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  • Writer's pictureT Schwab

Intersectional Environmentalism 101: Co-Creating Sustainability for All

Updated: May 18, 2021

Sand and rocks of a beach in the foreground with factories and smokestacks in the background.

Photo by Lucian Potlog from Pexels

The environmental movement as a whole can seem to be a bit overwhelming, with many different issues intertwined, and many different groups creating their own solutions. Action within this movement has been taken on local, national, and global levels.

In recent years, globally we may think of the movement for a ban on plastic straws. Or the zero waste movement.

Although they had good intentions, both of these large movements are tied to the exclusion of marginalized groups. The ban on plastic straws creates inaccessibility for disabled individuals.

And the zero waste movement is tied in the elitism of often white, able-bodied people able to make investments in overpriced zero waste products while completely ignoring Indigenous and other communities that already live waste-free.

These are only the most recent of a long line of action taken within the environmental movement which ignores, oppresses, and steals from marginalized groups.

Mainstream Environmentalism: The Foundation

The mainstream environmental movement began in the early 1900s after generations of colonization, exploitation, and industrialization of “nature” in North America began to show detrimental effects. Its first waves focused on conservation, mitigating pollution, and climate change. However, early environmentalists created solutions that benefitted them. And seeing as most of these early activists were usually upper-class people who dabbled in eugenics, cultural genocide, and racism, these solutions were often very narrow.

Conservation efforts were introduced to support the environment—but at the expense of lower-class, racialized, and Indigenous peoples. In placing restrictions on hunting, they took away the means of subsistence for many people, leading to nature and foods being saved for the upper-class. As the ones who decided where wildlife or scenic places would remain, they controlled who could enjoy it—often white, middle to upper-class individuals.

Environmental Racism: Mainstream Environmentalism’s Legacy

These early “conservation” efforts paved the way for what is today known as environmental racism. Benjamin Chavis, a Black civil rights leader, coined this term in 1982 and defined it as the:

“racial discrimination in environmental policy-making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of colour for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of colour from the leadership of the ecology movements.”

From the beginning of the environmental movement, those in power used their influence to ensure that they were still able to enjoy the nature and wilderness they exploited. This deliberately came at the expense of marginalized groups, who those in power ensured would be the ones to feel the effects. This form of systemic racism is felt heavily in so-called Canada.

One example of this is one of our major cities, Montreal. In Montreal, immigrant residents experience higher air pollution exposure, and poor and racialized communities receive the lowest amount of public funding or investments, which includes the development of green spaces.

Indigenous communities often face the impacts of environmental racism strongly. Ontario’s infamous Chemical Valley, where over 60 large industrial facilities are found, neighbours the Aamjiwnaang reserve. Chemical Valley is one of the most singularly poisonous locations in North America and has led to major health complications for the Chippewa peoples due to the inhalation of toxic air, and the pollutants to their food and water, all of which lead to a loss of Indigenous culture.

Africville is a historical example. For decades, this Black community bore the brunt of Halifax’s undesirable services, including an open-pit garbage dump, human waste disposal pits, and a fertilizer plant. All these actions were taken against Africville until eventually Halifax completely demolished it in order to further exploit the communities land.

Mainstream Environmentalism: What Still Lives in the Movement

Looking at the blatant elitism and racism within the beginning of the movement, it’s easy to say that these issues can no longer be found within current mainstream environmentalism. However, to say this would ignore the many issues and biases which early environmentalism has built into our systems.

Elitism and racism didn’t go away—they simply evolved within the movement.

We cannot keep ignoring the large issue of environmental racism which has become a clear consequence of environmental action rooted in white supremacy and colonialism.

Another issue that carries from early environmentalism is what counts as environmental problems. From early on, a large focus on the wilderness, the natural world, and the wild created a bias against urban communities and their environmental issues. The focus needs to be on creating safer and cleaner spaces for all, not on creating and maintaining beautiful “wild” places that the rich and white can escape to.

