Abolish the tree-hugger

It's time to redefine what an "environmentalist" is, argues Heather McTeer Toney. Plus, week 4 book club information!

I didn’t always consider myself a feminist. When I was in high school, I thought feminists were just ladies who hated dudes, and I didn’t think that was very fair. It wasn’t until college that I learned “feminism” just meant “gender equality”—and then I realized I was very feminist. I am embarrassed to admit this secret. But I also know I am not alone.

I’ve talked to countless feminists over the years who say they once misunderstood the true meaning of “feminist.” Turns out, inaccurate stereotypes furthered by misogynists are powerful and real, and still influence many people’s understanding of feminism. But society has come a long way on the path of understanding what feminism actually means, and that has benefited the movement overall. It’s time for a similar cultural moment on the word “environmentalist,” too.

I came to this conclusion after reading Heather McTeer Toney’s piece in All We Can Save, an anthology of essays and poems by women in the climate movement. Titled “Collard Greens are Just as Good as Kale,” Toney’s piece details her evolution of understanding of what an environmentalist really is—and how her initial misunderstanding of the term caused her to reject the title.

Like feminism, Toney’s definition of environmentalism centers on justice and equality, not superiority or dominion. Its goal is not just to preserve the sanctity of nature, but the quality of human life. An environmentalist is not a white dude standing alone with Birkenstocks, embracing the girth of a mossy tree. It’s someone like Toney, who has been advocating for clean air and water in her lived environment since 2004, when she became the first African-American, first female, and youngest-ever mayor of Greenville, Mississippi.

Toney is currently the national field director at Mom’s Clean Air force, and was previously the regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Southeast Region during the Obama administration. I spoke with her last week about her essay as part of HEATED’s 10-week book club partnership with All We Can Save. (Relatedly, book club information for this week is at the bottom of this email.)

If you’re reading this e-mail, you’re on the free list for HEATED, and only getting half the interview. Subscribers got the whole thing earlier this morning. If you want to access it, too, become a part of the HEATED subscriber community. Get more of the climate journalism that matters to you, and ensure this 100 percent independent venture continues to thrive for years to come.

Enjoy the interview!

Emily Atkin: Your essay talks about how most people think of environmentalists as white people hugging trees, and of environmentalism as a commitment to the forest or the jungle. But your definition of environmentalism is different, shaped by your Black, Southern, rural roots. How so?

Heather McTeer Toney: I think culturally, because of how environmental work has been presented throughout history, we’ve created this siloed and segmented approach to what what we define as environmentalism. So in the piece that I wrote, “Collards Are Just as Good as Kale,” I wanted to identify it in a way that it had originally been identified to me.

To me, environmentalism is being able to connect to the earth, air, and water in your own community, in your backyard—whether it’s rural or urban. It’s about connecting in a way that's not only natural to you, but is in a way that's caring for these elements as being a part of our existence, a part of our humanity, and it being our responsibility.

I can't separate my environmental work from my social work. I can't separate environmental work from my family. I can't separate it from my day-to-day life, which is intricately woven into being a member of this ecological planet. Working for the environment really means working for yourself.

EA: You’ve done a lot of environmental work over the last two decades. What made you want to tackle the definition of “environmentalism,” specifically?

HMT: I did a Google search of environmentalists, and page after page was just pictures of white people hugging trees, being by themselves outside in nature. It was just these images of one-ness, like there wasn't any community. There weren't any images that reflected my experience.

The first two pages of Google Images when you search “environmentalist.” It is, indeed, a caucasian-heavy page. Source: Google.com.

African American experience is very familial. It’s people; it’s community, it’s not just one person standing by themselves. That's that's not really our culture. So I was like, why are there these holes? How are we defining what environmentalism looks like? Who decided that this was going to be what the picture of an environmentalist is? Why is it a white person in Birkenstocks hugging a tree?

EA: Why do you think?

HMT: That was just the narrative being raised above anything else. And those were also the voices that I heard elevated when it came to environmental work. In fact, when I began doing environmental work as the mayor of Greenville, Mississippi in 2004, I didn’t even realize that was what I was doing, because it didn’t line up with what I had seen.

EA: Wait, what?

HMT: I’m serious. I had been raising an issue of water in my community for some time. And we had just made the front page of The Washington Post, above the fold, talking about water issues.

That was right around the time Lisa Jackson became the first African American woman to be EPA administrator—first African American, period. And so Jackson came to tour the region, and she spent a lot of time in my community exploring some of the problems.

Then, sort of on the side, she looked at me and said, “You know you're doing environmental justice work, right?” I was stunned. I was like, “Really?” And she's like, “Yeah, what you're doing right now is considered environmental justice work.”

A photo of former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in Greenville, Mississippi with then-mayor Heather McTeer Toney. Source: Heather McTeer Toney.

So that really opened my eyes into accepting a new definition of what environmentalism was, what climate action meant for me, and what it meant for African American people and Southern people and poor people.

EA: I’m curious—why do you think that happened in the first place? Especially now that you’ve been doing environmental justice work for such a long time. Why do you think “white people alone with Birkenstock” became the go-to definition, and not “Black people together preserving their well-being?”

HMT: Well, you know, one thing I wrote this essay is that Black women just do the work. Period. African American women throughout this country, have always just put our hands and feet and minds to resolving problems, without focusing too much on trying to define the work and identify its market.

