Intersectional Environmentalism: Justice for People and the Planet

Johanna Rivera, Outings Leaders from Latino Outdoors 

Johanna@latinooutdoors.com

Have you heard of the new buzz word “intersectional environmentalism,” recently defined by Leah Thomas? Earlier this year in May, during the uprisings following the murder of George Floyd, Southern California-based environmental activist and eco-communicator Leah Thomas posted a pledge on her Instagram urging fellow environmentalists to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and quit ignoring the intersections that connect the environment and social justice. 

The term “intersectionality” was first coined by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw about 30 years ago. Intersectionality describes how race, class, gender, sexuality, ability and other individual characteristics intersect with one another and overlap. Individuals can experience oppression and be differently impacted by a blend of these interconnected social structures. We live in a predominately white centric, ableist, heteronormative worldview and should be moving towards using an intersectional lens to examine social and environmental issues, including the climate crisis and deforestation.  

Leah states that “intersectional environmentalism is 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 marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequality. Intersectional environmentalism advocates justice for people and the planet.” 

Racial and environmental justice are inextricably connected and cannot be separated because these issues are not just about the environment. Black and brown lives are disproportionately being affected by environmental toxicity and climate change. From the poorest communities in El Salvador, to Flint Michigan and over 100 Indigenous reserves in Canada, there are people who don’t have access to clean water. 

You have probably already heard of “Cancer Alley” or “Death Alley” where the Dow Chemical Company was built along a river in Louisiana surrounded by predominantly black neighborhoods. Many there have died due to the poison expelled by the company. The Navajo Nation’s underground wells were poisoned by uranium mines and the air polluted by coal plants for decades. Many of these marginalized communities are by no coincidence chosen as dumping grounds by businesses, thanks to segregation and zoning ordinances that benefit race and class discrimination. 

There are currently indigenous people being forced out of their lands by deforestation led by logging companies and facilitated by governments, like in Brazil. Locally, the Karuk, Yurok, Klamath and Hoopa tribes have been demanding Pacific Power undam the Klamath. The dam has negatively impacted water quality, salmon runs and the ability of tribal members to practice their sacred ceremonies. Undamming the Klamath is a crucial step towards mitigating the climate crisis impacting us here at home. 

Hop Hopkins wrote a great article called “Racism is Killing the Planet” where he states that we can’t stop climate change without ending white supremacy. He says, “We’re in this global environmental mess because we have declared parts of our planet to be disposable. The watersheds where we frack the earth to extract gas are considered disposable. The neighborhoods near where I live in Los Angeles, surrounded by urban oilfields, are considered disposable. The very atmosphere is considered disposable. When we pollute the hell out of a place, that’s a way of saying that the place – and the people and all the other life that calls that place home – are of no value.” 

Need I mention how the mass incarceration of mostly black and brown people is degrading the natural environment and human health of those inside and nearby prisons and jails? Please look up the Prison Ecology Project. I can go on and on about intersectional environmentalism, but I will let you do some research yourself and provide some good reading material and social media handles to follow: 

Read

Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility by Dorceta Taylor 

Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage

Latinx Environmentalisms: Place, Justice, and the Decolonial edited by David Vazquez and Sarah Wald 

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer 

Black Faces, White Spaces by Carolyn Finney 

Follow

Indigenous Environmental Network (ienearth.org)

Leah Thomas  @greengirlleah (intersectionalenvironmentalist.com) 

Kristey Drutman @browngirl_green (browngirlgreen.org) 

Pinar & So @queernature (queernature.org)

Jose Gonzalez @josebilingue (josegagonzalez.com)

Karen Ramos  @naturechola 

Corina Newsome @hood_naturalist 

Shay-Akil McLean @hood_biologist 

@Queer4climatejustice