false dichotomy

Look it's a lizard
Girl Scouts holding a lizard (nature!) at camp
Photo by K Williams

A week ago my thoughts were all on green. Thursday I attended the Sustainable Industries Economic Forum. The gathering focused on the “Access Economy: an emerging economic development and business model that fosters less consuming, more sharing, and real-time customer feedback”. Saturday I attended the performance of red, black and GREEN: a blues (rbGb). The multimedia performance work that “examines environmental racism, social ecology and collective responsibility in an era of dramatic climate change.”

Although the root issues of how to address environmentalism ran through both days so much of the two experiences were on opposite ends of the spectrum.

dichotomy (noun) – division into two mutually exclusive, opposed, or contradictory groups or ideas (source)

First as a black woman, I did not think that race would be in my mind going in to Thursday’s forum. In the forum, race was not addressed at all; in the performance, race was an inherent part of the conversation. Thursday, (from what I saw) I was the only black person in room of over 200. Friday, I was surrounded by a very brown, black but ultimately multi-racial audience. The play sought to emphasize that brown and black faces were missing from the sustainability conversation; during the forum I was living that.

The forum’s focus was the Access Economy, all about open networks, using stuff as you needed and sharing with others to reduce consumption, being collaborative. One questioner asked a speaker how to get high income users to take part in such ventures like car sharing. I could not help but think that this is what low and moderate income families do every day to survive but very few, are creating businesses around
the idea. In a community meeting, I listened as a woman, who lived in public housing, talked about her “table” a place in her home where people left stuff they no longer needed – clothes, shoes, car seats – and if others in the community needed these items they knew where to go first to get these items….for FREE. That low-income community is sharing what they have and taking care of each other. It seems they are already living in an “Access Economy.”

In rbGb, a major theme was the fact that just getting through daily life was so hard for underserved communities that thinking about sustainability on an intellectual, ivory-tower level was just impossible. For communities on the edge because of poverty or violence or just neglect, thinking about growing a garden or buying more expensive but energy-saving lightbulbs needs to be placed in a larger context. In the SI forum, the audience was already beyond these issues.

In rbGb, the creators used multiple forms of media to tell a great story of four communities of color and how they were tackling issues of environmentalism. The audience went face-to-face with performers in the exhibit portion, laughed at the humor, clapped along with songs, felt dismay at some of the sadder stories.

Laura Diamondstone, a poet chronicled the evening in this haiku:
finally get to
be moved, engaged. bamuthi’s
literal earth quake

[sidenote: there was an actual earthquake during the performance]

The SI forum centered on business ideas to improve the environment based on economic incentives. The rbGb performance used emotion and desire to change communities to highlight the environmental movement.

Ultimately we need both ends of the spectrum and all the between, corporate ideas as well as in the ground implementations like community gardens. The ideas are not mutually exclusive. The business community needs to support and collaborate with the underserved, grass roots, and communities of color. The underserved and low-income communities need to realize how they are already being environmentally conscious and how what they are already doing can be made into viable businesses.

How are you witnessing this false dichotomy between business, communities of color and grass roots action in the environmental movement?

3 Responses to “false dichotomy”

    I’m so experiencing this dichotomy. Having been priced out of SF, I find myself a rare renter in an enclave of millionaires and I’m craving diversity. The well healed environmental movement here (be forewarned of extreme judgmentalism) is self congratulatory, insulated, and self serving. What little outreach work there is to lower income communities (e.g. monolingual Spanish speakers in Redwood City) seems to be on the shoulders of perhaps one or two excessively dedicated, overworked, & underpaid people. The non-profits’ executives meanwhile sit comfortably witha healthy margin above a living wage and healthy benefits. There has been virtually no outreach to the more “hued” living in East Palo Alto (I often wondered when I first moved here ‘where are they keeping the people’ and didn’t know there was a seperate municipality to house people of color.).
    So as a volunteer home energy auditor I can make a huge difference in carbon emmissions with recommendations to homeowners in Palo Alto about their pools, lawns, and power stripping their 24/7 entertainment centers. I make a teensy dent in those emmissions when doing an audit in a Redwood City apartment, however that small dent in residents’ electric bills can make a huge difference in a monthly budget.
    Same story with solar – it matters more for rich folks who can afford solar to just reduce. I feel better about low income homeowners’ installations with Grid Alternatives. But poorest folks (and renters) are left out of most ‘green’ interventions.
    I went to a local teach-in (Van Jones initiated). Homogenous group. Suggestions included researching stocks well before you buy them and getting active on the local DNC board. Left passionless and a bit more apathetic..

    Wednesday I get to participate in an outreach for DIY energy efficiency projects in East Pao Alto. Maybe will get re-charged.

  2. Laura, your comment reminded me of the Starbucks dialogue from rbgb. (“It was a trick question!”)

    I went to a Green Home Assessment info session in SF and that program can be accessed by renters. They can at least get a free assessment and learn about small (non construction) changes that can be done. To qualify for rebates for larger things involving construction, like adding insulation, have to be initiated by the owner but renters can get the recommendations and make their case.

    I think interest is all in the framing too. If someone is complaining about there finances, maybe that is the opening to talk about saving money through energy conservation.

  3. hmmm interesting.
    because i had a good rant last Monday i’m trying to be less critical, more balanced:
    i should have more commendations for this local non profit that is able to do more than the city of SF for helping renters et al to green up & save. free 2 hour audits, packets of info, follow-up report quantifying carbon savings, & lots of items – low hanging fruit – but everything counts.
    at least SF is doing something.
    rbgb: i wish i could see it again, i wish everyone saw it.