Still an American Dilemma

By Lauret Savoy

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A Stone’s Throw: A Series on Race and Place in America

Not long ago I attended a day of talks given by internationally respected activist-writers working to curb climate change, species loss, and “run-amok capitalism.” A vocal, fairly affluent audience of a few hundred filled the New England village’s lecture hall. Hybrid cars filled the parking lot. I was the only brown-skinned person there. Conversations on a green economy, on and the U. N. climate talks, on what “we Americans need to do” shimmered with an energy infused by these movers and doers. Dimensions of class, gender, and race were absent in all I heard.

Earth House
Image courtesy Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

A child born today enters a world of rapid and extensive ecological change. The list is often repeated: Human population continues to grow. Ecosystems around the world have never before been so widely fragmented or degraded. The nearly 1,400 scientists convened a decade ago by the United Nations cautioned in their Millennium Ecosystem Assessment that “humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history,” resulting “in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth.” Coal, petroleum, and other fossil hydrocarbons, once abundant and seemingly cheap “resources,” literally fueled industrial revolutions and the mechanization of food production. And because of this fossil-fuel economy, greenhouse gas levels continue to climb, ever exceeding the highest atmospheric concentrations since our species evolved.

The speed and degree of environmental change are unprecedented in human history. The embedded systems behind them in the United States, the most energy-consumptive nation, are not. Their deep roots allowed and continue to amplify fragmented ways of seeing, valuing, and using “nature” as well as human beings.

Ecological footprint
Ecological footprint image courtesy Shutterstock.

Consider the ecological footprint. Its estimate tends to mask how exploitations of land and of people are intertwined. Quantifying the area of productive land and water needed to provide ecosystem “services” or resources that are used (like clean water, food, fuel), and wastes then generated, gives just a partial measure of the biosphere’s regenerative capacity. And by this measure alone humanity’s footprint already exceeds Earth’s ecological limits.

But American prosperity and progress have come at great human costs, too. Forced removals of the continent’s Native peoples yielded land to newcomers from Europe and their descendants. The new republic’s economy grew upon a foundation of industrial agriculture built and powered by enslaved workers. Consuming other people’s labor, dispossessing other people of land and life connection to it, devaluing human rights, and diminishing one’s community, autonomy, and health—these are not just events of the past. In a globalizing world, agribusiness giants like Cargill and ADM have profited from the products of enslaved labor in Brazil at a seemingly comfortable moral distance. And far too many degraded environments in the United States are also citizens’ homes—in 40 out of 45 states with hazardous waste facilities, high percentages of people of color and the economically poor live, and die, next to those sites.

As I listened to conversations in that lecture hall, An American Dilemma came to mind. When the United States entered the Second World War, a social economist named Gunnar Myrdal wrote from Princeton, New Jersey, of his troubled and hopeful impressions of this society. He’d traveled across the nation, particularly in the South, and concluded that Americans seemed to be under the spell of a “great national suggestion”—the ideals of an “American Creed of liberty, equality, justice, and fair opportunity for everybody”—that failed many citizens in actuality. This failure, Myrdal thought, came from a moral struggle that raged in the minds and hearts of most white Americans as Creed clashed with daily life. Inequities born of perceived difference were “perhaps the most glaring conflict in the American conscience and the greatest unresolved task for American democracy.” These words come not from letters to Myrdal’s distant home in Stockholm, but from the collective labor of a research team he directed for the Carnegie Corporation, and published in the nearly 1,500-page An American Dilemma.

Social Security Poster
A 1930s Social Security Act poster.
Image courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.

Major social policies of the early and mid-1900s that helped build today’s middle class largely left out people of color. The Social Security Administration, which began as part of FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s, long excluded domestic and agricultural workers—more than two-thirds the African-American population at that time—from retirement, disability, and unemployment benefits. The Federal Housing Administration, also a New Deal program created in 1934, changed how homes could be purchased by guaranteeing low down payments and low-cost loans to qualifying Americans. For the first time millions could “own” a home. But the FHA “redlined” neighborhoods with African-American residents as financial risks and thus ineligible. Of billions of dollars in home loans backed by the federal government across three decades, more than 98% went to white Americans, often in new suburban housing. Most major New Deal labor laws left out migrant farm workers, and federal laws today don’t protect them from unfair labor practices. Even an attempt by the Truman administration to nationalize health care failed in part because the white South feared integrated medical facilities.

