Whitewashed environmental media

Why would the decolonial anti-racism bloc of the climate march criticize “green” media during the protest in Rotterdam? Surely green media also wants to go green? On the banner we see the logo of Trouw’s Sustainable Top 100 as a textbook example of problematic green media. Why?

What the Sustainable Top 100 does is to narrow the frame for bourgeois sustainability. Just a few years ago, they were highlighting colonial polluting business leaders as leaders in greening. For example, Paul Polman, high flyer of Unilever, was in the top 5 for years. A green media with a decolonial understanding of the ecological crisis would be keen on the historical role of the Lever brothers who became wealthy through stolen land, stolen labor and stolen raw materials (palm oil in the first place in the Belgian Congo where genocide had created the conditions for Western predatory companies). A decolonial green media would have an eye that this company has no right to exist and precisely given the fact that this company has never returned capital generated from looting of landscapes and communities, never apologized and still today works with subcontractors who drive Indigenous communities off their land or subject them to various human rights abuses to assert their business model of growth in Southeast Asia.

What is a Paul Polman doing in a sustainable top 100? A competitive game for most influential royalty and business has had to give way to a competitive showcase of civic initiatives. A credit to the climate movement for putting pressure on, not a sincere repentance of complicity in colonial and greenwashing glorification of the top 100.

Being able to frame to a large audience who or what is sustainable is particularly political. It is striking that in the sustainable top 100 there are no people to be seen with Indigenous or anti-colonial agendas. For years, the top 100 has created the illusion that being environmentally friendly and green leadership is a white party. In 2017, the first person of color could only be found at place 69 and that was an organization linked to “green” entrepreneurship; not exactly a threat to colonial capitalism. 

Today, a few initiatives from the Dutch Caribbean are included. It is nice that there is now an eye for what is happening in Dutch colonies, correction Public bodies, in the 21st century. But if only the horticultural initiatives are celebrated and not a deeper protest against growth model of capitalism and dispossession practices of resources and ways of life – then ‘white sustainability’ remains a threat to the majority on this earth.

As Chico Mendes said, “Environmentalism without class struggle is gardening. Each time, there is a form of address to the reader of green media in the media that is constricting. For example, by singling out citizenship as a framework for green action, people who are most excluded by racism – undocumented immigrants – are excluded from the conversation. As long as media does not build countervailing power against the language and logic of colonial capitalism, it is part of the divide and conquer games that further fuel skew; and the ecological crisis is a symptom of that political skew.

The Sustainable Top 100 has never apologized for glorifying flawed companies that do greenwashing rather than decolonial reparations. Even National Geographics has apologized publicly in 2018 for their complicity in colonial lens and reporting for a long time. Though it has made little difference, at least they have opened the door to accountability and reflection.

Media reporting on “sustainability” and the “climate crisis” in the Netherlands invariably erases crucial insights regarding demands of the climate justice movements, and mostly fills pages with a quest for liberal “hope” and “three easy things you – reduced to consumer – can do.  Nature magazines or newspapers that write about the environment often fall into repetition with question sets that raise false oppositions introduced by the fossil industry. And when Rutte frames the climate crisis as a “technological challenge,” there is no major newspaper that will put him on his block for spouting nonsense and counter with a historical perspective that points out that the ecological crisis is a colonial crisis – that is, a political crisis founded on extremely harmful worldviews and terror policies toward all life sacrificed for growth fetishism for accumulation capital of nation-states and multinational corporations of mass destruction. When one grows, something shrinks somewhere on the other side. The law of conservation of energy is denied as long as media still goes along with fairy tales of green growth, green gas, green mines etc. Constant growth requires further expropriation of colonized landscapes and communities. 

Where are the environmental or nature magazines that write about ecofascism or Dutch climate debt? 

When these crucial problems (of green nationalism) and solutions (and paying off the historical climate debt) are left out of the equation we know we are looking at environmental problems with a white supremacist lens. And the media creates a lens for the masses to look at problems and solutions. So it’s far from innocent oversights. The media is paid to provide useful perspective. 

Where is the green media that focuses on the knowledge production of Indigenous peoples that has allowed 80% of the remaining biodiversity to remain? And when green book tips are given by an NGO like Greenpeace or Milieudefensie or by a VPRO radio program why is there not 80% of Indigenous writers there? Where is the humility to apprentice with people with better track records?

Let it be clear that the call for less white media coverage is not a call to add people of color as coloring (in photos or as journalists) when the analysis and language and historical awareness does not fundamentally change. The critique of a media landscape that whitewashes the ecological crisis with white innocence, white saviors and white centrality is one that is not about skin color but about white supremacy lens. Unfortunately, there are also many people of color who grew up in a white supremacist culture and have adopted and internalized that particular lens.

What we need is an anti-oppression media with a good mix of people of color and white allies that is not weighed down by fear of putting power in its place and remembering where it falters and intergenerational oppression is reproduced. This oppression disrupts both social and environmental cohesion.

