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Understanding Intersectional Environmentalism

What have feminism, antiracism, and social justice to do with the climate crisis and climate solutions? Well, a lot.

Where we stand

I only very recently came across the definition of intersectional environmentalism however, the idea and the practice were not new to me. My understanding of feminism, environmentalism, and social justice have all started from different places — and at different times in my life — and have gradually converged to the same conclusion. That we can only achieve a truly fair future for our society if we address and eradicate all forms of injustice and inequality. And it’s exactly on these principles that Climate Hub Hamburg was founded back in 2018. We all agreed that we needed to talk about the climate crisis, its causes, and its possible solutions, from all different perspectives. The notion that all climate issues revolve around greenhouse gases emission and all we have to do in order to fix the problem is reducing them is a very dangerous oversimplification. To find long-lasting and just solutions, we need to understand the socio-economic system that we live in — and that ultimately generated the climate crisis —, the role we play as individuals in this system, as well as the effects of a warmer climate, not only on our planet but also on the people.

And we have been learning a lot about our society lately. In the midst of the worldwide repercussions of the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer, we collectively realised how badly we needed to pay attention to what black people have been saying all along. That we live in a racist and unequal system, where people are heavily discriminated against and often killed just because of the colour of their skin. As we listened, content from black creators and activists started flooding our social media feeds and that’s how I stumbled upon an Instagram post by environmental activist Leah Thomas. In this post, she describes the concept of intersectional environmentalism and calls for environmentalists to support Black Lives Matter, and address racial inequality in the context of climate action. But what does Black Lives Matter have to do with environmentalism? Well, a lot. Police violence and anti-blackness not only are widespread far beyond the US: they are also two of many deadly expressions of the pervasive inequality that exists in all countries and against all marginalised communities.

Where does intersectional environmentalism come from?

Leah Thomas’ defines 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. Intersectional environmentalism advocates for justice for people + the planet.”

Before her, many activists and scholars have been investigating how the same socio-economic system can create different kinds of injustice and how they are interconnected. For instance, intersectionality is a term usually associated with feminism and it originally referred to how different social identities contribute to the oppression of women, in particular of women of colour. It was coined in 1989 by African-American feminist scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and it has since then expanded to include other identities besides race and gender, such as nationality, class, and ability. When we talk about intersectional environmentalism, we are then talking about how all these identities need to be taken into account when discussing climate issues as well.

The climate justice movement, only recently launched into the mainstream thanks to the school strikes of Fridays for Future, has brought the notion that environmentalism and social justice are connected to the attention of a wider audience. The current movement focuses on the imbalance between the countries that historically caused the most emissions (usually defined as the global north), embodied by the older generations currently in power, and the countries that are suffering most of the catastrophic effects of the pollution they only marginally — if at all — profited from (usually defined as the global south) and the generations that will have to deal with a warmer planet. Yet, the idea that environmentalism and justice are linked existed long before Fridays for Future and involves a much wider range of social identities than rich/poor and old/young.

The conceptualisation of these issues on an academic and grassroots level began in the 1970s. In 1974 French feminist author Françoise d’Eaubonne introduced the notion of ecofeminism and the idea that the exploitation of the environment and natural resources and the oppression of women all other marginalised groups are the product of the same patriarchal power structures. Many after her, from Indian activist and scholar Vandana Shiva to activist and journalist Naomi Klein, have explored the connections between extraction economy, capital accumulation, and inequality

African-American civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis contributed to the conversation by coining the term environmental racisms in 1982. At the time, it referred to the correlation between racial demographics and exposure to toxic waste in the United States and has now grown to include the way in which all people of colour are disproportionately affected by the effects of the climate crisis, all around the world. And this includes the so-called global south as well as all marginalised communities existing in the so-called global north countries.

These are only some of the best-known definitions and authors. There are others, and there are people living by these principles without knowing what academics have been naming them, or whose knowledge and actions have not been published. 

When we talk about intersectional environmentalism, we are then talking about how all these identities need to be taken into account when discussing climate issues as well.

What does it mean, in practice?

There are multiple levels to intersectional environmentalism. The first is understanding how our society, in general, affects the climate, as well as how socioeconomic factors interact with the consequences of and the solutions to the climate crisis. Think about how modern western society came to exist. Colonisation was nothing but the plundering of indigenous land, perpetrated by the enslavement of the very people that land was taken from and of people that had been taken from their land. Historically, both the enslaved people and the land have been considered expendable. The expendability of the land results in the reckless exploitation of the environment that is at the root of the climate crisis, while the expendability of the people results in the disproportionate way in which these people and their lands suffer from its consequences. And it also creates obstacles on the path towards solutions, because excluding entire sections of the global population —  especially indigenous peoples, who despite accounting for only 2% of the world population protect 80% of the planet’s biodiversity — makes finding effective and long-term solutions virtually impossible.

