Intersecting Causes in Environmental Justice

Image Source: Josh Hild, Pexels

By: Lorenzo Nericcio, SD350 Communications Volunteer

Those interested in environmental causes, like ecological protection or climate change mitigation, often consider issues of racial or economic justice as separate causes: While we work to protect the environment, others labor against systemic oppression. Though it has never been entirely true that they are separate, it is even less so now, and recent events have highlighted how inescapably intertwined these two issues have become. 

The concept of intersectionality allows us to understand the connections between environmental issues and those of racial justice. Each of us lives at the intersection of multiple identities: racial, economic, gender, ecological, and so on. Each of these identities becomes, in an oppressive system, a way by which a person might in some cases experience injustice, or in others, privilege. 

Systems of oppression built around one form of identity often spill over into others. For example, people of color more often bear the burden of environmental degradation, as explained by this 350.org article on the intersectional effects of climate change. This realization—that Black and Brown people are often first on the front lines of rising seas and temperatures—forces those in the environmental community to confront the fact that focusing solely on the environmental effects of climate change is not enough; one must also understand its intersectional social effects. 

Environmentalists of color have renewed their arguments for an intersectional approach in the wake of protests responding to the police murders of George Flloyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others. In the pages of the New York Times, Black environmentalists called on the environmental community to address these issues more prominently in their advocacy. And many environmental institutions have listened, committing to fight for racial justice alongside the environmental causes they champion.

While this may be a new concept for some in the environmental community—and especially for those most privileged—it’s important to note that for people of color, fighting for their right to a safe, clean, and ecologically sound place to live has long been part of the fight for justice. Our contemporary conceptions of environmental justice owe their development to Black leaders, a history discussed in this article, also from 350.org

For those new to the environmental justice movement who wish to become more effective advocates and activists, it is important to start by learning. As a White person or other person of privilege, you should focus on becoming an ally: someone who is not the direct subject of oppression but who stands with and supports those who are oppressed. The first step is listening to the needs and views of those who directly experience oppression, as described recently by a guide in Vox. By listening, understanding, and acting strategically, environmental activists can learn to become effective allies, and stand in solidarity with those fighting for racial and environmental justice. 

If you’re interested, please take the time to read the articles linked within this piece. Additional readings are linked below:

From Coal to Climate: the Evolution of an Activist

Originally published in the San Diego Free Press, September 22nd, 2016

So, here is a question: what’s about as likely as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly jointly admitting that pretty much everything they’ve ever said was wrong?

climate activist

Before I knew what coal looked like. And smelled. And tasted.

Answer: that a guy with my background would end up as an active member of 350.org.

I grew up in Kansas, famous for Dorothy, sunflowers, and voting against your best interest (as in What’s the Matter With…). I remember my father vehemently wishing he could vote against Ted Kennedy. My mother railing against the Equal Rights Amendment, saying she liked having men open doors for her. Umm, I guess that such chivalry was banned in the bill’s text somewhere. Both of them mourning angrily that the country was ruined, now that Carter had been elected.

Not to spare myself, I also remember a Charles Kuralt interview in which he wondered what conservatism ever brought us. I turned to Dad and said—without a trace of irony—the money for everyone else to live on. I was maybe eighteen at the time, swimming with the rest of the fish in the Republican Kansas water. Unnecessary to point out?

An engineering degree landed me a job going around the country starting up coal-fired utility scale power plants. Doing that, I liked to reflect on the fact that I worked with some of the biggest “engines” in the world. I thought seriously about building my own small power plant, natural gas fired, and selling power to the grid. What fun it would be, I thought, but then found that the economics of small scale were a bit less than profitable. Regardless, it seemed to me that those of us in the industry were like priests of old, tending the sacred fires around which their civilizations turned.

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