Mainstream environmentalism’s focus on creating natural spaces in order to benefit from their beauty, while ignoring the urban settings which humans have built and live in, is an elitist quality of the movement. It creates a “superior” and “inferior” nature. This system usually results in the elite living within what is seen as “superior” spaces, which get more funding, more parks and more natural places. While marginalized communities on the other hand end up living in areas with risky pipelines, landfills, dumping sites, and increased levels of pollution.

This elitism within the movement has been highly criticized due to its historical and continued emphasis on action which focuses on professionalism and litigation, ways in which the elite are given more tools to aid them. This leads to little room for advocacy with a focus on the community, or activism made to empower marginalized communities who continue to bear the impact of environmental issues.

Lastly, mainstream environmentalism is very white. Many non-government organizations and green groups cater their language, recruitment, and actions to white, privileged individuals, creating a culture of exclusion for BIPOC and other marginalized folks. Like many of the systems and spaces in North America, organizations within the environmental movement continue to uphold whiteness and white supremacy through the problems they choose to care about, the voices they choose to uplift, and the history they choose to be important.

Intersectional Environmentalism: What is it?

Because of mainstream environmentalism's history in racism, ableism, classism, and elitism, a new wave of environmentalism is needed and that wave is intersectional environmentalism. Intersectional environmentalism builds off of professor and lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality. Intersectionality is defined by the English Dictorintary as:

“The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage; a theoretical approach based on such a premise.”

Intersectionality as a whole is a way of viewing social constructs, and the interconnectedness of all forms of oppression within them. Building off this idea of intersectionality, Leah Thompson defines environmental intersectionality as

“An inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It 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. Intersectional Environmentalism advocates for justice for people + the planet.”

In seeking justice for those affected by environmental injustices, intersectional environmentalism creates a framework that no longer benefits or focuses on elitism but instead on the ways different forms of oppression interconnect to create the problems we see today. Working from an intersectional perspective opens us up to find solutions that focus on those most marginalized by these issues, and allows for all to bring their own personal identities to their action.

Intersectionality is a way to uplift a diversity of perspectives and solutions while early environmentalism focused on upholding whiteness and creating solutions with whiteness centred.

Intersectional Environmentalism: How to Work With it

To work in an intersectional framework, the process of unlearning and relearning is needed. Those who are privileged need to unlearn what might be viewed as natural and what is valued in the environment. Positioning yourself in your privilege and how this affects your work is an important part of the process. Coming from higher privileged areas, one might view nature as the hike they drive out of town to do, or the green space close by. It’s important to not take advantage of these and to understand the reason why green spaces are in certain communities—environmental racism.

To take an intersectional approach is to first care about environmental justice, the movement for safe and livable environments created by those most marginalized by systems of racism. And within this, it’s important to understand the ways in which marginalized voices are suppressed, ignored, and tokenized within this movement without intersectionality. To work with an intersectional view is to first work to uplift those most oppressed by environmental racism and to do that means to learn, listen, uplift, and create community.

Intersectional environmentalism is not about a bunch of white saviours coming in with the answers to communities’ problems. That’s what mainstream environmentalism was about, and it gave us our current system of environmental racism.

Working from an intersectional approach means letting go of whiteness and elitism as the answer to problems and instead focusing on learning new worldviews. Valuing Indigenous traditional knowledge and worldviews and understanding them not from a Eurocentric but from a community-based lens is important in this. Western science and its drive for globalized, generalized environmental action will get us nowhere. Instead, place-based learnings and the utilization of different ways of knowing are how we create environmental action that supports sustainability for everyone.

So ask yourself:

Where do you fit in the movement?

Who’s voices are not at your table?

What privileges and marginalizations do you bring to the table?

Where do your current thoughts about environmentalism come from? Who do you learn from?

How do you address settler colonialism and anti-Black racism in your activism?

How do you ensure your action is accessible to people with disabilities?

What identities or parts of yourself do you leave behind? What are you not currently integrating into your environmentalism?


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About the Author

T wears circular glasses, a grey plaid blazer with a yellow blouse underneath.

T Schwab (they/them) is currently majoring in Psychology and Environmental Studies. They currently live on the unceded Coast Salish territories of the Lkwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ peoples. Their passions lie in holistic care and sustainability.

Connect with them on LinkedIn or Instagram.

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