As the Black Lives Matter protests spread across the world, it is more important than ever to remind ourselves of the intersections between race and environmentalism.
All movements sit on complex histories of identity, including those of class, gender, and race. From the feminist and LGBTQ+ movements to the Black Lives Matter movement, it is key that their advocates understand how different members of society are affected by the issues they hope to remedy.
The environmental movement is no different. Whether we are exposing its racist history, highlighting environmental racism in the present, or fighting colonial conservation, it is imperative that we continue to educate ourselves on the specific ways in which climate action and racial justice are linked.
Below, you will find a few of the many ways in which environmentalism is connected to issues of racism, both historically and in the present. I encourage you to read carefully, reflect on your own privileges, and ask how you can ensure your conservation efforts and climate activism continue to be actively anti-racist.
A History of Environmentalism
Many environmentalists today are still unaware of the movement’s history and its repeated failure to account for the experiences of people of colour.
In the US, 20th century conservationists like Madison Grant, Henry Fairfield Osborn and John Muir are known for founding many of the country’s national parks and museums. However, they also held deeply racist beliefs. While Grant espoused white supremacist ideology, Muir, the founder of environmental organisation ‘The Sierra Club’, plainly asserted his disdain for Native people.
Unsurprisingly, the mainstream environmental movement in the US continued to have a strongly white, middle-class character. Although Black Americans in the 1960s were already protesting about pollution in their neighbourhoods, white environmentalists failed to see these issues as related to their beliefs about conservation and the climate.
The situation in the UK was largely the same. The environmental movement largely focused on issues like tree-planting and animal protection, which, while important, were not paired with equally crucial concerns about public health and social justice. Environmental policy and activism primarily highlighted the concerns of white people, while English conservation was neatly tied into the preservation of stately homes and parks, which were themselves funded through colonialism.
From the 1970s and 80s, activists in the UK and the US began to adopt terms like ‘environmental racism’ and to recognise the privileges imbedded in their movement. Nonetheless, mainstream environmentalism continued to be largely inaccessible to people of colour. In 2015, Wretched of the Earth (a group of indigenous activists, as well as Black and brown people living in the UK), finally secured a spot at the front of the People’s Climate March, but not without some difficulty. In any case, their anti-racist and anti-colonial message was deemed too ‘strong’ by many activists present, who appeared more concerned with protecting wildlife and parks for the white middle-class to enjoy.
Even today, the role of people of colour in the history of environmentalism and the ways in which they are affected by environmental breakdown are consistently overlooked. Many activists are still woefully unaware of intersections between race and the environment, and groups like Extinction Rebellion have been criticised for perpetuating white privilege in their activism. For example, their tactic of encouraging protestors to get arrested alienates activists of colour, who are more likely to be given prison sentences or subject to police brutality.
The Grand Canyon National Park, US.
Environmental racism is a term which highlights the way in which communities of colour are unfairly and disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards.
There are many examples of this. In America, around 70% of the country’s contaminated waste sites are located near low-income neighbourhoods, which are often communities of colour. Often, the justification for this is economic – the government will claim that landfills and chemical plants are best located on cheap land. However, this land is only cheap as economic opportunities have been removed, while structural racism has created a situation in which there is a significant overlap in poor communities and communities of colour.
Environmental racism also has a huge impact on indigenous populations, with a notable example being the Dakota Access Pipeline in the US. This pipeline was directed away from the mostly white, affluent city of Bismarck, and now runs far too close to a Native community, who have rightly protested that a spillage would destroy their lands.
This is a problem on an international scale. In England, research has shown that particulate air pollution in the UK is concentrated in the 20% of poorest neighbourhoods and in areas with a greater proportion of Black people.
Meanwhile, countries in Europe ship their waste abroad, leaving people in the global south to deal with its consequences. In Ghana, for example, you can find one of the largest electronic waste scrapyards, which contains thousands of discarded electronics, most illegally shipped from Europe. Locals living in the capital burn the waste to extract metals, but this exposes them to dangerous chemicals, while studies show that the toxins from this waste is leaching into the food chain.
Photo Credit: Rob Wilson, People's Dispatch
Threats to Land Rights and Decolonizing Conservation
Being a conservationist is not just about looking after plants and animals; it’s also about recognizing the land rights of native communities. However, the jaded history of conversation explains why many environmentalists continue to overlook this.
In a process which is termed ‘colonial conservation’ by activists, governments and conservation charities today are seizing land owned by local communities and indigenous populations under the pretence that this is required to protect the environment. The land is turned into a National Park, but its original inhabitants are usually kicked out, often with the use of physical force.
Not only is this a violation of human rights, but it also runs contrary to any real attempt at conservation. As any good environmentalist will tell you, local communities and native populations are experts at protecting their land. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has agreed that acknowledging their land rights is a key part of fighting climate change, as indigenous people have crucial knowledge and experience in how to effectively manage land and maintain biodiversity.
Of course, the issue of land rights is not just linked to conservation. While threats to land ownership come from multiple sources, including the expansion of agriculture and the role of fossil fuel companies, we have to remember that racial discrimination is also at the heart of this issue.
Why Climate Justice Means Racial Justice
Evidently, the climate crisis is not affecting everyone equally.
As if the above issues weren’t enough, we must remember that as extreme weather events, harvest failures and global temperatures increase, it will be people of colour, particularly those in the global south, who will frequently be on the frontlines of climate change.
Of course, there’s a reason that the environment is so closely linked to issues of social injustice. The roots of the climate crisis – capitalism, colonialism and extraction – are also the roots of deep-seated racial inequalities.
Our current economic system is based on a long history of extracting the planet’s resources, exploiting the land and labour of people of colour, and sacrificing their lives to create profit for the privileged white elite. This legacy of imperialism and oppression continues to shape our society today and creates a situation in which politicians and corporations are largely indifferent to the effects of climate change both at home and in the global south – that is, so long as they primarily impact people of colour.
For this reason, being an environmentalist means realising that climate justice cannot be achieved without racial justice. And, most importantly, it means showing solidarity with people of colour and highlighting their voices in the fight against environmental breakdown.
In the words of Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist and policy advisor:
‘So, to white people who care about maintaining a habitable planet, I need you to become actively anti-racist. I need you to understand that our racial inequality crisis is intertwined with our climate crisis. If we don’t work on both, we will succeed at neither. I need you to step up. Please. Because I am exhausted.'
This article is a very basic introduction to these issues, so please do take a look at some of these publications:
‘Climate Justice is a Black and White Issue – So Why isn’t the Environmentalist Movement?’
‘Why Every Environmentalist Should be Anti-Racist’
‘Climate Change is a Racist Issue’
‘Unequal Impact: The Deep Links Between Racism and Climate Change’
‘We Need to Be Heard’: the BAME Climate Activists Who Won’t Be Ignored
‘Climate Change is Environmental Racism’
‘‘What is Eco-Fascism?’