Artwork by Christine Davis (SDA)

A Guide to Intersectional Environmentalism

23rd June 2020

By Emma Schoenmakers, Vice-President

Caring about our planet was not invented in 21th century Europe. For hundreds of years, people around the world from Indonesia to Kenya, Ecuador or the USA have engaged with sustainability in various ways such as using only what is given to us by nature and reuse products until they are gone. This was, and still is in some cases, out of respect for nature, spiritual beliefs or simply because of economic realism. Waste is just not something to be afforded by low-income communities.

Climate justice is racial justice. Both of these are linked because the exploitative, extractive patterns imposed by colonialism on both nature and people have increased inequalities between countries. This historic pattern of commodification of people and the planet in countries persists today. For example, where oil companies decide to exploit resources and people in West Africa or garment factories in South Asia giving low wages while women breathe the polluted air driven by demand in the West.  

Similar patterns still exist today within a country where low income and minority ethnic communities are more likely to be impacted by the risks posed by the climate crisis like floods, diseases, access to water and food, … (check out our blog on environmental racism here)

Which is why the environmental movement has to bring voices of those most affected by climate change, today, to the forefront. 

Shanee Benjamin - Sisterhood

Environmental Justice

This can be termed environmental justice, the combination of both social justice and environmentalism, where the inequity in environmental degradation is also considered. It emerged in the USA during the 1960s during the American Civil Rights movement and was later coined by Dr Benjamin Chavis, an Afro-American civil rights activist, after noticing the targeting of BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) for the location of toxic waste sites on top of exclusion from environmental policy making, which still occurs today

Specifically the term intersectional environmentalism here advocates for environmental justice by looking at intersectionality. Intersectionality is a tool coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a black feminist, in 1989 which was originally meant to highlight the inability of a single framework to portray the multi-dimensional experiences of black women with such things as class, disability, gender, … 

Expanding from that, intersectional environmentalism advocates for both the protection of people and the planet as they are interconnected.

This term has been popularised by Leah Thomas and defined as follows:

 "It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not value social justice as an “add-on” to environmentalism."

Jumping on from that, it is important to have a tool of ideas that we can take from intersectional environmentalism to act in our daily lives!


A Guide to Intersectional Environmentalism 

1. Acknowledge your privilege.

"Privilege is not what you have gone through, it is what you haven’t had to go through’’ - Janaya Future Khan 

For example if you have never had to inhale polluted air on a daily basis, fear for your life and the lives of family members because of skin colour, used thrift shops and food banks as a mean of survival (and much more...), then accept that your experience should not be directing the conversation. 

2. Educate Yourself.

There are so many resources on environmental justice out there from books, to podcasts and articles so take advantage of it. We have listed a few on our previous post and I really recommend Leah Thomas' platform of resources on intersectional environmentalism!

3. Do not wait for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous & People of Colour) friends to educate you and do the work for you.

This is emotionally exhausting and they do not have to tell you their life story for you to see racism for the first time. 

4. Uplift BIPOC voices but never minimise their experiences, co-opt their spaces or use it to advertise yourself or a brand as ‘woke’. Always credit them and pay them for their emotional labour to educate you if that is the case. 

5. Shift the language of climate activism

Vulnerable communities in the world are suffering from the impacts of the climate crisis today! Strike for them! 

6. Intersectional environmentalism is about being intersectional!

This means that you have to pay attention to barriers in access to sustainability on top of race such as gender, sexual orientation, disability, class, religion, … 

7. Take actions.

  • Organise events for BIPOC, center voices of people on the frontlines of climate change such as, but not limited to, indigenous leaders from the Philippines to Brazil or black community organizers who are risking their lives for the planet and their communities.
  • Donate to funds, support BIPOC-centered community initiatives and black-owned businesses as they have been shown to have less access to financial opportunities 
  • Look for systemic actions such as changes in laws, teaching, outreach instead/in addition to individual behaviour changes. Today behaviour change is only accessible to very few people and often excludes BIPOC. Systemic actions can have a big impact on vulnerable communities’ access to true climate justice.

8. Accept that you will make mistakes and call yourself out!

The most important part is that you have finally spoken up for the first time, called out your racist uncle, attended your first climate protest, changed a biased hiring outcome, emailed your MP, ... Apologise, learn and commit to change! 

We all have work to do but this means we will only come out of it with a more powerful voice that resonates for the many not just the few!

Massive thank you to Leah Thomas for inspiring this post and shifting the environmentalism narrative, go financially support her work here!