Many of us are familiar with the terms environmentalism or environmental justice, but have you ever heard of intersectional environmentalism? This blog post will offer a crash course on what intersectionality is and how it relates to environmental justice. We will explore the framework of intersectional environmentalism and explore other important concepts such as environmental racism and privilege. Read this blog post to learn how you can get involved and contribute to the intersectional environmentalism movement.
What is Intersectionality?
Kimberlé Crenshaw, a leading thinker and scholar in the field of critical race theory, coined the term intersectionality twenty-eight years ago. She had used the somewhat academic term in a paper to help explain the oppression of Black women, and this same term is now often heard in conversations surrounding identity politics, racial justice, social location, and oppression. Over the years, this term has also helped to shape legal discussions.
Today, Crenshaw describes intersectionality as “a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects”. In other words, intersectionality is a framework that is used to conceptualize and better understand how a person, group of people, or social problem is affected by a number of discrimination and disadvantages. Intersectional theory asserts that people are often disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression depending on their race, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, culture, and other identity markers. Intersectionality acknowledges that these identity markers overlap, resulting in a complex convergence of oppression. Taking into consideration people’s overlapping identities and experiences can lead to a better understanding of the complexity of the prejudices the individual may face.
What is Environmental Intersectionality?
Now you may be wondering, how does intersectionality relate to environmentalism? What does environmental intersectionality even mean? The term was defined by Black climate activist Leah Thomas in the height of the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd:
“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 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 inequity. Intersectional environmentalism advocates for justice for people and the planet” - Leah Thomas, Climate Activist
It recognizes the overlapping nature of injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth, and identifies how they are interconnected. This is an inclusive version of environmentalism that simultaneously advocates for justice for all people AND the planet. This framework argues that you cannot separate people from the environment and vise versa. In order to achieve intersectional environmentalism, you have to take an intersectional approach to examining environmental justice issues.
The correlations that exist between environmental degradation and oppression towards Indigenous, Black and racialized communities is no coincidence. Colonialism and capitalism have produced a vastly unequal system of wealth and exclusion, which has consequently put communities of colour at risk for exposure to environment-related health risks. For example, minority and low-income communities are statistically more likely to live in neighbourhoods exposed to toxic waste, landfills, highways, and other environmental hazards. This form of environmental injustice is known as environmental racism.
What is Environmental Racism?
For hundreds of years, Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) communities in North America have fought to protect the air, land, water, species, and cultural connections to the land from discriminatory policies and environmental injustice. In 1982, Benjamin Chavis, a Black civil right leader from the United States, coined the term “environmental racism”, which he defined 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.”
Environmental racism is a form of systemic racism, meaning it is the result of institutional policies and practices, rather than individual beliefs and actions. The 1885 Head Tax, the 1923 Exclusion Act, and the Indian Act are all examples of systemic racism that exist in Canadian Legislation.
Studies have found that environmental racism has a serious impact on human health. For example, members of the Aamjiwnaang Nation who live near Chemical Valley report increased rates of asthma, reproductive effects, learning disabilities, and cancer. Just this year, another study found that due to being surrounded from chemical plants, there is a toxic amount of benzene, a known carcinogen, in the air. The same study concluded that the risk from exposure to benzene could produce up to 12 cancers above the average for one million people over 70 years of exposure. Although this number isn’t large, it is significant and must be investigated further.
How Has Environmentalism Lacked Intersectionality?
Case Study: Single Use Plastic Bans
I’m sure you have heard of the movement to ban single-use plastic straws. Although this movement is well intended and puts the reduction of plastic pollution at the forefront, it fails to acknowledge that not everyone has the privilege to swap out a single use plastic straw for a metal or glass straw. By asserting that everyone should be replacing their single use straws with reusable straws, this movement is also assuming that everyone has the resources to locate and purchase reusable straws. It also fails to acknowledge that some individuals require straws to eat, and that metal or glass straws are not always a suitable alternative because these materials are too hard. This London Free Press article explores the factors that need to be taken into consideration when implementing plastic bans that are both effective and inclusive.
A Shift Towards Intersectional Environmentalism
Now that we have identified why it is essential for environmentalism to be intersectional, and how it has been lacking an intersectional lens in the past, let’s look at some intersectional environmentalism successes:
Intersection Environmentalist (IE) - When COVID-19 hit North America, activist Leah Thomas, also known as Green Girl Leah, was out of work. During this time, she became the Founder and Creative Director of her own company, Intersectional Environmentalist (IE). IE is a platform that prioritizes both people and the planet. It was created to share the stories of multiverse climate activists and people who have been advocates for environmental justice. To check out their instagram, click here.
Ecojustice - Ecojustice goes to court and uses the power of law to defend nature, combat climate change, and fight for a healthy environment for all. This organization represents community groups, non-profits, Indigenous communities, and individual Canadians on the frontlines of the fight for environmental justice. They are 100% donor funded, and proudly Canadian.
RAVEN Trust - RAVEN (Respecting Aboriginal Values and Environmental Needs) is a Canadian organization that raises legal defense funds to assist Indigenous Peoples who enforce their rights and title to protect their traditional territories. RAVEN hosts public education programs to collaborate with Indigenous communities and work toward eliminating environmental racism and foster a greater understanding of indigenous rights and governance.
