Environmental Inclusion: A Moral Imperative and Political Necessity

Access to the outdoors should be a human right. If connection with nature is important for the human soul and mind, we need to ask what structural problems prevent the underprivileged from enjoying such experiences.

On December 31, 2015, prominent Seattle philanthropist Doug Walker died while hiking on Granite Mountain in the Seattle area. Walker, an avid environmentalist, was the president of the American Alpine Club, a former chairman of outdoor gear company REI, and a board member of several environmental nonprofits, including the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club Foundation, Seattle Parks Foundation, Green Diamond Resource Company, and the Conservation Lands Foundation.

He loved the wilderness, the outdoors, and the mountains. Moreover, he worked hard to provide opportunities for others to enjoy the beauty of the outdoors. He was a passionate advocate for environmental inclusion, always fighting to bring access to open spaces to all segments of society, and especially underprivileged youth.

As scholars of the nonprofit sector and environmental policy, we believe Doug Walker’s advocacy for environmental inclusion had a profound political logic to which environmental groups should pay careful attention.  

Environmental inclusion responds to an important challenge facing the US environmental movement: Externally, it draws support primarily from white, middle- and upper-class individuals; internally, it lacks diversity among its senior and mid-level staff. Few would dispute that the environmental movement has a diversity problem.

Racism has tainted conservation efforts in the past. Great conservationists such as Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot worried about “race suicide”—the use of birth control by white Americans leading to domination by ethnic minorities. John Muir made problematic assertions about Native Americans and “sambos.” In the 1960s, Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb and Garret Harding’s article “Life Boat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor” made highly controversial assertions, including the idea that because over-population was damaging the environment, developed countries should let nature take its course and not help poor ones via food aid. In recent years, the Sierra Club has engaged in a nasty fight with racist overtones on the subject of immigration.

Beyond the environmental movement’s diversity problems and divisive intellectual legacies, data reveal that minorities spend less time in the outdoors than white people do. This subject began receiving widespread attention after Oprah Winfrey highlighted it in on her show in 2010. As avid hikers in the Cascade region ourselves, we barely ever encounter non-white hikers. 

How, then, might we work for environmental inclusion so that a wider array of people can have access to the outdoors?  

Environmental justice discourse has traditionally focused on the ways that pollution and other environmental ills disproportionately impact underprivileged communities. The drinking water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, is a sad reminder of this issue. Like Doug Walker, however, we believe that environmental justice should not only lessen the burden of pollution on the poor, but also encourage equitable access to wilderness and open spaces for all—an approach we call “environmental inclusion.” 

Access to the outdoors should be a human right. If connection with nature is important for the human soul and mind, we need to ask what structural problems prevent the underprivileged from enjoying such experiences.

There are compelling political and moral reasons for environmental groups to focus on this issue. With increasing urbanization and the corresponding demands for resources, wilderness and open spaces will come under even more pressure to yield to development. Without meaningful personal experiences in the outdoors, underprivileged citizens will be less likely to support environmental causes over other policy agendas. If individuals across different societal strata can experience the beauties of nature, it will strengthen citizen support for environmental protection and conservation. 

Environmentalists need to target young people in particular, because outdoor experiences during formative years can shape environmental policy preferences in the future. Environmental groups need to lobby public schools to include outdoor experience as a part of their curricula and create the infrastructure for students to enjoy the outdoors. 

We recognize the strides that school districts have made in incorporating environmental issues in social sciences, natural sciences, and humanities curricula. Our plea is that schools ensure that students experience the outdoors not merely as requirement for learning sciences, but also for its beauty and majesty. Only this will foster the passion necessary to protect open spaces and wilderness. 

Some may well ask whether this is feasible when school districts are struggling to fulfill their basic functions. That is a fair question. But we believe that the outdoor experience itself should be a basic and integral part of the K-12 curriculum. Environmental groups need to make this paradigm a top priority for their political advocacy.

We also need to encourage more organizations to offer subsidized outdoor activities, particularly in the summer. Additional programs along the lines of the BOLD & GOLD YMCA outdoor programs, which Doug Walker helped launch and fund, would allow a greater number of underprivileged students to experience the outdoors. 

Environmental inclusion is both a moral imperative and a political necessity. Working toward this goal would be a fitting tribute to Doug Walker.

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  • Great read! As a woman of color, I rarely see other minorities when I go hiking or spend time outdoors. I’m on a Board of a nonprofit organization that encourages young children to be outdoors with a focus on low income neighborhoods….With more diversity and access to the outdoors by everyone, it will make a huge difference in connecting communities to the outdoors and Environmental policies.

  • Thanks for this important article. I’m working with a coalition in Oregon that is trying to find funding to provide outdoor education access to ALL students, through the Oregon education system. The Oregon Environmental Literacy Plan (adopted 2010) is the educational framework for this effort. Our coalition is called the Oregon Outdoor Education Coalition

  • Harreld Dinkins's avatar

    BY Harreld Dinkins

    ON March 16, 2016 11:53 AM

    Nice start, but it’s nearly impossible for me to see this as being the priority without implementing truly inclusive policies in schools from the ground all the way up.
    Oregon should prioritize prioritize eliminating the current Portland Public Schools practices for excluding developmentally and otherwise disabled students from equal access to education and must avoid the illegal “separate but equal” practices that justly cause it shudders from the phrase referencing the racist past so integral to creating it’s grim white present. What does that mean? It means selecting sites and curricula that all students can join in, rather than just tokens of bare crumbs for those facing blocks to chair or other mobility devices to navigate the State’s wealth of wellsprings for mind and spirit.
    Mind you, as the elites of the “less bad” political party seems hellbent to nominate a candidate proud to publicly admire and respect the vile Kissinger instead of naming him as a war criminal and who *must* have hired a team to prepare her “casual-seeming” remarks to both seem unscripted and be tyrannically offensive (because it’s statistically impossible to stumble into that freaking huge of a faux-pas without planning it deftly), I’m not holding my breath.
    Noble idea, and I’m all for decreasing class barriers and have always felt that Outdoor School should be fully and equitably paid for by public funds, but before tromping outside, can students get equal access to basic education inside as well as to be truly inclusive outside?

  • Equal access to a well-rounded education! Yes, Harreld! Our supporters always come back to reworking the entire education system from the ground up - out of our capacity as an organization, so we choose to work within the system as best we can and make what we can control available to all students. As a parent, I’m searching and searching for that option for my own child. You lead the revolt at the highest levels, and many of us will follow. smile

  • Rex Burkholder's avatar

    BY Rex Burkholder

    ON March 18, 2016 03:39 PM

    Kids need to get outdoors for lots of reasons. Learning outside builds bonds with other students, decreases absenteeism, turns kids onto science and technical careers, improves their health and helps them see their connections to the living world.
    School is how we pass on our culture and our values. People will never care or even enjoy the natural world if they never experience it. If we want to develop stewardship in our youth, schools HAVE to take kids outside.

  • Agreed, Rex!!!!

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