Reversing environmental racism

The term environmental racism refers to the way in which the neighborhoods of ethnic minorities and low socioeconomic groups are disproportionately burdened with the negative effects of environmental exploitation, pollution, and dumping wastes, all of which cause disease, shorter lifespans, and lower the quality of life. Yet environmental racism is also applicable vis-s-vis a weaker and less recognized term, namely, speciesism or discrimination against other species simply for not being “human.” As long as we continue using “treated like an animal,” or “being like a monkey”, as slurs, we are not likely to gain moral clarity. Is such disparaging stereotyping what animals deserve?

The documentary Virunga tells the story of a group of guards in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who are risking their lives to build a better future for all by protecting endangered animals. The film exposes racism, hatred, but also bravery and love. Illustrating the colonial past, a white supremacist is quoted: ‘A black man is like an animal to me’. In this blog, I want to express my rejection of racism toward both humans and nonhumans and to underscore how those forms of racism are deeply intertwined.

One illustration is calling a human being a “monkey” as Ronald Regan was recently exposed saying to Richard Nixon on tape. The Democratic hopefuls for the US presidential race promote themselves as anti-racists, and the liberal left has now apparently become a war zone of “political correctness,” while the evils of anthropocentrism—denigrating and subjugating nonhumans— continue to be ignored or denied.

Calling a person a monkey or a pig or any other animal is intended as a show of disrespect, and it should not be done. But consider what is packed into the outrage. If we were not all so utterly steeped in anthropocentric assumptions and beliefs, to begin with, such expressions would not be an insult. Ronnie Hawkins, an M.D., reflected that in her professional training she was “a reluctant participant in some invasive and ultimately lethal experimentation on nonhuman primates,” which gave her some experience in face-to-face interaction with other primates but brought her up close and personal with anthropocentrism as well. Ronnie wrote: “Racism is a despicable attitude and needs to be condemned. But ask yourself why it is such an insult to call someone a ‘monkey’—is it because we want to deny our primate nature, and justify our ability to exploit and kill billions of domestic animals, and thousands of wild animals (the few that are left) through habitat destruction?” Maybe we should start to see anthropocentrism as a very old form of racism, and condemn them both. Both arise out of our tribal tendency to denigrate or attack whatever is “other” to our group—a received tendency that we need to learn to overcome. The similarities (of which there are many) and also the differences (clearly in the way they are treated) between the two forms of racism should be brought into the mainstream discussion. Consider how widespread, normal, and intertwined these forms of discrimination are, as made evident in the following:

In America, the combination of vulgarity with the country’s extreme polarization is producing a toxic mix. Politicians and public figures are dehumanizing their adversaries. Mr. Trump has called some illegal immigrants “animals” and said they are “infesting” America. Rosenne Barr, an actress, called Valerie Jarett, a black advisor to Obama, an offspring of the film “Planet of the Apes.” Michael Avenatti, a lawyer who is suing the president, called one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, a “pig”; New York magazine depicted Mr. Trump as a pig on its cover. It is not altogether panicky to note that genocides are preceded by dehumanization: the Nazis and the Rwandan genocidaires called their victims vermin. If your opponents are pigs or apes, it is worth doing almost anything to keep them from power (The Economist 2018:74).

And it is not just Westerners who use this language. In a potent ethnographic example from Australia, documenting human-human and human-nonhuman relations, Strang (2016:259) points out that ways of thinking that sanction racism, sexism, classism, nativism, and speciesism also undergird and permit the persecution of nonhuman nature—quoting not a white colonialist (which would not be surprising) but Aboriginal representative Colin Lawrence:

Colin Lawrence referred to the history of settlement in the area. In the early 1900s, a European grazier had shot a number of Aboriginal people until being speared by one of their leaders, now regarded as a local hero. The grazier had shot Aboriginal people ‘like dogs’, said Lawrence pointedly, ‘and now you want to tell us we can’t even shoot a wallaby!’ (Strang, field notes 1991).

Yet, recently, the number of wallabies has fallen dramatically, Strang notes. This has occurred not just because the possession of cars and rifles, “but also because of the competition for food within a fragile habitat created by intensifying cattle farming. At some point, the population may drop to unviable levels. Should this [shooting wallabies] be an Aboriginal choice?” (Strang 2016).

As Tarik Bodasing (2019) wrote in the case of Africa, by playing the race card, “we fail to pay attention to two significant developments in African history that have profoundly altered traditional ways of life independently of colonization and white supremacy. Firstly, population has increased dramatically, exerting immense pressure on the landscape and ecosystems. Secondly, a concurrent change from a more sustainable existence to a high-resource consumption lifestyle has occurred.”

Circling back to Virunga, it is home to a large proportion of just over 700 gorillas left in the wild. We remain morally outraged about discrimination again some human groups, yet not about the eradication not just of individuals but of entire species—biologically our close relatives, to boot. Should their lives, and those who protect them, not matter? This year, twelve national park rangers were killed by militias, connected to hunting for bushmeat, illegal fishing and logging, and poaching to fund their activities (Kockott 2020). This is just one in a series of deadly attacks in Virunga national park, where more than 150 rangers have been killed since 2006. It is time we turned to interspecies racism and used cross-cultural wisdom which used to, in most places in the past, support nonhuman life as intertwined with our own (Kopnina 2015).

Slaughtered animals and slaughtered humans that defend nature. The courage and suffering of defenders of nature in the face of the planetary-scale inter-species racism need to be recognized. It is not animals that should be used as curses, but anthropocentrism itself. Racism will remain as long as we are anthropocentric and regard the killing, mistreatment, and use of animals as curses as normative.

Read ‘Reversing environmental racism’, by Helen Kopnina, on the #EarthTongues blog


Bodasing T (2019) Looking beyond the past to give African wildlife a future: A critical review of The Big Conservation Lie.

Kockott F (2020) Twelve rangers killed in latest Virunga Park incident.

Kopnina H (2015) Revisiting the Lorax complex: Deep ecology and biophilia in cross-cultural perspective. Environmental Sociology, 1(4), 315-324.

The Economist (2018) Out of their wherevers. June 23. Pp. 74.

Strang V (2016) Inconvenient truths and reconciliation in human–non-human relations. In: Kopnina, H., Shoreman-Ouimet, E. (Eds.), Handbook of Environmental Anthropology. Routledge, New York, P.259.