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What Are Environmental Justice and Intersectional Environmentalism?

When working toward healing the planet and creating healthier communities for everyone, it’s important to consider how environmental policies and problems impact all people, not just those who look like us or live in the same communities.

Intersectional environmentalism and a commitment to environmental justice ensure that environmental activism and advocacy benefit all people on the planet, regardless of demographics. 

In September 1982, local residents in the small community of Afton in Warren County, North Carolina, watched as the state government began construction of a hazardous waste site that would bring into their community vast amounts of polluted soil and toxins. Understandably upset about this landfill that had the potential to destroy the health and well-being of the community, residents worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to protest the development of this site and argued that their town was targeted due to its poor and minority demographics.

Although the protest was unsuccessful, and residents of Afton have since endured significant health and wellness consequences as a result of the toxic substances polluting their communities, these protests brought the environmental justice movement to a national stage.

Isolated calls for justice with respect to environmental matters existed prior to the Warren County protests, but this series of events became the catalyst for research, more activism, governmental involvement, and much broader awareness of the disproportionate impact of pollution and toxic chemicals on marginalized communities. As this movement has grown, it has come to also include considerations of climate change as well as more localized pollution that initially sparked the movement.

Climate change is well underway. As we see effects of climate change around the world, it’s clear that the impacts of climate change will not be shared equally by all. UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, “Climate change is happening now and to all of us. No country or community is immune. And, as is always the case, the poor and vulnerable are the first to suffer and the worst hit.” 

We already know that marginalized communities are suffering disproportionately from natural disasters, floods and droughts, and excessive heat that are causing increased food insecurity, displacement, and worsened health outcomes, among other injustices like systematic racism.

What Are Environmental Justice And Intersectional Environmentalism?

The Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as follows:

Environmental justice is 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. This goal will be achieved when everyone enjoys:

– the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and

– equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.

Environmental Protection Agency

Environmental justice is the foundation of intersectional environmentalism, or the approach to environmental advocacy and activism that considers impacts on all people, not just those of a particular race, nation, income class, or other demographic. 

When contemplating intersectional environmentalism, one must always consider with respect to environmental matters who benefits and who is or may be harmed. If an environmental policy or action has an outcome that disproportionately impacts people of a particular demographic, that is unjust. Such actions or policies are particularly unjust when those impacted don’t have a voice in the decision and when environmental decisions and policies consistently have more harmful impacts on the same marginalized groups over and over again. Such is the case today with climate change and environmental damage to our communities.

Further, a policy or action doesn’t have to be designed with discrimination in mind to create injustice. If the impacts are discriminatory, despite the intent or lack thereof, it still violates environmental justice tenets and would not support an intersectional approach to environmental policy or activism. 

What Is Environmentalism Without Intersectional Tenets and Justice?

On the blog, I write all about different ways for families to practice eco-friendly living. In many cases, the posts and ideas I share are small and actionable. These matter. Individual actions and commitments create the momentum and foundation for institutional and systematic change.

But climate change and environmental despair are too big to solve with recycling, composting, and individual habits alone. We will only see the massive changes required to combat climate change and protect our planet with the coordinated efforts of governments, large organizations, and individuals working in sync. 

At times, individual action starts to feel trivial. But individual actions add up, even though they sometimes feel meaningless against the broader challenges we face. Not every step we take toward “being better” and “living more eco-friendly” has to be a ‘go big or go home’ action. Forward progress is still forward. 

That being said, as we capitalize on the momentum of individual and family commitments to energize and drive systematic and institutional change, let us not forget that our environmental advocacy and activism must be intersectional. What is the real value of our efforts if they leave behind the most marginalized of our neighbors? If environmentalism is not intersectional and thus doesn’t consider all people, then doesn’t that inherently make it prejudice or racist or sexist or whatever “-ist” against whoever isn’t being considered?

Keep practicing the eco-friendly individual and family habits that form the cornerstone of our environmental protection pursuits. But as we become more involved in eco-friendly living and environmental activism, consider if some habits are accessible to those with lower income or in under-served communities. If not, don’t stop doing them necessarily, but recognize that not everyone has the ability to make these shifts, which limits scalability. 

When pushing for new policies or protocols or promoting environmental initiatives, consider who benefits from them and who is harmed by them. Are certain communities consistently on the winning or losing side of such propositions or plans? If so, we probably need to reconsider how effective and just those policies or plans are if certain communities are being left behind. 

Intersectional environmentalism and the pursuit of environmental justice are challenging issues and not problems that will be solved overnight. Most of us, including me, have a lot to learn about them.

They are complex injustices with deep roots in the fundamental systems and institutions on which our country and the world are built. They will require cultural, procedural, and attitude paradigm shifts to dismantle. Acknowledge that the pursuit of environmental justice is a long road and one that requires continued learning but is well worth the attention and energy. 

As we learn, we must become better stewards to the Earth and all its people. As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

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