This story was originally published by High Country News and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

WildEarth Guardians, a non-profit that looks out for the West’s wildlife and wild places, recently named its first new executive director in three decades. Hop Hopkins, formerly of the Sierra Club and LA River Keepers, has spent more than 25 years organizing in the West and is one of the few Black leaders in the U.S. conservation establishment. He’s perhaps best known for drawing attention to the connections between the environmental and racial justice movements, notably through his viral article, “Racism Is Killing the Planet.” We caught up with Hopkins to learn about his vision for WildEarth Guardians and the environmental movement in general.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

High Country News: What drew you to WildEarth Guardians?

Hop Hopkins: I appreciated their unabashed positioning on how they’re going to defend the planet. In the face of folks saying it can’t be done, they say, “We’ll find a way.” That’s the same kind of cloth I’m cut from.

HCN: In a previous interview, you said you plan to bring an “intersectional approach to how we protect the wild future of the West.” What did you mean by that?

Hopkins: (We) need to not bifurcate the human environment from the wild environment. In my article, “Racism Is Killing the Planet,” the tagline everybody remembers is: “You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can’t have disposable people without racism.”

The same pernicious systems making it possible for environmental degradation to happen are some of the same systems plaguing communities of colour. The ideology of extraction and its supporting ideas of domination, sacrifice and disposability — they have to give way to a concept of regeneration.

HCN: Can you offer an example?

Fighting climate change by fighting racism. #ClimateChange #Racism

Hopkins: When we’re looking at taking a more holistic, intersectional approach, one of the pinch points is around this false dichotomy: It’s either jobs or the environment. Folks who are working in these extractive industries also deserve justice, and they also deserve to have their livelihood not be connected to the destruction of the environment.

We have to be in relationship with the community to figure out how we can transition them in a way that’s principled, so folks don’t just hear a large sucking sound when that industry gets shut down. That framework isn’t always present in conservation communities when it comes to shutting down pipelines or coal plants or mining. (In a followup email, Hopkins pointed to the Guardians’ work supporting front-line communities harmed by oil and gas development in the Greater Chaco area of northwestern New Mexico.)

A 2019 rally and sit-in at the Bureau of Land Management’s New Mexico state office to protest the lease sale of 11,000 acres of public and ancestral tribal lands in the Greater Chaco area. Photo by WildEarth Guardians

HCN: You’ve been fighting this fight for a long time. Can you talk about how the conservation movement has changed over the course of your career?

Hopkins: Ten years ago, you couldn’t even say the word “racism” or “justice” inside of a conservation space. As we’ve become more aware of the intricate nature of the climate crisis and how it’s interconnected with social and economic crises, that lack of awareness has been broken down. There are still organizations who have their niche — and that’s OK. If they’re doing it in coalition with organizations taking on other pieces of the pie, then we can work together. You do you and I do me, and together we do better.

Do you like ice cream, for example?

HCN: Oh yeah.

Hopkins: What’s your favourite flavour?

HCN: Today I’m going to say mint chocolate chip.

Hopkins: I like vanilla. If we say, “Who likes mint chocolate chip?” we might get a third of the audience. If we say, “Who likes vanilla?” we might get two-thirds. We’re not going to get everybody. But if we say, “Who likes dessert?” every hand in the room is going to go up. I know that’s an analogy, but do you understand how I’m thinking about the scenario?

HCN: I think so. But just to make sure it’s clear, can you break down how that applies to your work?

Hopkins: When we look at polling, particularly in the Western region, people of colour have a high overlap with our agenda. But they’re not a large part of our constituency right now. That doesn’t mean they’re not engaged in their communities. It’s just that we haven’t been able to craft a message that resonates enough for them to become part of our movement and organizations.

HCN: Is there anything else that the environmental movement must remedy to move forward?

Hopkins: At the scale at which (change) needs to happen — to go from a movement of 1,000 to 10,000 to millions — to protect fragile ecosystems, endangered species and front-line communities, we need to speak to a different choir than we’ve been speaking to for the last 20, 30, 40, 50 years.

The environmental justice community taught us that the environment was much bigger than just the wilderness — it was the places where we eat, play, sleep, work, go to school. Taking that broader approach would include much larger communities, both human and animal, and would allow for more people to be involved in our work. Because they would see themselves included, and their issues given the type of attention and urgency that they need.

HCN: You’ve previously said that we can’t succumb to pessimism. How do you find optimism on a daily basis?

Hopkins: It’s really easy not to. But there’s just as much beauty in the world if we look for it, and just as much awe in our daily goings-on as there are things that cause us grief or angst. So I choose to live in that space, versus looking at the devastation and destruction. (I think) about my ancestors and what they went through, and yet they persevered. There are things about my existence that I don’t agree with, that truncate my ability to be free, and there’s a higher level of justice and democracy that we haven’t yet reached. It’s that belief that there is more — that we can achieve greater heights than we have as a society. I’d rather be in the space of collectively working towards that than being stuck in what’s not working.

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