For People and the Planet: Intersectional Environmentalism

Thursday, May 30, 2024

"We need joy as we need air. We need love as we need water. We need each other as we need the earth we share."Maya Angelou

Humanity is inextricably interconnected with the environment. Whether one lives in a city or deep in the woods, we all need the air, water, and land—and each other—to survive. This seemingly obvious truth can be lost or forgotten when faced with societal structures and decisionmaking about the downstream effects of the modern economy. We can tangibly see this in the toxic air of “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana, the contaminated Ohio River downstream of Parkersburg, West Virginia, and the poisoned land of the Navajo Nation. These are all examples of decisionmakers intentionally ignoring the interconnectedness of humans to the environment and each other. These are intentional, as they rely on the longstanding principles of the social structures that prioritize wealth and whiteness over the well-being of people of color, those in poverty, and the environment. Environmental justice and climate justice movements over the last 40 years worked to undo these harms and establish a new system that works for everyone. These movements aim to balance the needs of people and the planet to prioritize community needs and well-being. Each addresses different yet interconnected harms and works towards the same end: an equitable and just world. To truly achieve their goal, they must center intersectional environmentalism.

It has long been documented that low-income Black, Indigenous, Latine, Asian American, and rural white communities have been and continue to be plagued by intentional environmental harm giving rise to these justice movements. Most notably, the story of Warren County, North Carolina, is known as the birth of the environmental justice movement in 1982. In response to a decision to dump contaminated soil in a rural, predominantly Black community, neighbors pushed back and, with the NAACP, gave rise to the larger movement. Though Warren County made national headlines, it was far from the first community to advocate for environmental justice.

Starting around the 1960’s, communities began to push back. Feeling the brunt of environmental and climate harms and using collective community power to uplift their stories, these communities advocated for their right to a clean and healthy environment (though they did not always succeed, including in Warren County). Jim Crow laws, redlining, and other national, state, and local discriminatory policies made these communities the sacrificial dumping grounds for the sake of growth of the American economy. While federal policies, such as President Clinton’s Executive Order 12898, and the Justice40 Initiative and multiple Executive Orders from President Biden, make progress in addressing the ongoing environmental harms, more work is needed in communities across the United States to truly achieve environmental justice, including an intersectional approach. 

Climate justice has roots in environmental justice—recognizing the power structures from historical and current policies that cause disproportionate harms to low income, indigenous, and communities of color, with an emphasis on the harms caused by the climate crisis. While flooding, drought, and overall extreme weather events could be considered environmental factors, the fact that they are caused by a changing climate makes them more accurately described as climate injustices. Record-breaking heat in South Florida led groups in Miami Dade County to advocate for climate justice through worker protection laws. We Count’s QueCalor! campaign is one community-based campaign fighting for protections. While there has been progress with Miami Dade County establishing the nation’s first Chief Heat Officer, the state of Florida passed a law banning local heat protection laws. On a larger scale, another injustice that most clearly demonstrates the intersectionality of people and climate impacts is the forced displacement of people due to climatic events. In the United States, stories more than 10 years old of displacement in Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, and Alaska Native communities demonstrates that the forced migration of people from their homelands is not an impending issue—it is here and expected to intensify. People who have contributed the least to climate change are the ones being displaced. Climate justice addresses the causes of the climate crisis and advances solutions to mitigate the disproportionate harm of its effects in a way that supports community worth and dignity—a core principle of intersectionality.

At the root of environmental and climate justice is the acknowledgement of what Maya Angelou says: that we, people of this planet, are interconnected to our environment and each other. The decisions we make impact our environment, our climate, and all people—no matter our identity or geography. Leah Thomas, the founder of Intersectional Environmentalist and author of a book by the same name, described the new movement of intersectional environmentalism in a 2020 interview to Yale Climate Connections, saying “it’s a more inclusive version of environmentalism … that identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected.” Created in response to the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Intersectional Environmentalist “envision[s] a world where the communities and voices most impacted by environmental injustice have the power, resources, and platforms to lead their communities into full liberation” — the shared-vision of environmental justice and climate justice. Intersectional environmentalism emphasizes the human component that, no matter who a person is or where they are from, their inherent worth and dignity as a person ensures they should not be ignored in decisionmaking and are, instead, integrally a part of and embraced in making decisions about their communities. 

How do you ensure all community voices are included and embraced in environmental and climate decisionmaking?

Check out the organization’s website to learn more about Intersectional Environmentalism.