What is intersectional environmentalism & why does it matter?
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It’s a big word. And to be honest, I had no idea what it meant until last year. Like any word that’s 17 freakin’ letters long, there’s a lot to unpack. Now at first glance, you might wonder what intersectionality has to do with the environment and the daily work that you and I do for the planet. But! It has everything to do with it. And to explain, I’m gonna need to throw another 16-letter word to the mix. Let’s go with: intersectional environmentalism.
Try saying that 6 times fast! Ok. Good.
Now I’m gonna lay this out as if I was explaining it to a 5-year-old. I find this approach helpful when breaking down big, complicated ideas.
For starters, what is intersectionality?
Intersectionality is when “multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups” (Merriam Webster). Put simply: when discrimination happens, there’s usually multiple layers to it. For example, an employer may not consider a black woman for a job because she is black and because she is a women. This is an intersectional issue. It crosses between two forms of discrimination (gender and race), rendering the women “unfit” for the job.
But here’s the thing…
Discrimination doesn’t happen in isolation.
Gender discrimination often intersects with race. Environmental injustice disproportionally affect people of color. The exploitation of people and their land usually relies on a lack of education and information in a community.
Now let’s break down intersectional environmentalism.
According to Leah Thomas, intersectional environmentalism is “an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet.”
If you’re worried about rising sea levels, it’s also important to think about the billions of people that such a catastrophe would displace. When you think of the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s important to understand that people of color are usually the first to be affected by toxic dumping and contaminated water. When you think about erratic weather patterns and storms, you have to consider the farmers who depend on predictable weather patterns to grow food and provide for their families.
One act of discrimination or injustice affects another. They intersect.
We have to understand that discrimination against race, gender, class, and other lived experiences is connected to environmentalism and environmental injustice.
I see sustainability as when everything in a system can be maintained and thrive in the long-run. When I say “everything,” I’m talking about both the environment and the people that exist in and support it: the employees, farmers, factory workers, sales associates, raw materials, waterways, the air that we breathe, and the food that we grow. All of these aspects are part of that system. And our treatment of all those elements plays a part in the system’s overall sustainability.
This definition of sustainability takes a holistic approach because what’s good for the planet is good for people. And situations that benefit people also benefit the planet.
What’s sustainable for people of color is sustainable for the planet. What is sustainable for immigrant workers is sustainable for the planet. What’s sustainable for our oceans is sustainable for every human being since we all need clean water to live.
Intersectional environmentalism in action
Tracy McQuirter is a public health advocate, nutritionist, and best-selling author. In 2020, she pledged to help 10,000 black women go vegan. This is an intersectional initiative because people of color are at a much higher risk of developing health issues due to improper diet. People of color are also disproportionately more likely to live in food deserts where access to fresh foods is slim-to-none. By encouraging and supporting black women to eat healthier through a plant-based diet, Tracy helps reduce health problems in the BIPOC (black and indigenous people of color) population. And when people eat less meat and more plant-based whole foods, that’s a good decision for the planet since the meat industry is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. In this example, we see how benefitting one layer, health, also benefits other layers of racial/environmental/social injustice.
Buying local is quite the catch phrase these days. I’ve talked about the importance of buying local and its benefits from an environmental perspective. Now, let’s take an intersectional approach. When you buy local produce, you’re supporting your local economy. Your food has a lower carbon footprint because it hasn’t traveled across the globe to get to you. And the food is healthier since its picked much more recently.
On the other hand, if you buy produce grown in another country, where it is cheaper and the standard for worker’s rights isn’t as high as in the US, then here are some of the byproducts of that choice. Your food has a higher carbon footprint, it’s not as fresh, and workers (often minorities, immigrants and/or people of color) are exploited and not paid a living wage. With this example, you can see that buying local has several benefits that affect people and the planet. This means that buying local is a form of intersectional environmentalism. If you take a look at the Netflix docu-series: Rotten, you can go deep into our food supply chains to see the many levels of injustice that happen behind closed doors. If you’re wondering which episode to dive into first, I’d recommend the one on avocados.
Intersectional environmentalism “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.” — Leah Thomas, Founder of Intersectional Environmentalist
One of the ways I’ve approached intersectional environmentalism is through my involvement with 1% for the Planet. When I joined the 1% movement, I pledged 1% of my revenue to planet-saving organizations. But not just any planet-saving organization, one that focuses on environmental injustice. My current 1% donations go to WE ACT, an organization based in Harlem. Their “mission is to build healthy communities by ensuring that people of color and/or low income residents participate meaningfully in the creation of sound and fair environmental health and protection policies and practices.”
Now that we’ve broken down some big, complicated terms, let’s put some things into action. How can you take your passion, your commitment, and your conviction towards saving the planet and ensure that you’re taking an intersectional approach? An approach that considers all walks of life. And makes sure that everyone has an equitable stake in the planet and its ability to thrive in the long run.
Part of this commitment means doing more than the basics. It means acting in a way that considers everyone, especially those most often marginalized or sidelined.