Women in general have been working like this for years. We've been doing social justice work. We've been doing environmental work. We’ve been living near the pollution sources. We've been dealing with our children who have chronic diseases and asthma. We've been showing up at the protests and speaking at the meetings. We have not the time to stop and take credit, to say, “Hey, sorry, it's me over here who's doing all this. And also, this is climate justice work when we're trying to save lives and put food on the table.”

EA: That makes sense. You’re not master social media marketers of your day-to-day problems.

HMT: Right. And it wasn’t until I was in a position of power in elected politics where I was really able to stop and reflect on it and connect those dots.

I always tell people when I'm speaking or talking, that we have to be the voices that change the narrative. We have to be the ones that change those images and connect those dots, so that people can see these solutions that we're bringing to the table, and know that they’re valid and deserve respect. We all come from different cultures. We all come from different backgrounds. We have different ideas and different ways of seeing things. Everything who wants to address climate change is not going to look the same or want the same things. But it's the beauty of pulling these things together, and really having a cohesive and collaboration movement, that creates an opportunity for us to come up with very efficient but culturally competent solutions.

EA: I want to ask you about your work leading the EPA’s Southeast regional office. You mentioned in your essay that your leadership team was 90 percent Black women. I feel like that rarely happens in like a high government leadership positions. What was that like? How was it different than other experiences you had had in working in environmental leadership?

HMT: That is such a wonderful question, because it happened without us even realizing it. It was not my intention to hire all Black women; it was just that these were the best people for the jobs and the roles that we had. I remember the first time we looked around and realized that most of the people sitting around the table were Black women. My chief of staff at the time took a picture, and I think that it presented for other people an image that they had not seen before.

This picture taken in 2016 “includes my deputy, chief of staff, & special assistants,” Toney says. “Missing are my Assistant Administrator and communities liaison, who were both black women.” Credit: Heather McTeer Toney.

Our work certainly wasn’t that different, in the sense that we all had similar expertise and experience. We certainly all had an eye towards community. One thing I would say I felt was different was the personal and cultural experiences we brought to the work. Because you can't shed your Blackness when you go home; when you go to church; when you go back to your community; when you’re at work. Your Blackness is connected to you in every aspect of what you do.

So when thinking about environmental work and climate justice work—especially now in 2020—I reflect upon even some of the experiences that we had as Black women running that agency in the Southeast, a place that is traditionally thought to be very white and very Republican. We have very red states, yet here we were and we could not and would not separate our own identities from the environmental experiences that were happening there, that are still happening today. And it's one of reasons why I say that climate is an underlying and an underpinning for every single social justice issue at this time.

Emily, I have been Black all my life. Not one day off. I cannot disconnect my culture and my experience from the environment. There is a connection between the environment and climate justice and voter suppression. There is a connection between extreme weather and education, between climate change and police brutality, and climate change and poverty. I feel these connections deeply, and I think if I could speak for these other women, we all brought that mindset to the table when we were thinking of how to help communities be efficient and sustainable and resilient. And to be among people who felt that was a very powerful opportunity.

Want to read my entire conversation with Heather McTeer Toney? Paid subscribers got it in their inbox this morning—and you too can access it by joining the HEATED subscriber community. Click the button below to get more of the climate journalism that matters to you, and ensure this 100 percent independent venture continues to thrive for years to come.

When you’re done, you can follow this link to the entire Q&A, where Heather and I talk about her upbringing in the South; the BP oil spill; and her advice for citizens looking to get more involved in activism, among other things.

All We Can Save book club: Week 4

Today’s the fourth official day of HEATED’s book club partnership with All We Can Save, an anthology of female climate wisdom edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine Wilkinson.

I hope your discussion “circles” are going well. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about when I say “circles,” you can find more about those here). If you’re not in a circle, don’t fret—the discussion questions I send around each week are totally fine to ponder alone, or you can share your thoughts in the comments.

If you’d like to sign up to lead a circle—or if you’re already a circle leader and would like more to receive supplementary materials directly from Ayana and Katharine—click here.

The section we’re focusing on this week is “Reframe.” This section features essays from badass climate women, many of whose name begin with the letter K—like Katharine Hayhoe, Kate Knuth, and Kendra Pierre-Louis. It also contains my essay! I hope you like it. You can learn more about all the section’s authors in the supplementary materials section below.

How to structure this week’s discussion


Share your name + one word you associate with the climate crisis. (Circle leader should go first and model this.)


Move through 3 generous questions.

  1. As you consider the climate crisis, what language/story do you want to leave behind or lean into?

  2. What makes for generative conversations about climate, and what impedes them?

  3. Are there particular culture-makers or culture-shapers we might invite into/collaborate with on climate work?


Read 1 poem or quote from this section to close.

Illustration by Madeleine Jubilee Saito

Katharine Hayhoe

Anne Haven McDonnell

Favianna Rodriguez

Kate Knuth

Ada Límon

Kendra Pierre-Louis


For info on how, when, and where to vote in the U.S., visit vote.org. For info on candidates’ climate records, see voteclimatepac.org. Find the Sierra Club’s endorsements here.

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Stay hydrated, eat plants (I like bananas), do push-ups, and have a great day!