collaboration accueil manuel copeh

Green as a colour-blind approach to ‘activism’

By Bianca Dreyer


I have never found the term ‘environmentalist’ to fully capture how I see myself or the work that I do -- What makes me an ‘environmentalist’ rather than a ‘humanist’ or something else all together? As I progressed in my doctoral studies, the discomfort with the term, as well as the larger movement, became more pronounced. This coincided with what I was learning about Canada’s colonial history as well as my place within it as a first-generation immigrant.

My reflections on this topic are motivated by my experiences teaching a university seminar on Psychology, Environment and Justice. I started reviewing programs and curricula that critically examine connections between social and ecological justice. However, I found that many initiatives focused on environmental education aimed to connect students with the “natural world,” while ignoring Canada’s colonial context. My views have resonated with that of critical geographer Baldwin (2009) who has argued that, “the concept of wilderness enjoys the dubious distinction of being one of colonialism’s most enduring symbols in Canada, an empty space, devoid of humans […] which is quite literally founded on the erasure of aboriginality” (p. 432). I am concerned that experiential land-based learning programs might inadvertently reproduce and extend structures of whiteness (McLean, 2013).

Scholars such as Kahn (2008) and Gonzalez-Guardiano (2005) assert that environmental education programs lack connection to social and political issues. And yet, the destructive elements of contemporary globalization— insatiable greed for resources, genocidal disregard for life, militarism, and racism – have linked these issues in North America since its invasion by European settlers (Churchill, 2003).

The construction of whiteness as a form of individual accumulation of resources relies on the consumption of land and resources, which makes the colonial relationship between white-settler society and Indigenous Peoples foundational to land-based struggles (McLean, 2013). In this sense, Canadian whiteness is not an export from Europe; rather it was forged through the colonial encounter (Milligan and McCreary 2011). 

Environmental education that solely focuses on the effects of environmental destruction therefore necessarily depoliticizes and silences primary causes such as colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy. Students are invited to combat environmental problems in socially acceptable, “comfortable” ways through activities such as recycling, biking, or buying from organic Farmer’s Markets. However, these solutions steeped in white, middle-class subjectivity do not challenge racialized systems of inequality (McLean, 2013). 

This approach to fostering individual behaviour change is especially prominent in my disciple – psychology. Psychologists tend to target individual problems one at a time without much consideration of the possible root causes, which is rather ineffective. Yet, this is a common approach to promoting sustainability. For example, psychologists might look at one behavior (e.g., turning off lights), examine how one might go about changing that behavior (e.g., prompts, cues, etc.), then implement the strategy and repeat for each behavior and each individual. This approach is inadequate for addressing my broader, structural concerns.

Considerations of who benefits from environmental destruction are absent, as are critical discussions about ongoing colonial narratives; the narrative of the “good” white person’s ability to save both the environment and people of colour most affected by unjust distribution of environmental destruction is predominant.

aamjiwnaang.oct2017One of the most powerful experiences for students in my class is the guest lecture by a member of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation near Sarnia, Ontario. The reserve, only a 2-hour-drive from the university, is surrounded by petrochemical companies. The proximity of these polluting corporations has given Aamjiwnaang the nickname of “Chemical Valley.” Despite their short distance, students are often unaware of the situation of people living on this reserve; this has brought issues of environmental racism and injustice, thought to be problems primarily of countries in the developing world, to Canada. In this class, we collectively explore the role of political activism in sustainability work, especially the complacency of the Canadian law in upholding colonial injustices and continued destruction of land and Indigenous communities.

waterwalk.oct2017During one of these classes, the guest speaker suggested various forms of activism - some focused on working from within the system, some rejecting current laws altogether. As an instructor, I felt the need to assure my students that they should engage in activism that “they feel comfortable with.” Her response still leaves me a chilling residue around my heart. She said: “Why is it that you allow yourself the privilege of comfort? It is not comfortable for us that we can’t open our windows at night without fear of suffocation, that our children need to get rushed to the hospital because of unexpected contaminants in the playground or that we can’t fish in our rivers anymore.” Is there a place of comfort in activism? - This is a question I have never stopped thinking about. Ringing in my ears the sentiment of Audre Lorde, that the Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house.

I start my class with this quote by Lynton K. Caldwell:

“The environmental crisis is an outward manifestation of a crisis of mind and spirit. There could be no greater misconception of its meaning than to believe it is concerned only with endangered wildlife, human-made ugliness, and pollution. These are parts of it, but more importantly, the crisis is concerned with the kind of creatures we are and what we must become in order to survive.”

In taking my place as an educator on this land that does not belong to me, I continue to thrive towards a critical inclusion of race and anti-colonial theories into the curriculum so my students will be part of a generation of environmental activists that actively disrupt, challenge and transform environmentalisms colonial and racist narrative. I continue to fail, but next time I fail, I will fail better and I will never cease to try again.


Baldwin, A. (2009). Ethnoscaping Canada's boreal forest: liberal whiteness and its disaffiliation from colonial space. The Canadian Geographer/Le Géographe canadien, 53(4), 427-443.

Churchill, W. (2003). Acts of rebellion: The Ward Churchill reader. New York: Routledge.

González-Gaudiano, E. (2005). Education for Sustainable Development: Configuration and meaning. Policy futures in education, 3(3), 243-250.

Kahn, R. (2008). Towards ecopedagogy: Weaving a broad-based pedagogy of liberation for animals, nature, and the oppressed people of the earth. In The critical pedagogy reader, ed. A. Darder, M. Baltodano, and R. Torres. New York: Routledge, 523–538.

McLean, S. (2013). The whiteness of green: Racialization and environmental education. The Canadian Geographer/Le Géographe canadien, 57(3), 354-362.

Milligan, R., & McCreary, T. (2011). Inscription, innocence, and invisibility: Early contributions to the discursive formation of the North in Samuel Hearne’s A Journey to the Northern Ocean. In Rethinking the great white north: Race, nature, and the historical geographies of whiteness in Canada, ed. A. Baldwin, L. Cameron, and A. Kobayashi. Vancouver: UBC Press, 147–168.