• Sue Staropoli

A disposable culture – the intersection of white supremacy and environmental destruction


I recently read this Sierra Club article by Hop Hopkins, entitled “Racism Is Killing the Planet”. It describes how the ideology of white supremacy leads toward disposable people and a disposable natural world.

While much of my involvement in the environmental movement has focused on taking action on solutions to reverse global warming, I am becoming more and more awake to the bigger context of that work and to how the issue of environmental destruction is deeply intertwined with a belief in white supremacy.

As Hopkins says, “You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can’t have disposable people without racism.”

I have been learning that supremacy is one of the constructs underlying our culture. Supremacy requires a hierarchy where people are more important than animals and the planet, and where some people have more value than other people. It is part of the bigger worldview of separation – in which humans are separate from the earth, other species, and each other. This framework of separation enmeshes people in practices of “othering”, using labels and language signifying superiority/inferiority and fostering the feeling of “anti-anyone who is different from us”.

Racism, sexism, and classism are all manifestations of this construct. Discrimination is a tool to elevate some people over others within the hierarchy. In order to elevate ourselves we lower others, seeing them as less important, even less than human – and expendable. In the same way, we view nature as ours to use and abuse.

As industries find places on the earth – so-called sacrifice zones – to dump toxic waste or destroy the natural world, calling nature a “resource” and thinking of land as disposable, the people and animals that live in those places are also seen as expendable. To point the finger at the big corporations is to ignore the fact that it is our own consumptive lifestyles that demand the products of these extractive means.

To justify actions that continue to bring harm to the planet, animals, and people requires us to dehumanize the people who are affected daily by the effects of these actions. This is white supremacy, manifest in many forms.

As modern people, we have justified these actions through countless narratives, such as

The land was there for our use

The indigenous peoples were “uncivilized”

The slaves were less than human

People are now living in those areas because they are lazy or haven’t worked hard enough

● Some (people, creatures, land) must be sacrificed for the sake of “progress”

But now has come the time to question all such narratives, the ones that allow a few to live in safety and comfort while others bear all the negative impacts of a belief system that values some lives over others. It’s time for white people like me to ask ourselves how we benefit from white supremacy. It’s time to ask if we can even imagine a different way of life.

Here is Hopkins’ vision:

“If our society valued all peoples’ lives equally, there wouldn’t be any sacrifice zones to put the pollution in. If every place was sacred, there wouldn’t be any ‘Cancer Alley.’ We would find other ways to advance science and create shared wealth without poisoning anyone. We would find a way to share equally both the benefits and the burdens of prosperity. If we valued everyone’s lives equally, if we placed the public health and well-being of the many above the profit of a few, there wouldn’t be a climate crisis. There would be nowhere to put a coal plant, because no one would accept the risks of living near such a monster if they had the power to choose...

“If climate change and environmental injustice are the result of a society that values some lives and not others, then none of us are safe from pollution until all of us are safe from pollution. Dirty air doesn’t stop at the county line, and carbon pollution doesn’t respect national borders. As long as we keep letting the polluters sacrifice Black and brown communities, we can’t protect our shared global climate.”

Is it possible to leave behind the narrative of separation and reclaim an indigenous worldview of interconnectedness? No supremacy, no hierarchy. We are all one – the earth and all its beings.

This 6-minute video, “Words Have Power” captures, for me, not only the essence of environmental injustice, but also the power of just one young voice in demanding change. May we each find our voice and move into action!

I keep remembering that, in Pachamama Alliance’s conversations catalyzed by the nation-wide protests against racial injustice, Reverend Deborah Johnson emphasized that the #1 thing white people need to do is face and manage their guilt and shame. I am coming to understand that we as white people must own our privilege, not wallow in guilt and shame, and use it to make changes from inside the unjust system of white supremacy from which we benefit.

Each day, I ask myself: Within my circle of influence, what am I willing to let go of, to give power to others?

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