A people-centered approach to Earth Day

The author with a baby elephant on a recent trip to India. (Photo courtesy Sudha Nandagopal)

As a kid growing up in Spokane, I was the one in my family who claimed the mantle of environmentalist.

I was the animal enthusiast, the nature lover, the one who saved a robin chick and attempted to raise it. I grew up with a peaceful, serene and relatively tame view of nature.

But my family’s visits to India were a totally different matter. Summers there put me in close contact with all sorts of wildlife and environmental issues.

I’d wrinkle my nose as we passed open sewers and rush to be first to feed our banana leaf plates (fully compostable!) to the passing cows. We would visit wildlife preserves and hear about tiger/human interactions and resource sharing in the forests to get villagers to support tiger protection instead of poaching. I saw elephants up close. We would escape the bustle and polluted city air to revel in the calm of the villages and walk along the banks of the Cauvery River.

The ease at which we could turn on the tap in Spokane and fill up a glass to drink was only further emphasized during these summer trips to India where we would filter water, then boil it, then filter it again before drinking it. We wouldn’t leave the house without carrying jugs of water with us even if we were just going out to visit family.

Environmentalism started to take on a whole new meaning for me when it became clear how dramatically it could impact my health.

It was India that taught me about social movements like Chipko and where I learned about Gandhi’s salt march. In these efforts people didn’t label themselves as environmentalists or conservationists. They were freedom fighters – people fighting oppression together who recognized that localizing their economies and building power in their communities would in turn protect their health and the natural resources around them.

In these movements, oppression of people had a direct connection to adverse environmental outcomes. Fighting for environmental justice meant fighting for human rights. In the case of Chipko the efforts to protect trees came with a strong women’s organizing effort. Women led the charge and people refer to the movement as an eco-feminist movement.

With over a billion people in an area a third the size of the U.S., environmentalism in India is forced to be human-centric. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
With over a billion people in an area a third the size of the U.S., environmentalism in India is forced to be human-centric. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

In contrast, as debates raged about reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone National Park I noticed a narrative that continues today: environmentalists who saw themselves as pro-animal/pro-nature and the opposition that was supposedly pro-people.

I continued to notice this divide as my personal interest converted into professional efforts to protect the environment in the U.S. Our model is about preserving pristine areas and perhaps visiting them at times while mostly keeping people out of these natural areas. Too often, considering people and our daily environments comes second to these other efforts.

I understand the value and importance of protecting our natural resources and I will always advocate for our oceans, lands and wild places. These efforts are important, but when faced with issues like a warming planet, declining ocean fish populations, disappearing biodiversity, and increasing toxics in our waters, it’s time for us to shift to a more global perspective — one that recognizes the central role of people in nature.

So how do we do that? As I have spent time working in new immigrant communities and low-income communities I have come to believe that we need a new version of environmentalism. Far too often I hear people tell me that immigrants, people of color or low income people just don’t care about the environment. Or if they do, they “just don’t have time to be environmentalists.”

If we’re judging people on their ability to buy REI gear and go camping on the weekends, sure, that might be true. My friend who grew up in a family of migrant farmworkers likes to remind me that, for her, there’s nothing romantic about packing up and sleeping in a tent. She spent much of her childhood outdoors in blistering sun, getting sprayed with pesticides at times and sleeping in tents. She doesn’t need to “rough it” to gain an appreciation for clean air and water, nor is that her preferred way of experiencing the world around her.

In conversations with immigrants, my own parents included, I’ve always found that in places where there is a strong sense of connection between people there is a respect and desire to take care of that community.  Having green spaces, sidewalks to walk to school, clean drinking water, and healthy air are all things that many immigrants note as important benefits of living in the U.S.

Many of our communities might even have valuable cultural practices around conservation that we should all explore.

My mother didn’t compost when I was growing up — it wasn’t the hip thing to do yet — but she certainly used every edible piece of food possible including the skins and peels of things that many of us would compost today. If you want to talk about getting compostable materials out of the waste stream she would be an expert on the topic, and I suspect other immigrant families would share their own tips on how they reduce and reuse.

My own experiences with connectedness and community here in the U.S. as well as in India, Kenya and elsewhere have shown me that the issues of public health, justice, urban renewal, human rights, gender equity, globalization, and environmentalism are inextricably linked.

I no longer see environmental issues as existing in their own silo but rather as an entry point to build community. There’s a simplicity in this approach and one that requires us to consider how we are all similar rather than what divides us into categories of environmentalist or not.

In heavily populated areas like the Duwamish River Superfund site in South Seattle restoring the natural environment also means making a positive impact on the communities that live in the area. (Photo by Paul Joseph Brown)
In heavily populated areas like the Duwamish River Superfund site in South Seattle, restoring the natural environment also means making a positive impact on the communities that live in the area. (Photo by Paul Joseph Brown)

This week I spent part of my Saturday with volunteers for Duwamish Alive! pulling out invasive plants in restoration areas along the Duwamish River. Looking out at this industrialized river that is also a Superfund site I watched a great blue heron land in the water. This is perhaps one of the starkest local examples of where we need to appreciate the connection of communities, nature, public health and environmental protection.

We Seattleites aren’t separate from this river — we have shaped its history as much as it continues to shape ours.  Those communities that live and depend on the river — including the Duwamish Tribe and many immigrant communities — are not separate from the ecosystem that needs conserving. That is obvious in an urban river, perhaps, but that lesson is true no matter what we’re protecting. We need to ask ourselves, who are the people most impacted, what is their role in this environment and how can conservation efforts enhance people’s sense of connection and desire to protect their surroundings?

So for this Earth Day, I wonder, can we shift our approach? Can we embrace nature and people together in our efforts to build a stronger environmental movement? 


  1. Thank you, Sudah, for the wonderful insight that being an “enviornemtnalist” isn’t only about loving nature, but also about protecting all of God’s children.

  2. These are sage words. The environment is the way that we interact with our surroundings. Creating healthy, vibrant, and verdant cities is just as important a part of environmentalism as protecting pristine natural areas far from human habitation. Thank you for recognizing the value of the different kinds of environmentalism and pointing out the wisdom that we can learn from different cultures when we listen instead of judging.

  3. Sudah, I can relate to your words. I also walked the banks of the Cauvery River, with my husband, daughter and nephew. They tried to play soccer but there was too much garbage in the sand along the banks. Such a sacred place, it’s not right. In Seattle I do what I can and on Earth Day I celebrate what I did all year long. It’s a busy-person’s list. Mostly we do stealth pruning and playground cleaning because I’m too busy to fit a scheduled group activity into my life! So much can be done, all we have to do is look around. Be well (and also, happy Tamil New Year.)

  4. Right on the mark! The Duwamish is habitat for so many people, and while I enjoy seeing the herons and harbor seals, that’s not what drives my determination to clean it up. Its all about the communities who depend on the river for their own health – both physical and cultural. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective.

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