Bridging Black Liberation & Climate Justice This Black August
Image from Noname Book Club
Nearly 50 years ago, five Black men in California were killed resisting the prison industrial complex and fighting for Black liberation. From this pivotal moment, Black August was born.
Rachel Herzing, co-founder of the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance, describes Black August as a “call for reflection, study, and action to promote Black liberation.”
For environmentalists, it’s also a time to reflect on the intrinsic ways environmental justice is linked to Black liberation.
The Anti-Black Roots of Climate Change
Climate change is one of the most pressing issues that those in the environmental movement focus on. It’s also heavily driven and perpetuated by systemic factors.
Mass extraction of resources has led to sprawling pipelines, mass deforestation, and gaping mines. Mass production leads to steep emissions of greenhouse gases and destructive energy sources like hydroelectric dams. Completing the life cycle is massive amounts of waste which contribute to pollution and more greenhouse gas emissions from landfills and incineration.
At every stage, not only the environment is exploited but people too. The most marginalized feel the effects worst. All too often, this is Black and Indigenous people.
It was Black labour that was exploited for centuries of slavery to extract resources that built today’s empires. It is Black people that continue to be exploited as sources of labour for mass production. And it is Black people that continue to bear the effects of pollution through environmental racism.
This is because climate change relies on two fundamental systems: capitalism and colonialism. And both these systems are rooted in anti-Blackness.
Death Systems: Capitalism & Colonialism
Both capitalism and colonialism are made possible through the exploitation and death of Black and Indigenous peoples.
Colonization lays the groundwork for capitalism. As settler activist T Schwab writes:
“Colonization attempts to remove humans’ relationship to land as part of spirit and life. It forces land to be capital—something to be owned and to service us through the extraction of food, water, and shelter... Colonization makes space for the apathy people feel when confronted by the exploitation and death of this planet.”
Capitalism then comes into play to enforce a violent life cycle of consumption that results in pollution, environmental degradation, and climate change.
To facilitate this, it builds a hierarchy that designates a small group (“the 1%”) as the ones accumulating wealth and controlling land and a large group as the ones having their wealth, resources, and often very lives extracted from.
It relies on the genocide and colonization of Indigenous lands and people, as well as the enslavement of Black peoples.
Dr. Eric Williams, a Trinidadian historian and former Prime Minister, even wrote an entire book on this connection entitled Capitalism and Slavery. Dr. Williams writes:
“The reason [for slavery] was economic, not racial; it had to do not with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor... He [the colonizer] would have gone to the moon, if necessary, for labor. Africa was nearer than the moon.”
Slavery was followed directly by capitalism—almost the same system except for this time, people sell their labour to capitalists instead of being owned by capitalists.
Tracing these webs back to current environmental issues, we can see climate change as the death throes of a complex web of systems that are only made possible through Black and Indigenous exploitation and death.
Yet despite the inextricable connections between Black liberation and climate justice, Black folks are still routinely pushed out of the environmental movement.
Disconnection & Complicity
Within environmentalism, there pervades a deeply rooted notion that Black people do not care about the environment.
Part of this goes down to the very framing we use when we talk about “the environment”.
As Black journalist Brentin Mock writes, “We define nature by what we see when we look outside. What a Black child from Southside Chicago sees through her glass will be different than what a white child sees from her window in South Burlington, Vt.”
Some term this difference as a “white ecology” and a “Black ecology”. Professor Dorceta Taylor dives deeper into this nuance:
“It’s not necessarily that there is a ‘black ecology’ and ‘white ecology’. It’s just that our lived experiences with environment are different. White people bring their experience to the discussion—that’s why they focus on the birds, trees, plants, and animals, because they don’t have the experience of being barred from parks and beaches. It’s just a different frame. But overall, we want the same thing: safe places to live, work and play, clean spaces and sustainable, long-lasting communities.”
Colonization and slavery also influence the environmental movement, perpetuating Black people as distant from “nature”.
Mock uses the infamous 1915 film Birth of a Nation to trace the origins of these ideas, drawing on the imagery of “predatory” Black people being chased by righteous white men through idyllic rural forests.
“Black people were seen as something separate from the vision of nature carried by many powerful white conservationists… Black people were seen as crimes against this particular vision of nature, as were Native Americans before them. Since they could no longer be tamed and domesticated as slaves, they needed to be erased.”
These ideas are compounded by the often physical distancing of Black people from nature. As journalist Sage Anifowoshe writes, “Environmental racism has ‘ripped’ Black people away from nature”.
Colonization, slavery, displacement, and mass migration has deeply ruptured Black communities’ connection to land. Environmental racism perpetuates this, leading to displacement and lack of access to land and green space.
Despite all the challenges, Black folks continue to be strong activists and caretakers for our planet. Much of this goes without support or recognition. Compensated environmentalism opportunities for BIPOC present what some call a “green ceiling”.
A 2014 report by professor Dorceta Taylor communicated that “A significant number of talented ethnic minorities are willing and able to work in environmental organizations, but discriminatory hiring practices prevent them from obtaining jobs in such organizations.”
All of these factors lead to an environmental movement dominated by white settlers that continues to perpetuate colonialism and anti-Blackness.
As Mock powerfully concludes:
“Too many white men have built a definition of ‘environment’ that they’ve determined to be the only truth—a truth that for the rest of us, they believe, is simply not in our nature.”
Bridging Climate Justice & Black Liberation
Environmental justice requires Black liberation and decolonization.
We must centre Black and Indigenous communities by following their leadership and aligning ourselves with their goals and fights. We must not only work against anti-Blackness in the systems around us, but anti-Blackness within ourselves and within our movements.
It requires co-conspiratorship, not just allyship. Where allyship can be a passive role one appoints oneself, being a co-conspirator means sacrificing your own privilege. It means actively dismantling oppressive systems that materially benefit you at the expense of others.
When we address anti-Blackness, we target the very roots that allow climate change to thrive.
As Black scholar Rinaldo Walcott writes in his book The Long Emancipation:
“Black freedom is not just freedom for Black subjects; it is a freedom that inaugurates an entirely new human experience for everyone. Black freedom then, is not one kind of freedom that sits alongside other kinds of freedom; it is a global reorienting and radical reordering phenomenon.”
This Black August, commit to deeper learning and reflection. Engage with abolition and what it means for the environment. Learn more about capitalism and its anti-Black roots. Reflect on your role in colonization if you are a settler. And recommit to co-creating a world with climate justice and Black liberation hand in hand.
About the Author
Keneisha Charles (they/them) is a Black queer non-binary activist, storyteller, poet, and musician dedicated to co-creating a liberatory future. They currently live on the ancestral lands of the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas, and Haudenosaunee in what’s commonly known as Toronto.