Be it Skeeter from The Help, Alan Ward from Mississippi Burning or Leigh Anne from The Blind Side you’ve probably come across the White Saviour at some point, the privileged character that helps someone from an oppressed group in a patronising and often historical inaccurate manner. Unfortunately, this arc type is not relegated to the screen. It is just as prevalent in the environmental movement. A white saviour, with regards to environmentalism, refers to people or volunteers who do not respect the communities they are attempting to help and believe they are saving them.
Be it by hindering the development of the community, only offering conditional assistance, treating natives as naïve or incompetent, or disrespecting native tradition and practices. This can have a detrimental impact on the communities involved, tarnishing their economic development, having negative effects on the mental wellbeing of native communities and of course damaging their local environment.
When speaking about the impact of climate change it is a well-known fact, that countries in the developing world are at greater risk. With climate change‑related drought in Botswana, the loss of glaciers in Tajikistan and flooding in East Africa, the impact of climate change on these communities cannot be denied. And even within the Western world native communities from colonised nations are often at a higher risk than their counterparts, as is the situation in Newtok, Alaska. When hearing of these situations, it is natural to want to help. However, helping is not as simple as volunteering organisations would have one believe.
A report by Andrew J. Schneller found that 66% of participants in a Costa Rican environmental volunteering project were unfamiliar with the environmental and community issues of Costa Rica. This is not an isolated case as there are many examples of volunteers being uneducated with regards to the issues at hand and ill-equipped to adequately perform their tasks. As Kayley Gould explains in her 2019 TED Talk “the problem arises from the volunteers’ preparation and mind-set, they go into the country thinking that they know best, that it is their job to save the country, they think ‘if I don’t do it who will?’ An attitude such as this one will often lead to the voices of the local community being ignored. This can be detrimental to the environment and eco-system of the area as the indigenous community is obviously going to have a better understanding of the ecology and would know which systems would be best to implement. As award-winning author Emma Dabiri explained during the STAND 2020 festival, “people are realising the importance of indigenous practice, they play an important role, its not just a nice thing, it can have a lot of benefits.”
The importance of indigenous practice has become evident due to the catastrophic events that have occurred, when they are ignored, most recently seen during the wildfires in Klamath National Forest, California. Members of the indigenous Karuk Tribe had been urging local authorities to employ traditional burning methods to prevent major blazes, but to no avail. It is only now after the recent outbreak, this methods are being taken seriously. A similar situation occurred in Australia, during the beginning of 2020, when wildfires ravaged parts of the country. Indigenous communities are now working with Australian officials to share their knowledge of cultural burns. These situations highlight the need for greater inclusion of indigenous knowledge within environmentalism.
Of course wanting to help and prevent climate change is perfectly normally and a good thing. It is simply important that in doing so, we do not disrespect native communities. And so the next time you are analysing the behaviour of a white saviour be it Skeeter from The Help, Alan Ward from Mississippi Burning or Leigh Anne from The Blind Side, try analysing yourself and your action within the environmental movement.