INTERSECTIONAL ENVIRONMENTALISM: WHY YOU CAN’T CARE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT WITHOUT FIGHTING FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE
Sustainability comprises of three pillars: Environmental, Social and Economic. It is a complex whole whereby one aspect is not more important than the other, and it must be treated as such…
The problem with the environmentalist community, however, is that it often reeks of elitism (usually without realizing… I have been apart of this too). It frequently fails to recognize the racist systems and structures that cause climate change to hit marginalized communities the hardest, and the way in which these discrepancies stop marginalized people from making the “life changes” that are often deemed as the solution.
If you’re thinking “what does race have to do with this? This is an environmental issue, not a race issue!” Then I kindly encourage you to challenge that…
The reason this might be hard to see is because White people have the privilege of not experiencing it. But BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) do not have the luxury of turning racism off like a switch.
Race is not an “add on”… Social justice and environmental justice are deeply intertwined; the systems that are oppressing Mother Nature, are also the systems that are oppressing BIPOC. You cannot address one without addressing the other… That will get us nowhere.
So that’s where Intersectional Environmentalism comes in! This term was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw and Leah Thomas, which identifies the ways that injustices happening to marginalized communities and the Earth are interconnected… It is an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for justice for people AND the planet.
Climate change is a race issue, and racism is embedded in literally every field… Let me explain how:
Do you care about Plastic Pollution?
The focus on plastic pollution and “zero waste” has always been on how it impacts land animals and sea life, filling landfills and swamping waterways. It claims that the solutions are tied to individuals refusing single-use plastic, and it often demonizes those who don’t…
But plastic producing factories are primarily located in low-income Communities of Colour. Race is often the most significant factor in determining whether you live near toxic waste dumps, landfills, chemical facilities and trash incinerators around the world — this is called Environmental Racism.
Not only that, but the people who are working for these huge industries where waste is delivered to areas that have been heavily exploited by colonialism, get paid just a few dollars a day. People in the Global South and in low socio-economic communities do not have the same access to sustainable waste management, farmers markets or zero waste items as those with privilege do.
So whilst it’s very important to focus on the end life of plastic (picking up trash and eliminating single-use if you have the privilege to do so), it’s vital that we focus on what plastic does at the beginning of its life cycle. Beach clean-ups are incredible, but they will only do so much if we’re not addressing the racist systems that contribute to plastic production in the first place.
We need to turn off the tap, and anti-racism work is part of the process too.
Do you care about Sustainable Fashion?
We all know that fast fashion has an incredibly high environmental footprint… Sustainable fashion is the fight against that, but we cannot forget that fast fashion can only exist through racial oppression.
The fast fashion industry relies on systemic discrimination, meaning that the people who make the clothes don’t get the same rights and privileges as those who can afford to wear them. Of the 74 million textile workers worldwide, 80% are Women of Colour. And only 2% of fashion workers are paid a living wage — the average being just $2 a day.
This is slave labour… The fashion industry was built on the backs of slavery, and still to this day, violence, exploitation and racism runs rife through the entire manufacture chain.
Fashion production is a humanitarian issue and must be treated as such if we want to see a world where sustainable, ethical, regenerative, fair fashion is the norm.
Do you care about Veganism?
Veganism is essentially a fight against the industrialization of the meat and dairy industry, which stems from colonization. But what we see in today’s white-washed version of Veganism, is a disregard towards BIPOC plant-based activists, and invalidation towards those who don’t shop at wholefoods and eat acai bowls.
In many ways, people care more about animal’s lives, than the lives of BIPOC who produce Vegan food. If that makes you uncomfortable, I urge you to keep reading…
Many of the popular foods in “mainstream” Veganism (avocados, quinoa, chickpeas, beans, citrus etc.) are produced through the industrialized mistreatment of farmworkers in the Global South — and worldwide too. In many cases immigrant workers are routinely abused, their wages are withheld, passports are confiscated, workers are enslaved on-site without sanitation or access to drinking water, and many are forced to work excessive hours for far below the minimum wage.