1930s Federal Housing Administration poster
A 1930s Federal Housing Administration poster.
Image courtesy National Building Museum.

What remained unspoken in that lecture hall reminded me, as has the rise in hate crimes, that the American dilemma remains. Walls seen and unseen cut across this society. They reflect patterns of living that still dis-member, that still exclude. Even with widespread grassroots activism in environmental and social justice, I’m still asked why people of color don’t contribute to “the environmental movement.” I’ve also been asked, Why don’t more of “you” come to the table? I’d prefer that “we” design and build a table together rather than assume “minorities” should come to one built without their input. Gated suburban communities—with Keep Out and No Trespassing signs—are paralleled by perhaps less visible but no less powerful borders that segregate ideas and senses of who “we” really are. It doesn’t affect me. It’s somebody else’s problem. It isn’t my job. Those with the wealth and power to distance themselves from the effects of environmental contaminants make “not in my back yard” a legal but deadly joke.

The same Congress passed the Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, just two months apart. I’ve wondered how many members of the conservation and environmental movements of the last half century chose to believe that there were few or no intersections with civil rights and other justice movements. Those Americans who are just trying to meet basic human needs, or who bear the brunt of contaminated environments or climate change as loss—of home, of food source, of health or livelihood—have little choice.

This country long ago became accustomed to the unacceptable. At times it seems as if the anomalous “moral lag in the development of the nation” that Myrdal posited really is a reinforcing symbiosis of embedded otherings, a growth-for-profit imperative, and an unexamined mythology of American democracy.

LBJ signs the Civil Rights Act
President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., and others look on, July 2, 1964.
Photo by Cecil Stoughton, courtesy White House Press Office.

I hesitate writing “we must” or “we should”—such urgings mean little without widespread recognition and acceptance of all “we the people” are. And Aldo Leopold’s call to enlarge the boundaries of the “community of interdependent parts” can’t be answered if the community’s human members deny or ignore what connects us all.

Still, each day, each moment offers a chance to be conscious of divisions. Each day, each moment offers an opportunity to recognize to what and whom we are related. The alternative may be a life framed by false problems in false situations.

The gathering at that New England village’s lecture hall ended with a standing ovation.

This editorial is based on an essay originally appearing in Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril (edited by Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael P. Nelson).



]Bullard, Robert and others, Toxic Waste and Race at Twenty, 1987-2007: Grassroots Struggles to Dismantle Environmental Racism in the United States (Cleveland, OH: United Church of Christ, 2007), 176p.

Conley, Dalton, Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth and Social Policy in America  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) 217p.

Katznelson, Ira, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time  (New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., 2013) 720p.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005,

Myrdal, Gunnar, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1944) 1483p.

Race, the Power of an Illusion, California Newsreel, 2003.  &

Romm, Jeffrey, The coincidental order of environmental injustice, in Justice and Natural Resources : Concepts, Strategies, and Applications, eds. Mutz, Kathryn M., Bryner, Gary C., and Kenney, Douglas S.  (Covelo, CA: Island Press, 2001) 117-137.

Shapiro, Thomas, The Hidden Cost of Being African American (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004) 256p.


Lauret Savoy writes and photographs across threads of cultural identity to explore their shaping by relationship with and dislocation from the land. A woman of African-American, Euro-American, and Native-American heritage, she is a professor of environmental studies and geology at Mount Holyoke College. Her books include The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity and the Natural World (Milkweed Editions), Bedrock: Writers on the Wonders of Geology(Trinity University Press), and Living with the Changing California Coast.

Toxic storage tanks photo courtesy Shutterstock. is the first online literary journal of place, publishing award-winning literature, art, editorials, and community case studies since 1998.