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Black America’s Legacy of Environmental Sustainability

Black America’s Legacy of Environmental Sustainability

During Black History Month, we often overlook the environmental stewardship practiced by Black Americans, particularly those of the baby boomer and older generations. Contrary to the prevalent narrative that blames these generations for the climate crisis, Black communities have long exemplified sustainable living, not out of luxury but necessity and wisdom.

The Country Crock meme well-known to many Black millennials and Gen-Xers illustrates this legacy humorously yet truthfully. The surprise of finding something other than margarine in a reused container symbolizes the resourcefulness ingrained in Black American culture. Our parents and grandparents, far from being the perpetrators of environmental decline, were unknowing pioneers of sustainability. They mended clothes, transformed them into cleaning rags when they wore out, and passed wearable items to those in need.

My own life is filled with anecdotes that paint a vivid picture of this inherited environmental consciousness. To this day, I wash and reuse aluminum foil and Ziploc bags, a practice passed down from my parents and grandparents. This seemingly small act was a part of a larger ethos of resourcefulness and respect for materials. I wasn’t told that I had to clean my plate because of starving kids in Africa. I was taught it was wasteful to not eat leftovers and that one dinner could be remade into a variety of meals.

I grew up helping my dad fix broken appliances, running to the Salvage Yard and Recycle Center to either drop something off or try to find a desk or something we needed.  My elementary school classmates and I were treated to visits from The Scrap Box, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching people about creative reuse. We learned how to make crafts from what we already had on hand and everyday items people donated. When running errands, we meticulously planned routes to use the least amount of gas, an early lesson in reducing our carbon footprint.

Stories from my mother about childhood trips to visit family down South offered further variations on this theme. These annual journeys often meant packing a single car full of relatives or using public transportation, inadvertently contributing to lower emissions. Similarly, the memory of saving pop bottles to turn in at the recycling center for cash, using the back of papers for drawing, or wrapping gifts in newspapers reflect not just frugality but also of an inherent understanding of sustainable practices.

Were the sustainability efforts of older generations purely about environmentalism and climate change? No. The terminology wasn’t there in their youth. But at its core, sustainability is about making the most of what you have. Their resource optimizations laid the groundwork for what us “Xennials” and younger generations now call “Zero Waste,” “Deinfluencing,” and “anti-hauls.”

Their practices were a product of both necessity and experience. Many Black Baby Boomers and their Silent Generation peers, especially those from sharecropping backgrounds, had an intimate connection with the land. They understood the value of fertile soil involved crop rotation, composting, and that rainwater could be saved to water crops or for thirsty animals. These practices, deeply rooted in rural life, adapted seamlessly into urban sustainability measures when families migrated to cities.

The public environmental messages of the1980s such as those embodied in Smokey the Bear, Woodsy Owl, and Captain Planet were not revelations but reinforcements of what was already practiced at home. Black Americans, particularly from working-class backgrounds, rarely had the means for a lifestyle marked by excess. Instead, they practiced a form of environmental stewardship that was practical, necessary, and, in its essence, revolutionary.

This narrative that portrays boomers as environmentally indifferent overlooks the realities of Black communities. Thriftiness, born out of necessity, evolved into a form of environmental stewardship that Gen Z did not create but inherited. The affluentclasses, whose lifestyles have significantly contributed to environmental degradation, remain largely unaccountable, while the sustainable practices of Black families are often undervalued or ignored.

As we confront the challenges of climate change, it’s essential to recognize the contributions of these older generations. They were not the heedless consumers of resources but the unsung heroes of sustainability. Their legacy is a testament to resourcefulness and resilience, offering valuable lessons for sustainable living today.

Let’s honor this legacy not just in words but in actions. By acknowledging and embracing the sustainable practices of our ancestors, we strengthen our collective resolve in addressing climate change. This history is not just a story of survival; it’s a blueprint for a sustainable future, rooted in the wisdom and practices of generations who knew how to care for our planet responsibly.

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