A popular 'buzzword'; one thrown around activist and feminist spaces alike, intersectionality is indeed worthy of the hype. A key part of the climate solution, it's a framework from which we, within the environmental movement, should all be working from.
Intersectionality was first coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, an American lawyer, civil rights advocate, philosopher, and scholar of critical race theory, and aims to reveal the ways that different social identities like gender, race, class, religion and sexuality overlap or 'intersect' to create different levels of discrimination or privilege.
When it comes to the environment, intersectionality allows us to speak about the varying impacts the climate crisis has on different sections of society and so, move towards a solution that accommodates the needs of all, especially those who are most vulnerable.
Climate change is a symptom of a system that for so long has been built upon oppression and injustice, contributing to environmental breakdown and leaving those least responsible, most vulnerable. Ultimately our environmentalism must be intersectional to advocate fully for people and the planet.
Below, I've broken down all the terms we've seen on the internet. I've both explained and contextualised them so that next time we're talking to someone about why the future is intersectional, we will know exactly what all these terms mean!
Environmental racism is a term coined by African American civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis in 1982, describing it as "racial discrimination in environmental policy-making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of colour for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of colour from leadership of the ecology movements".
Standing Rock is an example of environmental racism - this was a pipeline project that traveled through Indigenous lands because the residents of majority-white cities petitioned for the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to be built away from their homes due to safety concerns, and they won.
In Australia, the reductionist thinking behind the creation of 'sacrifice zones' for noxious and polluting land uses has meant that marginalised and vulnerable groups are relegated to places with low environmental quality; particularly Indigenous people and migrants, partly because they cannot live elsewhere. Just look at the the Traditional Owners of the land in Queensland's Galilee Basin, the Wangan and Jagalingou people, who are fighting against giant coal projects or to the situation of the Marshall Islanders who are being forced to relocate or the attempts to place a toxic waste facility in a low income community in Melbourne's northern suburbs.
The difficulty of these marginalised communities in pursuing legal action means that their interests are often inferior to those of powerful corporations and landholders, who can evade environmental regulation in vulnerable communities which they cannot do elsewhere. If our environmentalism is to be intersectional, anti-racist work must be at the forefront, as we work to dismantle the structures disproportionately subjecting Indigenous and people of colour to environmental health hazards.
The colonial-imperial era is essential in understanding how we arrived at the current crisis we find ourselves in.
Colonialism can be seen in various shades; a project to render nature profitable and compliant to the needs of industry, political violence through oppression, the silencing of local knowledge, the erasure of Indigenous culture. As Eyal Weizman explains: "the current acceleration of climate change is not only an unintentional consequence of industrialization. The climate has always been a project for colonial powers, which have continually acted to engineer it".
Entire landscapes were exploited and manipulated as colonies were organised to maximise profit and expedite extraction. Inevitably, overuse, pollution and deforestation became a way of life as new territories were deemed as business enterprises and local inhabitants obstacles to be removed or workforces to be taken advantage of.
Recent archaeological research has explored the effects of colonisation on the islands of the Caribbean and southwestern Indian Ocean; they found that colonisation forced residents out of island communities to move away from resilient ways of building homes as European architecture took over, which wasn't suitable to the climate. This severing of local knowledge has resulted in Indigenous communities being far more vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis. Similarly, Madagascar's forests and other land resources were decimated by Europeans intent on wrenching more profit out of colonies there. Soil degradation, erosion and deforestation became a consequence not only exacerbating increasingly hostile weather patterns, but putting the local Indigenous communities at higher risk. An intersectional framework must commit to confronting our imperial / colonial past whilst centring Indigenous knowledge and perspectives within the movement.
It has been well established that women are disproportionately effected by the impacts of climate change. The UN figures indicate that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women and in extreme weather conditions, like droughts and floods, girls are oftentimes the first to be pulled from school to assist their families at home, just to make ends meet.
A report from Project Drawdown discovered that enabling all women access to education and healthcare would have the same impact on greenhouse gas emissions as restoring more than 230 million hectares of tropical forest, an area larger than Greenland.
