I'm an Asian American environmentalist. My story is a familiar one.
In a way, it was inevitable that I would become an environmentalist. My parents met while trekking up Mount Odae, a popular getaway a few hours by train from Seoul, South Korea. Growing up in Georgia, we probably never went any longer than a month or two without spending a day exploring some hiking spot.
I didn’t always love the mosquitos or the Georgia heat, but eventually learned to tolerate both in exchange for the sound of rustling leaves and the feeling of lightness that lifts you when you’re among the trees.
And at home, I learned to “reduce, reuse, recycle” from my mom. When she wasn’t reminding me not to leave the tap running or throw away food, she was coming up with ways to repurpose or reuse quite literally everything she could.
My story is a familiar one: Asian Americans are overwhelmingly environmentalists. According to a survey last year, 80% of Asian Americans consider the environment to be a very or extremely important political issue; 77% support stronger federal legislation to address the climate crisis.
An earlier survey found that 86% of us agree that acting on climate change now would provide a better life for our children and grandchildren.
So why aren't we represented in the environmental movement?
An overlooked community
It’s worth stating that people of color have been excluded from environmentalism for a long time.
From the beginning, underrepresentation of people of color in environmental groups and their boards has led to priorities that reflect those of white, wealthier people — even at the cost of everyone else.
It gives me hope that things have begun to change. Many green groups, wrestling with their own inequitable roots, have begun to build bridges with communities of color and center environmental justice in their work. But throughout it all, Asian American communities have still been largely neglected.
Why? We might begin by examining the fact that a lot of polling on climate and environmental issues overlooks Asian Americans. Instead, we are often lumped in with other groups — including Native Americans and people who are multiracial — into a monolithic and obscure “other.”
This tendency to ignore and erase Asian Americans illustrates how the “model minority myth” — which tells the story of a racial minority that has already achieved economic and social success purely through good manners and hard work — works quietly to shape our reality.
Building a more inclusive movement
Though it’s easy to prove false, the myth lives on. Our subsequent exclusion from important studies and polls is devastating, because that research helps shape both public policy and the public narrative.
The influence of the model minority myth also quite literally sickens and harms people. Because of the misconception that all Asian Americans are well-off, we have been historically underemphasized and left out of environmental justice research and the environmental justice movement.
What research is available makes it crystal clear that environmental justice issues — including access to clean air and water — are also Asian American issues. For example, a 2017 study found that Asian Americans rank just below Black people and above Hispanic people in the U.S. in terms of cancer risk from hazardous air pollutants.
And when we expand the conversation to include the U.S. territories of the Pacific Islands, you don’t need studies to see the impacts of environmental injustice. Having survived colonization and military occupation, islands such as Guam are now at the forefront of the climate crisis and face a real existential threat in rising sea levels.
The environmental movement must recognize that Asian American and Pacific Islander — or AAPI — communities are valuable and necessary allies in the fight to address the climate crisis, allies who could wield the kind of political power key to environmental progress.
And it needs to include us in efforts to right the historical wrongs of environmental injustice.
We can start by making sure that AAPIs are no longer erased in relevant research and polling. As long as we lack sufficient and credible data, we’ll remain ignorant as to the true shape and size of the problem as well as potential solutions.
And we can make sure to meet people where they are. Nearly 60% of Asian Americans were born in another country.
That means language, culture and citizenship issues are real obstacles to civic participation — 34% of AAPIs have limited English proficiency. This needs to be considered when organizing events, creating booklets and flyers, or setting up meetings.
We can — and must — do better
In recent months, a lot of digital ink has been spilled over the plight of Asian Americans. I’ve felt very heartened by the way that many of the challenges we face on a daily basis — yet go ignored by the general public — have come to light.
In the environmental movement, our increasing focus on equity and environmental justice has also given me hope. Now, it’s time to open our eyes to the tens of millions of AAPIs like me, who have been taught to appreciate and live in harmony with nature, who believe it’s urgent that we take action on the climate crisis now to build a better future.
To achieve genuine and inclusive progress in the time we have, we in the environmental movement need to extend a welcoming hand to the AAPI community today.
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