Intersectional Environmentalism: A Critical Component in Addressing Environmental Challenges

Feb 12, 2021

We all have a story, and our personal stories are forged by layered experiences, actions (and inactions), and identities. Our race, gender, socioeconomic status, orientation, abilities, spirituality, and culture all contribute towards our journey, and make us who we are. When these aspects of humanity coexist with one another, we refer to them as intersectional identities.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, the visionary behind intersectionality, introduced the concept to the world in her 1989 academic paper titled, Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. In this paper, Crenshaw outlines how racism and sexism are not issues that exist exclusively from one another, and that oppression may target the intersection of these two identities in a unique and accumulative way.

So how does the concept of intersectionality interlace with the environmental movement?

Intersectional environmentalism analyzes how social injustices impact the environment. It addresses the relationships between marginalized communities and the earth, and exposes hierarchies that exist within the environmental movement. Intersectional environmentalism is not occasional, but a key characteristic that exists within each and every eco-issue, challenge, and solution.

In this short video by Intersectional Environmentalist, the origin of this concept is explained as a framework of various identities that guides us in navigating the world:

 

 

When examining eco-issues, identifying the numerous intersectionalities is critical to how we determine our tactics and solutions. Intersectional Environmental Activist, Eco-Communicator and Founder of Intersectional Environmentalist, Leah Thomas, describes how low-income communities have limited access to clean, natural spaces, and are more likely to live near highways, landfills, toxic waste, and food deserts. In her blog Intersectional Environmentalism: Why Environmental Justice Is Essential For A Sustainable Future, Thomas acknowledges the pattern of environmental oppression, and examines how the environmental movement more widely serves privileged communities. While studying Environmental Science and Policy at Chapman University, she questioned this.

As my textbooks encouraged me to protect public lands so they could be preserved and enjoyed, I couldn’t help but wonder, “for whom?

Leah Thomas
Environmental Activist and Eco-Communicator

In addition to a reduced likelihood of having access to clean, natural spaces, members of low-income communities are more likely to identify as part of a minority group. But we all experience environmental injustice differently, and minority communities bring a unique and critical story of environmental injustice that is often excluded from the conversation. Although not all prominent figures within the environmental movement are white and/or male, the vast majority of decision-makers are.

Why is this a problem?

Intersectional environmentalism honours our unique perspectives, and recognizes our collective diversity as a strength within the framework of environmentalism. It advocates for full inclusion in environmental decision-making, and integrates social justice within eco-solutions and policy-making. When minorities are excluded, or underrepresented from the decision-making process, we all lose. In order to conquer climate change, it is imperative that we address systemic social injustices, and design solutions that will confront every layer of the environmental obstacles we face.

So what can we do about it?

We all have a role to play in supporting intersectional environmentalism. And although these challenges feel immense, there are significant steps we can take in reshaping and redefining the environmental movement. The following list outlines how we can each, on an individual level, make a contribution:

 

7 Personal Actions to Take In Support of Intersectional Environmentalism:

  • Acknowledge your own privileges, and leverage those privileges within the context of the environmental movement to benefit all
  • Inform yourself about how social justice and environmental issues correlate
  • Include & Amplify diverse voices, world-views and life experiences in the environmental efforts you contribute towards, with an emphasis on minority voices
  • Empathize with and Respect alternative viewpoints. We don’t always need to agree, but we do need to work together!
  • Hold decision-makers and prominent environmental figures Accountable to implementing the values of intersectional environmentalism
  • Advocate for both the planet, and for people


Our identities give us strength. When we embrace each other’s differences, our identities have the power to unite, and empower us to tackle immense challenges in a way that benefits all of us, and the planet. As individuals, we have a responsibility to take action where possible. As a community, we have an obligation to lift, support, and include all. We each have a story in the environmental movement, so I ask, what’s yours?

 

More Resources: 

 

References: 

    1. Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” Chicagounbound.uchicago.edu, The University of Chicago, 1989, chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1052&context=uclf.
    2. Aiken, Phil, director. What Is Intersectionality? (Kimberlé Crenshaw, Applying It to Environmentalism, + the Start of IE), Intersectional Environmentalist, 22 Dec. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNEDS5BP_C8&feature=youtu.be
    3. Coaston, Jane. “The Intersectionality Wars.” Vox, Vox, 28 May 2019, 9:09 a.m., www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/5/20/18542843/intersectionality-conservatism-law-race-gender-discrimination
    4. Thomas, Leah. “Intersectional Environmentalism: Why Environmental Justice Is Essential For A Sustainable Future.” The Good Trade, The Good Trade, 14 Jan. 2021, www.thegoodtrade.com/features/environmental-justice

 

Author: Katelyn Plant, Communications Manager, The Gaia Project

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