Reimagine Co - Reimagine Co is a local business in the heart of London, ON. Their vision is a world where humans live in peace and harmony with each other and with nature. Their mission is to help people to live more sustainable and connected lives through workshops, demonstrations, experiments and shared learning. They are dedicated to educating the community on both environmental sustainability and ongoing environmental injustice. Check out their Instagram here.
How to Engage in Intersectional Environmentalism
If we are working towards a better future for everyone, then everyone needs a seat at the table, and those of us who are in positions of privilege need to make room. Here are some strategies that you can use to learn more about intersectional environmentalism and ensure that your environmentalist practice is as inclusive as possible.
Acknowledge Environmental Racism and Injustice
The first step to becoming an intersectional environmentalist is acknowledging that environmental racism and injustice exists. Once we acknowledge this we can continue to expand our education on these topics so we can put this knowledge into action and approach environmentalism from an inclusive lens! This list is not exhaustive, but here are some ways to get started:
- Check out this booklist that is composed of 16 essential books about environmental justice, racism and activism.
- Watch Angry Inuk to learn more about how environmentalism without intersectionality can be harmful.
- Check out the Canadian Documentary called There’s Something In The Water (Full film available on Netflix)
- Watch these Ted Talks: Struggles for Environmental Justice in Mi’kmaq & African Nova Scotian Communities, Youth Perspective on Environmental Justice & Racism , Climate Justice Can’t Happen Without Racial Justice
Check your Privilege
Privilege is unearned access to resources to some people because of their social group membership; an advantage, or immunity granted to and enjoyed by one societal group above and beyond the common advantage of all other groups. Privilege is often invisible to those who have it. Take time to reflect on your own life and the lives of others. Ask yourself questions like:
- “What are some things that I take for granted as a member of a privileged group?”
- “How are my experiences different from those of a disadvantaged group?”
- “Why do these differences matter? What do they look like in the real world?”
The answers to these questions won’t always come to you right away, and they often require research. Some other resources we suggest are:
- Try this activity to reflect on your privilege called “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Dr. Peggy McIntosh.
- So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo - you can purchase an ebook copy here OR you can rent a copy from the London Public Library here.
- Undoing Privilege: Unearned Advantage in a Divided World by Bob Pease - You can purchase an ebook copy here.
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Race by Robin Deangelo - You can purchase an ebook copy here OR You can rent a copy from the London Public Library here.
Amplify and Create Space for Unheard Voices
In order to become an ally and to engage in allyship, you will need to embark on a journey of listening, taking feedback, and learning when to allow others to lead the way.
Questions to ask yourself: Instead of taking a savior approach, such as “How can I save these people?”, be an intersectional advocate and ask “How can I use my privilege to amplify the work already being done?”.
Look into local activists that are already fighting against the same environmental injustices as you are. Check out this resource that spotlights 2020’s top 30 under 30 sustainability leaders. A prime example of a local advocate who is engaging in intersectional environmentalism is Autumn Peltier, the Chief Water Commissioner of Anishinabek First Nation. She is a 15-year-old Canadian water activist and she advocates for clean drinking in First Nations communities and across Mother Earth. She comes from Wikwemikong First Nation and is Ojibway/Odawa heritage. She has travelled across the globe to carry the message of the importance of clean drinking water and the sacredness of water. Read more about Autumn’s work here.
Look into local organizations that are taking an intersectional approach to environmental justice and make a donation. Here are some organizations in the London community:
- Antler River Rally (all donations accepted by email)
- London Food Coalition
- London Community Resource Centre
- Goodwill Industries, Ontario Great Lakes
- Checking your privilege is scary, hard, and uncomfortable, so why bother?
- Disproportionate Exposures in Environmental Justice and Other Populations
- Environmental racism in Canada: What is it, what are the impacts, and what can we do about it?
- Exposing Canada’s Chemical Valley
- Forms of Racism
- How Environmental Justice and Intersectional Environmentalism Are Changing the World
- Intersectional Environmentalist
- Intersectional Environmentalism: A Crash Course
- Kimberle Crenshaw on Intersectionality, More than Two Decades Later
- New Company “Intersectional Environmentalist” Changes Face of Sustainability Movement
- New Study in Aamjiwnaang find residents may face higher health risks caused by toxic substance in air
- The environmental movement is very white. These leaders want to change that.
- What is environmental racism?
- What is Intersectional Environmentalism, and why is it so important?
- What is intersectionality, and what does it have to do with me?
This blog post was contributed by Maddy Hendriksen. Maddy is a Social Justice and Peace Studies Student at King's University College. For her term placement with the London Environmental Network, she is writing a series of blog posts about environmental justice topics of which this article is a part of, called Environmentalism in Action.
About the Environmentalism in Action Blog Series
Through the Environmentalism in Action blog series, the London Environmental Network aims to share information on social and environmental justice issues, highlight local case studies and local resources, and share ways individuals can continue to educate themselves and take action in their communities. The London Environmental Network acknowledges the impacts of colonization and Western environmentalism, and is committed to working in collaboration towards creating a community and city that is resilient, vibrant, and just for all.