Alongside that, BIPOC communities are frequently subject to food apartheids (aka. food deserts); where there is limited access to healthy, fresh, affordable local produce due to social and economic inequalities (aka. what is needed to sustain a Vegan diet).
Despite plant-based diets being deeply integrated within BIPOC cultures, what we see in today’s mainstream Veganism (granola, acai bowls, kale salads etc) heavily favours the privileged. No diet is truly cruelty-free, and pushing the rhetoric that Veganism is the “only sustainable diet” without addressing the barriers that make it less accessible to marginalized communities, is upholding white supremacy.
Although a Vegan diet may be saving animal’s lives, human beings are being harmed by the systems that produce our food too, and that must not be ignored. Choosing to disregard the welfare of the people who farm mass-produced Vegan food (the majority of whom are BIPOC) and failing to acknowledge how racist systems affect food choices for marginalized communities, is racism at the core.
I wholeheartedly stand with Veganism — don’t get me wrong here, I’m not trying to bash the movement or claim that you shouldn’t be Vegan (I eat a predominately plant-based diet myself) — but there is a whole lot of anti-racism work that needs to be done alongside it before it is the “perfect sustainable diet” that it is already claimed to be.
Be Vegan, of course, but DO NOT ignore the structural racism surrounding all diets and the exploitation of BIPOC that occurs! We can’t try to dismantle the oppression of animals, without trying to dismantle the oppression of people.
Do you care about Wildlife Conservation?
If you’re wondering “how can racism possibly have anything to do with wildlife conservation?”… Here are some examples:
- The bulk of conservation efforts are occupied by foreign conservationists or descendants of colonial settlers.
- Highly qualified Black conservationists are frequently supervised by white foreign practitioners who have far less knowledge and experience in preserving local wildlife and ecosystems (aka. the White Environmental Saviour)
- Despite Indigenous peoples being the guardians of the natural world, their voices are frequently disregarded and seen as “obstacles that need to be removed”…
- Organisations control and displace Indigenous peoples from their native land for conservation, at the expense of their lives and needs.
- When white people kill animals its called “hunting”, when Black people kill animals its called “poaching”…
“The traditional Western conservation model only cares about places and nature without people. And the only people that do count in those places are white” — Sergio Avila
Unless conservation benefits the traditional owners of the land and the local people who share the space with wildlife, it is colonialism in the name of environmentalism.
If you care about wildlife and preserving endangered species, you must also fight for the rights of the people who share the space with these animals. Their ecological knowledge must be amplified.
Racism is normalized in conservation, and this must stop. Remember, all life intersects, and thus our activism must intersect too.
Do you care about Climate Justice?
In most climate crises and natural disasters, the impacts are not borne equally by all people. Those who are currently dealing with the impacts of the climate crisis are predominantly Black, Brown, Indigenous, People of Colour… But the relief is incomparable to what is provided to White communities.
Research shows that BIPOC care more about the climate crisis than white people do… Why? Because these communities disproportionately bear climate impacts. They’re exposed to air pollution, environmental hazards, rising sea levels and extreme weather events… But whilst trying to tackle this crisis, they’re also having to deal with racism on a daily basis. Their energy is split between wanting to come up with climate solutions, and having to constantly fight for their rights.
“How can we expect Black people to focus on the climate when we are so at risk on our streets, in our communities, and even within our homes? How can People of Colour effectively lead their communities on climate solutions when faced with pervasive and life-shortening racism?” — Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, The Washington Post
We will never win the climate fight without the help of BIPOC. The struggles for a habitable planet are deeply intertwined with racial justice. We simply cannot address the exploitation of the environment without addressing the exploitation of oppressed people.
Racial justice = Climate justice.
See what I’m getting at?
Whilst racism, oppression and prejudice exists, environmentalism will always be 2 steps behind… White environmentalists, we need to step up. Make your activism intersectional and become actively anti-racist.
Not only because you should care for human beings, but also, the longer that racism is unaddressed, the longer it will take to save the planet.
Individual actions are undoubtedly important, but we need structural change in order to see real progress. It’s time to get to work… I’m right there with you!