Why is Green So White?

Posted by Alden E. Habacon & filed under Sustainability Issue 2014.

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Recently, there has been rising concern that Vancouver is the most Asian city in North America. To be honest, this is old news. Most Vancouverites over the age of 25 should already know this as history. Over a decade ago, Vancouver architect Bing Thom said to a packed room at the Vancouver Museum that “Vancouver is no longer the gateway to Asia. It is part of Asia.” If Gavin Menzies’ 2003 claims of China having reached the West Coast long before our official founders are true—or partly true—the Lower Mainland has been connected to the Asia Pacific for a very long time.

That connection is alive today. If there’s a typhoon in the Philippines, we are affected. If there is an earthquake in China, or some cataclysm in India, Vancouver feels it immediately. If zombies were to attack cities in South Korea, we would know about it in real time. Vancouver’s Asian-ness is visible and pervasive—from food trucks on our streets to the big names in Vancouver’s real estate industry, the faces in politics, and public consciousness of past wrongs, such as the internment of Japanese Canadians. Many of our Aboriginal elders have an Asian connection. Vancouver’s Asian character is as ubiquitous as its lofty ambition to be the greenest city in the world.

So then, why is green so white?

This too is not a new question. A few years ago, I received a text message from an Asian Canadian urban planner while he was attending a large sustainability conference in Vancouver, asking, “Why is green so white?” What he was referring to was an undeniable observation: When he or I (or any of our other non-white peers who are passionate about sustainability) attended these kinds of green-minded gatherings, only a handful of the hundreds of people there would be of Asian descent (including David Suzuki and his daughter, Severn Cullis-Suzuki).

What we have seen emerge in the “most Asian city in North America” is an environmental movement built on white privilege and the exclusion of minority cultures. I don’t believe this was intentional. These green-minded gatherings are full of good people, with huge hearts, open-minds, and compassion for the planet. As a social, political, and industrial movement, it has worked hard to intentionally include First Nations peoples, and it is the last place I would expect to experience any form of racism. However, the question remains: In a place as diverse as Vancouver, how does something so important, so critical to our future prosperity and wellbeing of the planet, evolve and grow into the establishment it is today, while missing the voices, worldviews, perspectives, know-how, and passion of Vancouver’s Asian population?

The answer does not lie solely the green movement. I once asked a UBC professor in environmental research if she struggled with diversity within her department. She said that her challenge with diversity was keeping top-performing undergrads of Asian descent from going into medicine. The majority of Asian undergraduate students in science were not pursuing graduate degrees in environmental science. I genuinely believe there are many people in the green movement who desperately want to see diversity permeate this space, but there is resistance from the community.

When I bring this up, I am often asked, “What does race or culture have to do with environmentalism?” That’s a fair question.

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