When compounded with intersecting identities such as class, caste, age and religion, women become more at risk, particularly evident in the unevenly distributed impacts of natural disasters and in the post-disaster relief and reconstruction phase. In their analysis of dataset on natural disasters, Eric Neumayer and Thomas Plümper observed that in societies where the socio-economic status of women is low, natural disasters directly or indirectly killed more women than men.
In the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami, two-thirds of the casualties were identified as females and following the recent earthquakes in Nepal, more women and girls lost their lives (55 percent) in comparison to men and boys (45 percent). For a Dalit woman in India it's not only gender that makes her vulnerable to natural disasters - it's the simultaneous interaction of gender and caste, further exacerbated by age and marital status, that shapes her experiences of oppression. For a Nepali woman, it may be her religion that makes her more vulnerable. An intersectional framework seeks to understand these intersecting identities in order to identify those most at risk.
The LGBTQI community, particularly the trans community is underserved and vulnerable to natural disasters. This is due to many factors including the higher rates of homelessness experienced by LGBTQI youth, making it more difficult to reach them during an emergency, their inability to access shelter appropriate to their affirmed gender identity or their mistrust of emergency responders and health care systems based on prior discriminatory experiences. An example of this is The 'Gully Queens' of Jamaica, who are a small band of trans and gay young people who live in the outermost margins of Jamaica. Named for the sewers where they find shelter and refuge from police harassment and constant abuse, they choose to openly live the truth of their gender and sexual identity and because of it, live in exile from their families and communities. They are unable to find work or places to live due to landlords being unwilling to rent them apartments, making them particularly susceptible to the increasingly hostile weather patterns in Jamaica; hurricanes and heavy rainfalls.
The shift to an intersectional framework:
Ultimately all oppression is linked and 'intersectionality' gives us the framework to understand the many different ways in which individuals are marginalised across different parts of their identity. Whether it be through race, religion, class, caste, gender or sexuality, it's time to join the dots between our overlapping crises. This means coming to terms with our imperial / colonial past and the systems of racism and patriarchy that have continued to bear fruit and exacerbate the climate crisis, putting those who are least responsible at most risk.
What could our environmentalism look like if it were 'intersectional'?
At the heart of an intersectional environmentalist framework is the inclusion of diverse perspectives. Whether that be people of colour, disabled, women or queer, our focus should be on accomodating those who are most vulnerable and that means listening to those voices. It involves a re-centring of Indigenous knowledge that has previously been erased by our colonial / imperial past. It is about acknowledging that sometimes we may be operating with biases that can cause harm, whilst living comfortably in our own privileged echo-chambers. We must work towards dismantling the structures subjecting marginalised groups disproportionately to environmental health hazards, whilst being open to understanding the different layers and complexities of oppression and privilege. It involves total system change and building back better.
There are also numerous environmental organisations you can volunteer with, support or donate too. Some of these who are at forefront of intersectional environmentalism include:
Seed is Australia's first Indigenous youth climate network, who are building a movement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people for climate justice with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.
Groundswell is an all female run initiative that aims to tackle the chronic underfunding of climate advocacy in Australia.
The ANFA brings together Aboriginal people and relevant civil society groups concerned about existing or proposed nuclear developments in Australia, particularly on Aboriginal homelands.
The Trans Disaster Relief Fund (TDRF) are a US based organisation who are giving much-needed support to trans, intersex, and genderqueer folks that have been impacted by natural disasters around America.
Outdoor Afro is a US based not for profit organisation that celebrates and inspires Black connections and leadership in nature, working towards inclusion in outdoor recreation and conservation.
Follow Intersectional Environmentalist on social media to learn more. They are a resource hub and community, exploring the intersections of social and environmental justice.
[Header Image: Unsplash]
Written by Nikki Thorburn
Nikki is a writer and musician, who when she's not on stage, can be found tucked away in her bedroom writing about all things sustainability, social justice and feminism. She's written for publications including RUSSH, Rolling Stone, Bustle, Frankie and Elle Magazine and one day wants to become a pilot and circumnavigate the globe solo - just like Amelia Earhart.