The sustainable top 100 is only a symptom of a broader and larger media problem. The book Climate Change (is Racist) gives the example of how CNN ranked the top 100 articles of the year in 2019. There was no place on that top 100 for coverage of climate disaster Idai, which destroyed an entire town in Mozambique but there was place on the top 100 for the Notredame fire (even the 1st spot on the list). 

And who remembers the Surinamese Saramaka environmentalists, Wanze Eduards & Hugo Habini who won the Goldman Environmental prize in 2009 and went into conflict with the state against logging? The Goldman Environmental prize is also referred to as the oscars among earth protectors – but in the Netherlands they are not known for inspiring the green movement. This year Urgenda leader Marjan Minnesma received the Goldman Environmental prize. She too has entered the conflict with the state with a lawsuit to reduce emissions. Who in the green movement does not know her? There is structurally less attention for environmentalists of color. 

White centricity: The textbook example of media giving white climate activists more attention than environmentalists of color is the carving out of youth leader Vanessa Nakate from Uganda in photo with Greta. While Greta was a world renowned first name at the age of fifteen, Vanessa often remains known only as the girl who was not in the photo: not that she founded those two organizations including Rise Up Climate Movement. Indigenous activists or youth leaders waging anti-colonial struggles have been met with less enthusiasm by the liberal press. (Let it be clear that this is not a criticism of Greta but of the way media pretends that she is the first or that she is more important than her predecessors or fellow leaders).

Thirteen year old Indigenous water protector Autumn Peltier who addressed the UN in 2018 will not mobilize the media apparatus in the same way because she is Indigenous. To this day, the only globally known Indigenous woman is Pocahontas. But who knows that Pocahontas was kidnapped to England by white settlers after the settlers killed her Native husband? Who knows that Pocahontas was forced to wear Western clothing in captivity and was repeatedly raped and used as a pawn to find out the secrets of tobacco plant growing. The colonists always wanted to appropriate more land and more resources from the plant kingdom. Did you know that Pocahontas was killed (probably poisoned) at 21 when she was no longer useful as a blackmailer? Why does that matter? Because the story of Pocahontas is deeply ecological and political and to this day is told as a love story in which the Native falls in love with her oppressor John. When Indigenous people come out in protest, the protest is mostly ignored or appropriated by white media in a way that historical antecedents are smoothed out or distorted. The fight for climate justice is the latest glaring example of this. But those who know history see patterns. To this day, tobacco plant – for Indigenous a medicine mentor – is abused by corporations for cigarette industry. Thus, time and again we see a pattern of natural medicines being appropriated and commodified as poisons. And the erasure of our critical voices results in a flattening of political education for the masses that could generate solidarity. As hip-hop artist Akala sings, “as long as they are distorting the past It means they have the intention of doing it again.

White innocence: Time and again the media frames the climate problem as a new, 21st century or a problem of the last few decades. While Indigenous peoples of the world who show the greatest leadership in caring for web of life and preserving biodiversity see climate disasters as the result of 500 years of politics of colonial growth at the expense of the other that has brought skewed growth and death and destruction at every level. Any media maker or journalist knows that where you start a story is a political choice. However media chooses time and again to follow the white narrative of a climate crisis in the future or one that is only just here and we only know about for a few decades. This means that media invariably disregards all knowledge and history of colonized peoples who talk about this crisis of existence in different terms and concepts or allow it to be a NEW insight. This white innocence also ensures that many Dutch journalists or media makers do not have good basic knowledge in the area of climate debt that the Netherlands has to repair all damaged relationships with landscapes and communities. 

Finally, time and again we see language used in both NGO and newspaper magazines about politicians as ‘leaders at a climate summit’. To call someone a leader is to give them legitimacy. Even if you are critical. This masks the real relationships of leadership present among colonized peoples. Call an imperialist politician or colonial policymaker who wants to uphold voc-mentality by his name: a racist.

A foreseeable counter-argument will be that organization X or magazine Y also wrote this article to Indigenous people in Amazon or Colombia. Fortunately, there are individuals and organizations that are exceptions. We do not expect a rebuttal from them. But rather from the groups and organizations that only report with a form of address to the reader that calls for “rescuing” and “protecting” the vulnerable instead of talking about responsibility and political reparation processes of all relationships in which the vulnerably made community itself has a say. We have nothing on White Rescuers who only write about Indigenous people as a reference point or picture without relationship based on shared principles for anti-oppression. We don’t need a sustainable top hundred that tries to turn 500+ years of destruction of the earth into a party of influencers who are “all the rage”. How do they get it into their heads to reduce driving extinction policies that, according to a new study, have already driven 150,000 organisms to extinction in the past 500 years to a ‘headache file of NOW?’ With the erasure of long history, the media will do what they are paid to do: sensationalize without relationships of integrity.

NOTE: The current Sustainable Top 100 includes several groups and initiatives that we see as allies in the fight for climate justice leading Indigenous and frontline communities worldwide. Our banner is not a protest against them but at the way they are used by media as respectable civic winners. It’s time for the Sustainable Top 100 to hear what XR said at the Sustainable Tuesday Awards ceremony when Extinction Rebellion spokesperson wouldn’t accept the award: “What we need is not climate prizes but climate action.”