Losing Rebecca Tarbotton and Reassessing Representation in the Environmental Movement
Like many with an interest in environmental issues, I was shocked and saddened to hear of the unexpected passing of Rebecca Tarbotton in Mexico last week. As the head of the Rainforest Action Network, Ms. Tarbotton proved to be a visionary and innovative leader interested in increasing direct action and other fiery, determined methods of creating environmental change. Her youth and vigor made her a standout in the environmental movement, which tends to be dominated by older, more cautious representatives, and she will be sorely missed at RAN as well as in the movement in general.
Her obituary at RAN notes that: “Under her leadership, RAN achieved tremendous victories in preserving endangered rainforests and the rights of their indigenous inhabitants…Becky spent much of her time thinking about how to inspire masses of people to work for transformational social and environmental change, and how to push the country’s biggest corporate polluters to reform their ways.” She also inspired and fired up a generation of employees at the famous environmental justice organization, and is warmly remembered not just as a leader but as a friend.
Writing for Grist, Lisa Hymas points out that Ms. Tarbotton’s death also raises some important issues about the demographics of the movement. She stood out in the landscape as a leader under 40, and not just that, but also a woman. The environmental movement tends to skew heavily towards older white men, something it has been criticized for over the course of decades, and many activists wonder why this demographic gap persists despite criticism, discussion and active movements to recruit and promote people who are underepresented in the upper ranks.
While the civil rights movement has begun to engage with environmental issues, noting that environmental racism is a pernicious problem that illustrates intersections between civil rights and environmental problems, the environmental movement has sometimes been slow to address racism and sexism from within, and to reach out to people who might correct gender and race imbalances. It also hasn’t necessarily created the best incubator environment for innovators and visionaries, despite the tremendous energy and strengths they bring to the movement.
Spectra Speaks talks about some of the ways in which white-dominated organizations can increase participation by nonwhite people and people of color, and her lessons from working with the London Feminist Film Festival could also be applied to the environmental movement. She noted the importance of avoiding the “we are one trap;” rather than folding everyone under one umbrella, the environmental movement should actively embrace and discuss intersectionality, talking about inequalities, disparities and even differing environmental goals.
She also says that outreach is critical, including researching issues in minority communities, working with leaders within those communities, and taking responsibility for specific issues. For the environmental movement, this means discarding an “if we build it, they will come” attitude, and focusing on the individual needs of the people the movement is trying to attract to build with them. Finally, Spectra says it’s critical to avoid “caucusing,” separating issues as “other” in a way that makes participants feel alien. Environmental racism, for example, isn’t a racial issue to be shoved to the side: it’s a serious problem that needs to be directly confronted.
With an active focus on diversifying the movement, everyone would win — and I suspect Rebecca Tarbotton would have been excited to see more visionary women under 40 among the ranks of environmental leadership.
Photo credit: Rainforest Action Network