Exploring Stereotypes: On the Road to Understanding

In April of last year, a remarkable event took place in a country that for many years has embodied the worst of humanity’s capacity for racial hatred. South Africa held its first free elections after decades of bloody racial oppression by the white-only government and violent opposition by the country’s oppressed minorities. As Allister Sparks documents in his new book, Tomorrow is Another Country (Hill and Wang, 1995), the radical change in South Africa’s politics came about not only because of resistance to the policies of Apartheid, but as a direct result of secret meetings that took place between opposition groups and the government.

For several years before negotiations to draft a new constitution began, members of outlawed resistance groups met clandestinely with top ranking members of the ruling power structure. Men and women came together tentatively, full of misgivings about the others’ intentions, harboring prejudices of the other so deep, they could only have been nurtured by a racially divided, segregationist society. And yet, according to Sparks, they learned things about each other in these discussions that caused them to form rough bonds of comradeship along the lines of what they had in common – love of country, a similar heritage, even similar goals for South African society. Close contact, and honest attention to the concerns of their adversaries, enabled these secret delegates to move beyond the demonized visions they had been conditioned to have of each other. As Sparks relayed, “the meetings remolded long-held perceptions on both sides.” One delegate wrote in his diary, “I am convinced that the discussions have greatly improved mutual understanding; created a positive climate of expectations; [and] brought a mutual moderation and realism to our politics…”

The change that came about in South African politics was a miracle of negotiation. Lessons learned from the discussions – how trust was gained, how perceptual barriers were crossed – are applicable to American environmentalism. It is difficult to think of an environmental issue that has not been polarized by the constricting influence of perceptual stereotypes. Whether it is a battle over protecting land, saving endangered species, or cleaning up a toxic waste site, the image of the embattled environmentalist has become all too common. Too often, dialogue degenerates into shouting matches, opponents take sides, and common ground is lost. But as in South Africa, disparate groups emerge not simply because they think differently, but because of the varying realities of their life situations. Loggers and urban conservationists may ultimately have similar goals, but the economic necessities they face are very dissimilar, and they shape their responses to the same crises in different ways.

What is needed to combat the dehumanizing effects of stereotypes is sincere dialogue, profound and often painful reflection, and perhaps a good sense of humor. The need for honest discussion between disparate groups is increasingly important as American environmental politics become more strident and polarized. People see the land from a diversity of perspectives, born out of their particular experiences with place. In a democratic society this pluralism of views should be cherished as a rich and complex conversation that promotes discussion and debate.

An important part of the politics of polarization is the creation of enemies in the minds of adversaries. Humans are fallible, and might be understood or forgiven, but an image of the “other” that focuses on negative traits allows enough mental distance between foes for conflict to occur. Divisions into camps of “us” and “them” emerge in two ways. First, a group’s rhetoric is stripped to its most simple formula, emphasizing the differences between them and their adversary, and creating a simple message that sticks in the mind of the public. Secondly, the adversary is demonized; characteristics are fleshed out, and they are placed squarely in the wrong through descriptions of their evil nature: ignorance, selfishness, etc. As the rhetoric of opposing camps becomes more conflictual, all potential for subtlety is lost. This process limits dialogue and problem solving by eliminating alternative views within one group, causing all convictions to become static, and creating a gap of mistrust between opposing groups.

Within the environmental movement the dangers of this process are very real. By attempting to convey the urgency of environmental problems, environmentalists risk zealotry, self-righteousness, and stereotyping. This often degenerates into a polarized politics, limiting the boundaries of conversation and understanding, and ultimately reducing honest debate within civil society to a rudimentary ideological warfare. It is telling that environmentalists have become most stigmatized by the public at the very time that polls reveal how concerned American citizens are about the future health of the natural world.

Yet, it also important to recognize that there are urgent environmental problems, and that there are people, organizations, and powerful interests doing hateful and destructive things to both environmentalists and to the environment. But as in the case of South Africa, the reality of violence and discord does not obviate the need for debate, compromise, and hopefully, consensus.

This year’s Whole Terrain explores how stereotypes affect the way environmentalists think and work, and interact with nature. The aim of this issue is to present authors who get to the heart of what divides us, and to return a sense of complexity to environmental dialogue. Many of the authors explore the theme directly, analyzing its implications on perception, politics, diversity issues, and our relationship to nature; others do a good job of exposing our underlying assumptions in an indirect, but compelling way.

