sellers sees promise, his optimism is cautious. “There’s a lot of uncertainty,” he warned. “Climate is such a huge, huge problem, but it has been so disconnected from people’s daily lives that it’s not something a lot of us think about on a daily basis. Clearly it’s where we have to get somehow if anything substantive is going to happen on this. So maybe oral history could be a tool in getting people to make those connections.” To this end, Sellers is working with a colleague on a website that will enable people to share their stories of environmental danger and disaster.

It baffles me that that we still have to fight about whether or not climate change is real. Yet we do. It’s only a mass environmental justice movement that will force the kind of action we need. It’s a cliché among activists by now, but as Frederick Douglas pointed out, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” The People’s Climate March and Sellers’s oral history are different forms of the same essential project: making that demand for climate change. People and planet can afford nothing less.

This talk was part of the “Paul F. Lazarsfeld Lecture Series,” co-sponsored by the Columbia Center for Oral History Research (CCOHR) and the Oral History Master of Arts Program (OHMA).