Intersectional Environmentalism

What is it?

A concept that was developed in recent months, it has grown incredibly in popularity online, reaching within the environmental community and even beyond. You may have seen posts about this circulating around, especially on Instagram – but do you know exactly what it means? Well, let’s break it down.

Made up of the words “intersectional” and “environmentalism”, it deals with the idea of intersectionality between environmental efforts and people.

Intersectionality is a term coined in 1991 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor; it acknowledges the prejudice inherent in the intersection of gender and race, and the social and political systems that do not address or even perpetuate extant injustices. Communities and individuals are differently affected and oppressed by these institutions based on the very features and characteristics that they are born with, that make up their very identities.

Leah Thomas, an environmental activist and writer known as the founder of Intersectional Environmentalism (@GreenGirlLeah on Instagram), took Crenshaw’s intersectionality and applied it within the sphere of environmentalism, creating a new brand of inclusive environmentalism that prioritises both the protection of the planet and the people within it. This form understands that environmental issues like climate change and pollution are never just exclusively about the environment, but also the people involved and affected by them. Environmental justice is also essential, whereby the social justice of environmentalism is considered such as the inequality of environmental consequences are taken into account. The essence of intersectional environmentalism is, therefore, representation and equality for all, specifically within the scope of environmental advocacy.

Why does it matter?

By identifying the inequalities and injustices happening to marginalised communities within environmentalism through having an equal focus on social justice, it brings to the forefront the prejudices faced by these vulnerable people that we might have been ignorant to previously. It allows us to understand that although the same overarching concepts that we preach may apply, the nuances and connotations, as well as how they may be perceived and received, may vastly vary due to the spectrum of cultural influences, history and individual experiences that exist. We need to be aware of any personal pre-existing privileged prejudices that we may hold, and actively seek more knowledge to combat them to gain a broader understanding of the issues that we are advocating for, through the perspectives of those coming from different social, economic, and cultural positions than the ones that we ourselves hold.

Some main factors to take into account include (but are not limited to):

1. Race

BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) are disproportionately unrepresented in environmentalism. While you and I are in Singapore and South East Asia, it should also be easy to see that environmental advocacy has become something that is mainly White and Eurocentric, with the most popular leaders, both in the political and social media spheres, being white. An example would be Greta Thunberg. This can be seen through even the smallest things, such as in a photo featuring some prominent youth environmental figures, Vanessa Nakate, a prominent Ugandan youth climate activist was glaringly cropped out, leaving Thunberg and 3 other members of the Fridays for Future movement.

Pictured: cropped photo by Associated Press (above), original photo (below)

For decades, some of the most evocative and enduring environmental campaigns have been spearheaded by BIPOC activists. Yet, this is the erasure that they are faced with – alienation and undermining from a community dominated by a privileged populace concerned only with problems that affects them. Issues like the veganism discourse can oftentimes be problematic as they are taken too far, targeting those like non-commercial indigenous seal hunters and POC with no access to affordable vegan options with patchy understanding of their circumstances or cultural traditions.

Therefore, we need to re-evaluate our understandings of the environmental narrative that we’re familiar with, and decide how much of it comes from a biased white-washed perspective stemming from a hierarchy established through centuries of colonialism.

2. Class

The burden of environmental degradation is not equal. Though the bulk of negative environmental impact falls upon the wealthy 1%, it is the ones at the lower rungs of that social ladder that suffer for their actions. They are the ones who have fewer resources to cope and yet are continuously exploited, suffering for what the corporations and industries are doing.

Here, proposals like the Green New Deal, which you may know from the campaigning of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are crucial. They focus on a more sustainable, renewables-based future while not forgetting the vulnerable communities involved – a combined acknowledgement of both social and environmental necessities. Concepts like ensuring a just transition (where workers are not overtly adversely affected by the cutting of the non-renewable fuel industry) can then formulated.

Pictured: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unveiling the Green New Deal

3. Gender

There exists a huge disparity between the sexes overall, which extends to the environmental field as well. From statistics alone, 80% of all environmental refugees are female.

4. Sexuality

Another identity aspect by which people are discriminated against is that of sexuality. This yet again is true of society as a whole, where the LGBTQ+ movement is a fight for equality that has been happening for decades and is ongoing even now.

5. Ability

Ableism is the discrimination against individuals with, or are perceived to have, disabilities. It is characterised by a thinking that these individuals are inferior in some sense by defining them through their disabilities, with the assumption that they require some form of fixing, devaluing their potential for contribution and usefulness to society.

In environmentalism, eco-ableism exists. While fighting for alternatives that are perceived to be better and the more ideal choice, we often leave those with alternate needs in the dust. One such example would be the anti-straw movement, one that has taken the world by storm. While we keep to a one-track mind of reducing plastic use and saving the turtles, we forget about the people who require straws due to various mobility impediments. The same is true for pre-packaged chopped foods or items like paper plates. The able-bodied should not be the only ones deciding a future that will exclude some individual and leave them unable to access resources that aid them in living their lives.

This video gives a good summary of the points that I’ve mentioned above.

Well, what should we be doing?

I hope that the points above have given you some things to think about. I’m not condemning environmentalism now, nor saying that it is something ‘toxic’ that has to be abolished. However, we may want to take the concepts of intersectional environmentalism into consideration and start practicing this instead. We should not be advocating for a better planet while excluding significant and valuable communities of the very people who are living on it. By taking into account various worldviews, we can develop more holistic perspectives that are oriented not just to ourselves and our communities, but towards the understanding of collective universal problems such that no one group is excluded from the movement. After all, can environmentalism truly be effective if those that are vulnerable are ignored?

Written by: Estella

References: (find out more here)

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