Intersectional Environmentalism: Fighting For Climate Justice Means Also Fighting For Racial Justice

Fighting for climate justice doesn't mean just protecting nature and the environment. It also means fighting for racial justice and social justice. The wellbeing of the planet and the people on it are interconnected. We* can not strive to repair climate damage without addressing racial injustices and actively working to deconstruct the current 'way of doing things' the 'systems' that are at work around the world. When we say systems, we're talking about the way that laws have been written to favour the powerful, the way our cities have been built so neighbourhoods are separated by wealth, the management of the land that favours powerful corporations, the way that governments and the CEOs of big companies are mostly white, and so much more. At the moment and throughout history, this 'way of doing things' has upheld the powerful (who usually are white), who profit off the exploitation of people of colour, Black people, Indigenous peoples, the planet and natural resources.

Before going further, I want to address perspective. You may have noticed the asterisks that are on the 'we' in this blog. It's there as I want to clarify where I'm coming from when I say 'we' - I'm coming from the perspective of a white woman who has been privileged to grow up and live in a country (so called Australia) that's thrived off resources that have been dug up, out of land that once belonged to and is sacred to Indigenous people. I've benefited from the privilege my white skin brings (this is a good list of resources to read to understand how whiteness brings privilege), in a country whose destructive colonisation continues to this day. You're part of the 'we' if you live a life of privilege that is bolstered up by whiteness, by the money made from selling off fossil fuels in your country, selling off parts of the Earth that should never have left the ground, because those places were a part of people's cultures.

The next thing to mention - we are talking about this too late. Ijeoma Oluo in this article titled "Welcome To The Anti-Racism Movement — Here's What You've Missed", says "I'm glad you are here. I'm angry you are so late — have I mentioned that? I'm very, very angry you are so late because so many of us have been lost fighting without you. And you are going to just have to live with that anger for a while because you deserve it. But I am also glad you are here." And she wrote that three years ago in 2017. So, what can we take from that? That we've got a lot of work to do.

Let's talk about intersectional environmentalism

The term 'intersectional environmentalism' describes "an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalised communities and the Earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities and the Earth to the forefront and does not minimise or silence social inequality." Thank you to Leah Thomas for that definition ( follow her work here). So in a nutshell - all environmentalism should be intersectional.

When we think about climate change, we can see that it's mostly the people who have contributed the least to the problem, that will suffer the worst consequences. Indigenous peoples, the Global South and marginalised communities are on the forefront of climate damage. Look at the Wangan and Jagalingou people, the Traditional Owners of the land in Queensland's Galilee Basin who are fighting against giant coal projects, or to the situation of people in the Marshall Islands or to the battle of the Keystone pipeline.

If this is your first time pulling back the curtain to try and see the systems and structures that underpin everything that's happening, welcome. This could be a tough one to comprehend at first (I know it was for me), but just keep reading (both this article and more like it), and you'll get there! Because it's so important we interrogate these systems so that they can be changed. We've all seen calls by now about a just and green recovery from COVID-19. Calls for the world to not go back to how it was before the coronavirus pandemic. And while we've been imagining the world that could be we've been imagining transforming systems. We've been talking about a world that doesn't put profit over the wellbeing of people and the planet. And this means working to dismantle the economic (capitalist) system as we know it that has brought us to this brink. The system that exploits people, disproportionately people of colour and the planet. Because it's not okay that during a pandemic, billionaires have made $343 billion, at the cost of the planet, and while others either continue to work for minimum wage in conditions that are unsafe, or don't work and are struggling to pay their way.

Looking at the legacy of colonisation and the continued colonial treatment and use of land is another example of a structure and system that perpetuates racial injustice and environmental injustice. Australia's recent bushfires illustrate this clearly. At a conference in Sydney last year Larissa Bladwin spoke about how the bushfires weren't only a show of climate change but they were a show of colonisation. The bushfire crisis was worsened by the mismanagement of land in Australia by colonists who stripped, developed and mined the land, who ignored and silenced Indigneous land knowledge on how to care for the land (read about Indigenous fire management here). This is the interconnectedness of social justice, racial justice, climate justice, environmental justice.

Let's look at an American example too - you've probably heard about Flint's water crisis in the USA. The contamination of water in Flint - where the majority of residents are people of colour and poor - has been pointed to as an example of environmental racism. At the start of this articlein the New York Times looking at the water crisis and environmental racism, the author asks - "If Flint were rich and mostly white, would Michigan's state government have responded more quickly and aggressively to complaints about its lead-polluted water?". And it's not just about the response, it's about the decisions that put communities of colour close to hazardous waste and polluting industries in the first place. Environmental racism refers to the disproportionate exposure of people of colour ' to polluted air, water and soil. It is considered the result of poverty and segregation that has relegated many blacks and other racial minorities to some of the most industrialised and dilapidated environments.'It includes 'the deliberate placing of hazardous waste and polluting industries near communities of colour.

Kandi Mossett-White, the Indigenous Environmental Network's Native Energy & Climate Campaign Organizer, encapsulates this intersection of fights and justice issues it in this quote in The Guardian:

"We cannot talk about environmental injustice without understanding the historical context of colonization and capitalism. The federal government put us on reservations on land they believed to be worthless, but many turned out to be rich in "resources". This means we're in the way of profits. In most cases we don't want these mega projects coming in and destroying our land and water, but it happens anyway. The situation is even worse for our brothers and sisters in the global south where people are silenced, disappeared and killed to make money with no hope of justice.

I grew up in a community full of environmental injustices without knowing it. So many people I knew – young and old, men and women – got cancer, including me during my second year in college. I thought this was normal. Our territory is contaminated by the coal industry, uranium mining, over-fertilization and oil. But environmental injustice is a tangled web, it's about so much more than pollution. Whenever there's a new megaproject, the area is overwhelmed by men, there's an influx of money and a rise in organized crime. After the oil boom in 2007, the number of missing and murdered indigenous women increased, and so did drugs. Gangs came and recruited our young people to sell drugs and many of these young men are now in jail or dead."

What can I do?

This blog is just a portal to dive into the multitude of resources out there. One of the most important first steps is to educate ourselves, support organisations led and created by people of colour and Indigenous peoples, follow activists of colour and to take ourselves out of the limelight.

Here are some places to go to now:

This list of antiracism resources


Intersectional Environmentalist Pledge (3rd slide) from Green Girl Leah

To better understand white privilege

Things white people can do for racial justice

Pacific climate warriors

This article on racist housing policies

This article on what environmental injustice means

This article on environmental racism

Friends of the Earth post on environmental racism

This piece from Ijeoma Oluo

This video explaining environmental justice

Header image: Mike Von / Unsplash

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