Another aspect to take into consideration is how these factors and every other aspect of one’s identity influence one’s ability to engage in climate action or to make environmentally friendly choices. And even how we should be defining what environmentally friendly actually means. For example, going vegan, zero or low waste, or avoiding flying, all are currently very popular methods of reducing one’s individual carbon footprint. They might seem obvious choices from the perspective of a middle-class white European like myself, but they aren’t equally accessible to everyone, and certainly not everywhere. Many people depend on flying for their work or to keep connected with their families. Many others live in climates where fresh, local, and seasonal vegetables don’t grow, or where shops that sell these kinds of products don’t exist. Or maybe they do, but they’re too expensive. Some people might not be able to take part in demonstrations because they might have a disability or a precarious legal status, or simply can’t afford to take a day off of work. And while individual consumers’ choices are important so reduce one’s individual negative impact on the environment and show by example that consuming more responsibly is not that difficult (given a certain level of income and access), we must never forget that we won’t save ourselves by — quite literally — buying into the system that created this mess in the first place. Yes, we must change our consumption, but this is just one step towards what we really need to change: the whole system.

Besides asking ourselves whether these solutions are accessible, we should also question whether they are just. For example, ruling out the use of animal products under any circumstances as an “immoral” choice is another form of discrimination. Indigenous peoples from all over the world, from the Amazonas to the Arctic circle, have been hunting, fishing, and farming animals for thousands of years, and also had nothing to do with the climate crisis. Labelling entire cultures as “wrong” and “inferior” while imposing our white-centric climate solutions and erasing millennia of knowledge on how to live off the earth without emptying it, is just another form of colonialism.

Ultimately, being a climate activist in an intersectional way means that each one of us needs to understand how much privilege we have, how empowered we are, and how we can best use these forces for climate action. It means understanding that ”Doing our best” looks different for everyone and that there isn’t one magical solution that will fix all of our problems. And that’s the good news: it means that everyone can find a way to make a difference.

…Excluding entire sections of the global population —  especially indigenous peoples, who despite accounting for only 2% of the world population protect 80% of the planet’s biodiversity — makes finding effective and long-term solutions virtually impossible.

What’s next?

Now more than ever we need to go the extra mile and understand that all issues are connected. And while it’s impossible for one individual to address all of them at once, that is exactly what we collectively need to do. We need all forms of activism, and we need someone working on each issue. When people say “Black Lives Matter” they don’t mean to say that other lives don’t —  what they are saying is that they are trying to save black lives. Just like when someone says “Save the Amazonas” they aren’t saying that other forests deserve to burn but are trying to save the Amazonas. We need people fighting for both, and much more still. We also need to accept that we need time to get rid of all prejudice that we have internalised just in virtue of growing up in our society and absorb new knowledge. But we need to start now because people’s lives are on the line. We need to be in this for the long haul and keep the big picture in mind. We need to be willing to, sometimes, take a step back and listen to learn from the mistakes that we will inevitably make along the way. 

Notes and Resources

Disclaimer: I only cited works and authors that I read and, sadly, I don’t know everything. So if you have additional authors, books, and articles that you would like to bring to our attention, please do share in the comments!

Secondly, I am aware that the definition of the global north/south is not necessarily fair and accurate, yet none of the terms currently available to describe countries is correct or can be used out of its specific context. You can read more about the north/south-divide here or the definition of the global north and south here

Other classifications are:

  • First, second, and third world countries: less developed/poorer countries are often referred to as the third world. This term, however, has nothing to do with development or income. It simply means that these countries were not part of either the US (first world) or USSR (second world) block during the cold war.
  • Developed/Developing/Emerging/In Transition: these classifications are the ones used by the United Nations and are based on several indicators, which are also constantly evolving.
  • Low/High/Middle Income: these classifications are the ones used by the World Bank and are based on per capita income/year.
  • Core/Periphery: dependency theory claims that wealthy countries of the “core” exploit resources and cheap labour of underdeveloped “peripheral” countries; this division is inherent to the capitalist system. 

While I was writing this article, the website https://www.intersectionalenvironmentalist.com/ was launched and highly recommend checking it out for more resources on the topic, for and by BIPOC and LGBTQIA+  people, and allies.

Cover image credits: Nico Scagliarini

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