This week, the Colorado Sierra Club has been promoting “SixNineteen.com”, a nationwide protest and series of events to call attention to racial violence and racism in America. One of the goals of SixNineteen.com is to “Defund The Police”, and the Colorado Sierra Club promotions of the event say the Club “demands” the “defunding of police”. A few other national environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, are also promoting SixNineteen.com.
I respect and support the current calls to address systemic racism in our society, and I support everyone’s right to peaceable assembly and protest, as well as looking at ways to reform policing.
I’m also very wary of the specific demand by environmental groups to “Defund The Police”.
First, my work as an environmental activist is centered around being a law enforcer and law enforcement. I work at the local, state, federal, and global level to enforce environmental laws that protect the environment, public health, and people. Calls to “defund the police” are so general that they appear in the public’s eyes to overlap with general concern about “law enforcement”, and therefore could undermine our environmental work.
Second, many local, state, and federal agencies literally have “environmental police”, as well as “rangers” that protect the public as well as the environment in our increasingly crowded public landscapes. You would call “911” when there’s a burglary; we also call “911” when there’s a toxic spill. These police and rangers often do exceptional work and they need all the support we can give them.
Third, here in Colorado, and at the federal level in the U.S., we environmentalists are constantly in a battle to increase funding for the enforcement of environmental laws. I specifically deal with laws such as the Clean Water Act (state and federal), the National Environment Policy Act (federal), and various local laws protecting the environment. Anti-environmental politicians often use budget-cutting techniques as methods to undermine environmental laws, rather than to legally gut or change the laws themselves. Further, the laws are often weak, and are never stronger than the funding to enforce them. “Defunding the police” could have carryover impacts on defunding other types of law enforcement.
Finally, to be successful, environmentalism needs very broad coalitions of people including wide political swaths of the American public. The environmental justice movement, which has broadened the cultural diversity of environmentalism, has made a significant positive impact in increasing the size of that coalition. In addition, conservative people and groups — including Republicans, Independent voters, and their elected politicians who control vast numbers of local, state, and the federal government agencies in the U.S. — are also absolutely necessary.
The vast, corporate, profiteering-based attacks — sometimes unlawful — on our environment are structural and institutional problems. The underlying core drivers of environmental degradation are baked into our system of capitalism that is obsessed with devastating resource extraction and consumption, and with completely unsustainable economic and human population growth. These obstacles are formidable, to say the least, and thus our environmental message and work needs to be wide, generous, and embracing, bringing in all the allies we can possibly get.