How Environmental Justice and Intersectional Environmentalism Are Changing the World

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written by:  Hope Kudo

editor's note:

Take the time to digest this information and learn how to a better intersectional environmentalist advocate.

As an environmentalist, it is impossible to ignore the importance of addressing intersectional environmentalism. The fact that you’re reading this article right now shows that you not only identify as an environmentalist but also as someone who cares for others. While in quarantine, use this time to educate yourself on the inequities faced by many within our communities. This article is a great first step on getting informed about intersectional environmentalism, racial justice, and environmental racism and how it applies to you, but I would encourage you to dig deeper and incorporate the topics here into your daily conversations and environmental activism.

What is Intersectional Environmentalism?

It recognizes the broad range of injustices faced by marginalized communities and how the Earth’s vulnerable communities are disproportionately impacted by the changing climate. Furthermore, intersectional environmentalism works to advocate for those communities and the Earth. 

It’s integral that as environmentalists, we realize that advocating for a more sustainable planet is inextricably linked to advocating for racial justices. The Environmental Protection Agency defines Environmental Justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” 

Where Does Environmental Racism Manifest?

Within the United States, race is the primary indicator for the placement of toxic facilities. Toxic facilities are those that emit harmful and life-threatening chemicals, such as carcinogens, into local water and air supplies. Thus, having negative implications for the wellbeing of those in nearby areas. Health risks range from asthma to heart disease to cancer and so many more health ailments. 

A prime example of this is when the Dow Chemical Company stationed itself near the River Parishes in Louisiana, which have been designated the nicknames “Cancer Alley” and “Death Alley,” due to the families along the rivers contracting cancer. It is no coincidence that the towns along the Parishes are predominantly Black and founded by former enslaved Americans. With less organizing power and resources at their disposal, these communities lack the strong arm to advocate for themselves and against the placement of toxic power plants near their homes. 

Another example would be: 48217. For many that may just be an amalgamation of random numbers, but it also represents the most polluted zip code in Michigan. Detroit, Michigan is one of the major cities that are impacted by extreme poverty, racial disparities, and environmental inequality. Noting that Black people compose approximately 80 percent of the population in Detroit, the area is also composed of a high volume of the Hispanic community. Around the area of 48217, there are more than three dozen toxic chemical facilities and residents suffer from the consequences, experiencing a myriad of health effects ranging from cognitive impairments, cancer, and miscarriages, among many others. 

It is no coincidence that these chemical plants were placed in the area with the most densely populated composition of marginalized communities in the state. The disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on communities of color and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities cannot be ignored. And remember that these are not isolated instances, this happens all over the country and has not seen any major pushback.

Historically, this isn’t new information. In “Invisible Houston,” by Dr. Robert Bullard, he takes a look at Houston in the 1970s. The work focused on gathering information on the garbage dumps within Houston’s primarily black neighborhoods, for the purpose of supporting Linda McKeever Bullard (his wife) in the first ever lawsuit to charge environmental discrimination on civil rights grounds. In his research, Dr. Bullard found that Black neighborhoods in Houston were disproportionately chosen for the city’s landfills. To contextualize this in numbers, 100% of city-owned landfills were in Black neighborhoods, 3 of 4 privately-owned landfills were in Black neighborhoods, 6 of 8 city-owned incinerators were in Black neighborhoods. Despite only 25 % of Houston’s population being Black. Demonstrating that the environmental burden of the community inordinately falls upon Black communities and people of color. 

Environmental racism can present itself in a variety ways, some of the more common examples is racial discrimination in developing environmental policies and the deliberate targeting of marginalized communities as land for toxic plant development or dumping grounds. The systemic ways in which environmental racism is promoted is targeted and intentional. Often times marginalized groups do not have access to the financial resources, political representation, and organizing power in order to prevent the construction of hazardous waste sites near their homes. This highlights that not only is environmental racism integrated within our processes, but it is done so intentionally. 

Recognizing Priviledge

The faces of environmental activism and sustainable movements are overwhelmingly composed of white people. This is not to say that the movement for a more sustainable planet is composed of only white people, but historically, there is a plethora of history regarding white-led environmental activism within the United States. There are a multitude of racial and classist micro-aggressions that are present within environmentalism. While this may be difficult to digest, the only way we can change our learned micro-aggressions and truly advocate for the planet is to take a magnifying glass at the issues we typically overlook. 

A recent study found that despite “ethnic minorities and people of multi-racial backgrounds comprise about 38% of the U.S. population,” they occupy less than 12% of leadership positions and compose less than 16% of the general staff at environmental organizations within the United States. A more popular example of the failure of the environmental movement to amplify marginalized communities’ voices was when Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate was cropped out of a photo taken with her white peers at the World Economic Forum. This presents a troubling erasure of marginalized voices from the broader discussion of climate change and is unfortunately, not a singular occurrence. 

Furthermore, it’s no secret that sustainable and ethically made products often cost more than the average. For socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, it isn’t always the most realistic option to switch to a zero-waste lifestyle or adopt a vegetarian or vegan-based diet, all of which cost money that many don’t have. It isn’t your fault that others don’t have access to these resources, but it is your responsibility to understand this and in tandem, make room for others. Those with privilege should not only be able to recognize theirs, but wield their privilege to create inclusive spaces that embolden those who do not have the same resources and privilege.

Ways to Learn More + Contribute

Conversationally:

  • Make sure to take a step back and amplify marginalized voices in discussions to create a more nuanced and inclusive discussion regarding environmental action. 
  • Reach out to popular intersectional environmental activists online and ask to learn more.

Read the following:

  1. Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States by Carl A. Zimring
  2. A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind by Harriet A. Washington
  3. There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities by Ingrid R.G. Waldron
  4. Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution and Residential Mobility by Dorceta E. Taylor
  5. From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement by Luke W. Cole and Sheila R. Foster
  6. Environmental Protection Agency Page on Environmental Justice

Donate and Get Involved with Organizations that Promote Environmental Justice 

  1. The Power Shift Network: works to mobilize the collective power of young people to mitigate climate change and create a just, clean energy future and resilient, thriving communities for all. 
  2. Earthjustice: a group that is coined the legal backbone for the environmental movement, they take environmental cases to court and represent clients free of charge. 
  3. Cultural Survival: is a nonprofit working to advance indigenous peoples’ rights and cultures worldwide
  4. Indigenous Environmental Network: an alliance of Indigenous peoples working to reduce contamination and exploitation of the Earth by strengthening, maintaining and respecting Indigenous teachings and natural law 
  5. Sunrise Movement: a collective movement of young people working to create millions of good jobs and stop climate change in the process. 
  6. Climate Justice Alliance: a climate movement by uniting frontline communities and organizations into a formidable force to create impactful change.

It’s difficult to capture a fully representative picture of intersectional environmentalism considering the many facets of the topic, but I hope this served as a helpful first step for you. Remember that intersectional environmentalism underscores the importance of advocating for both the protection of our people and the planet and continue to work on educating yourself and others on your journey to becoming an intersectional environmentalist.

written by:  Hope Kudo

editor's note:

Take the time to digest this information and learn how to a better intersectional environmentalist advocate.

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