“You cannot get rid of stereotypes. They are too pervasive, subtle, and supported by cultural tradition. However, you can see how they work through careful observation of others and one’s self.” Stephanie Kaza’s essay begins this issue by asking environmentalists to take a close look at their underlying assumptions of nature. Her thoughtful and sincere exploration of the way different people view the natural world stems from a desire to discover what connects them to their environment: “I believe the overarching challenge in dealing with stereotypes of nature is to overcome the false separation between people and the natural world.”

Paul Shepard takes that insight to another level and argues that the division between nature and culture is a dangerous fiction, one that is leading our culture toward the mistaken assumption that we have evolved beyond our biology. He argues that whatever different perceptions people have of nature, they’re bound by a shared genetic heritage.

Alexandra Dawson takes apart some common stereotypes of environmentalists by holding them up to her own experience. Her character sketches take us beyond simple caricature, and face to face with real people because, as she puts it, “reality is hostile to stereotyping.”

One of the main goals of Whole Terrain is to explore the relationship between humanity and nature in the hope that such inquiry will enable us to develop a healthier kinship with the earth. Before we can do this, we need to improve our relationships with each other. To this end, the second triad of authors offer experiences and solutions to questions of social diversity.

Running Grass reflects on his experience as an African-American environmental educator. He states that the homogeneity of the environmental movement supports institutionalized discrimination, and reinforces negative cultural stereotypes perpetrated by the media. Using his own rich and compelling story to contradict racial stereotypes, he challenges us to diversify the environmental field.

Bell Hooks’ essay “Touching the Earth” counters the stereotype that African-Americans have no historical ties to the natural world. She believes that restoring one’s ancestral connection to land is essential because “When we love the earth, we are able to love ourselves more fully.” Her appeal for a deeper connection to nature goes beyond spiritual well being; it is a genuine call to stop seeing “ecology and the struggle to end racism as competing concerns.”

Fred Rose sees dialogue as the key to building bridges across racial and class lines, and more importantly, “to make space for both goals of preserving the environment and achieving social justice.” As a white, middle-class environmentalist, he takes a deep and critical look at many of the concerns raised by environmental justice groups. He challenges mainstream environmentalists not only to confront issues of privilege and race, but also affirm their strength and virtues.

The last three essays are by or about women who combine degrees of humor, courage, and honesty to take a bold look at two familiar stereotypes: environmentalists, and women in the environmental movement.

Joy Belsky, Sally Cross, and Diane Valentine go straight to the heart of the stereotype that women in the environmental field are less qualified than men. In their article “One Small Step: Combating Sexism in the Environmental Movement,” they express dissatisfaction with the poor representation of women at environmental conferences, and present a plan of direct action to protest the inequities.

An interview with reproductive rights advocate Betsy Hartmann challenges an important part of the envi-ronmental movement’s theoretical canon. Hartmann’s work in the third world has led her to believe that increasing population growth is a symptom of environmental degradation, rather than a cause. When people’s basic health and sustenance needs are met, she reasons, population numbers decrease naturally, without the intervention of reproductive control measures that she finds are often coercive and socially destructive.

Our final piece is a review of Judi Bari’s Timber Wars. A Pacific Northwest environmental activist, Bari is a founding member of Ukiah Earth First!, a group committed to nonviolent protests in the protection of forests in their home communities. She has spent more of her life as a laborer than an environmentalist, and has actively worked to form coalitions between loggers and mill workers, and environmentalists. She has helped timber workers in their efforts to unionize.

Environmentalism has received its share of critiques recently. The more vehement critics charge that it is elitist and overly alarmist. Others have written revisionist histories that include radical social movements as intrinsic to environmental politics. And a third approach argues that compromise, political accommodation and alienation of grassroots support have rendered mainstream groups ineffectual. Clearly, the environmental movement faces considerable challenges if it is to remain relevant in the years ahead. As Philip Shabecoff, a former New York Times environmental reporter, says in his book A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement (Hill and Wang, 1994), “To make the political breakthrough necessary to achieve their goals, environmentalists must make common cause with other sectors of our society that have a stake in changing the political and economic status quo.” The environmental movement needs to respond to these accusations constructively, build coalitions with a wider constituency, and provide unified opposition to combat the growing tide of anti-environmental sentiment.

Today, we are encountering unprecedented social, political and ecological change on a global scale. The current political climate and creeping polarization in American life is further evidence that we should learn to listen to one another. The magnitude and complexity of change is bewildering, and people often react with fear, denial, or despair. In the face of uncertainty, those with opposing values feel a sense of threat and seek the safety of others who share similar views. If we can get beyond the barriers we have constructed – in our language, in our attitudes, and in our actions – we might rediscover the common ground we all share, our whole terrain.

Sabine Hrechdakian, Editor
Ginger Dowling Miller, Editor