Climate Justice is Social Justice
As a black environmentalist, my love for the planet is deeply rooted in my ancestry and culture. In fact, they're so intertwined that it's difficult for me to separate the two. Lately I've realized that I shouldn't have to and that, in fact, the opposite is true. Especially when race is such a large determining factor in how someone experiences the world and nature around them.
With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, I found myself filled with a familiar shock and horror after reading headlines of police killings of unarmed black people. It brought back my own trauma of experiencing the aftermath of the murder of teenager Michael Brown in 2014, just 15 minutes away from my house while I was home in Florissant, Missouri on a college summer break. I'll never forget the day my closest childhood friend called me and asked "Leah, do you know Mike?" followed by the news of what had happened. I didn't know Mike, but he was a black teenager who reminded me of someone in my own family. We were likely only a few circles of friends or family away and this murder hit very close to home.
"...race is such a large detreming factor in how someone experiences the world and nature around them."
A few weeks after the initial uprisings that followed the murder, I went back to California to begin studying my new major: Environmental Science and Policy. I felt guilty leaving my family behind and going off to sunny Orange County, CA while streets in Ferguson were filled with teargas and the smoke of nearby fires.
While in my classes, I was so distracted by everything happening back home and when I learned about the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, I couldn't help but ask, "Who are these protections for if they aren't for my people?"
"As I read through the data about environmental justice, it became harder and harder for me to make the argument that the 'progressive' environmentalism we have today isn't inherently racist."
As I read through the data about environmental justice, it became harder and harder for me to make the argument that the 'progressive' environmentalism we have today isn't inherently racist. And if it's not racist, then why are people of color disproportionately impacted by environmental injustices? Not just one environmental injustice, but almost all of them including poor air and water quality, lack of access to green spaces, proximity to toxic waste and landfill sites, and increased exposure to environmental hazards. When I came across the theory of intersectionality developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw it clicked for me, I wanted my environmentalism to also be intersectional and acknowledge the ways race, class, and culture influence how someone develops a relationship with nature or who has access to all of what Mother Nature has to offer.
"I define Intersectional Environmentalism as: an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet."
Instead of continuing on with the status quo of environmentalism, I defined what Intersectional Environmentalism meant to me and extended it, as an olive branch to environmentalists everywhere so they could begin implementing intersectionality into their environmentalism.
I define Intersectional Environmentalism as: 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.
In my opinion, this type of environmentalism is essential for creating a safer and greener planet for all. Instead of looking the other way, environmentalists should realize the interconnectedness of both climate and social justice. To me, they are one in the same because they are both impacted by similar systems of oppression that degrade and exploit both people and the planet. As environmentalists, the protection of black and brown lives is also our fight and responsibility.
Without intersectionality, does environmentalism even stand for justice at all? I don't think so.
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