Environmentalism must center marginalized voices, not just privileged ones

Illustration of people protesting climate change
Lily Callender/Staff

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Anya Sastry. Karla Stephan. Feliquan Charlemagne. Madelaine Tew. Autumn Peltier. Xiuhtezcatl Martinez. Leah Namugera. Artemisa Xakriabá. Naelyn Pike. Isra Hirsi.

These are just a handful of the young people of color advocating for climate justice. Did you recognize any of their names?

From Black activists fighting the water crisis in Flint, Michigan to indigenous people fighting the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, diverse communities have continuously fought for environmental issues. Yet the media fails to give them the attention they deserve despite the fact that low-income people and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by environmental injustice.

Climate and environmental injustice affects communities differently, so why does climate activism continuously seem to center around white people? 

For example, Greta Thunberg has taken the international community by storm. Celebrities from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Jane Fonda have publicly acclaimed the power of Thunberg’s activism. And in the wake of the global climate strike, Thunberg was considered for a Nobel Peace Prize.

There’s no denying the power of Thunberg and her activism. In August 2018, she protested at the Swedish Parliament for three weeks to address climate injustice. She posted her protests on social media and her work went viral. This media attention tied to her activism allowed her movement “Fridays For Future” to inspire people to strike every Friday to raise awareness about the crisis of climate change.

Climate and environmental injustice affects communities differently, so why does climate activism continuously seem to center around white people? 

So yes, Thunberg should be listened to. And we shouldn’t overlook Thunberg’s gender or diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, which has been publicly criticized. But Thunberg was also born in a European country where she has the ability to be vegan and travel on a carbon-neutral boat. Thus, we must also account for her privilege. And her whiteness.

Those most impacted by climate injustices — people of color, marginalized genders and people from low-income communities — who are also advocating for climate justice are seemingly eclipsed by the attention we pay to activists who have more privilege than others.

Let’s be real here: Would this many people be listening to Thunberg’s call to action if she wasn’t a white, middle-class girl from Sweden?

The reality is that they probably wouldn’t be. The media seems to continuously center white people and those with more privilege. The international spotlight on Thunberg’s activism reflects the apparent lack of intersectionality in the environmental movement. This is evident not only by the activists valued for their environmental activism but also in how environmental degradation is addressed. 

Often, social oppression is separated from environmental and climate justice work. People tend to view environmental work through the lens of physical sciences and empiricism that separates itself from social issues. And environmental issues are often seen as global deforestation, pollution of the Earth’s oceans and the impact of climate change. These discussions of environmental degradation and climate injustice often fail to incorporate their intersections with social oppression and marginalization.

There is also a tendency to artificially separate an individual’s social environment from their ecological environment. Natural, social and built environments, however, are interconnected and fundamentally shape an individual’s life. 

By separating environmental justice from social inequality, the environmental movement perpetuates this inequality. Issues of gender discrimination, racial prejudice, violence against indigenous people and climate change do not exist in a vacuum. We must constantly think about the relationship between social, political and economic issues that have historically been addressed separately.

Environmental issues impact people on top of marginalization and oppression. This grows as forms of oppression increase. The theory of intersectionality was developed by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to discuss how Black women experience both sexism and racism. Intersectionality describes how systems of oppression are interconnected and cannot be addressed through separation. Therefore racism, ableism, sexism, transphobia, classism and homophobia are interconnected, creating differing forms of oppression and privilege.

By separating environmental justice from social inequality, the environmental movement perpetuates this inequality.

And these forms of social oppression exacerbate the impacts of environmental degradation and climate justice on various communities.

This is evident in the United States because low-income people and communities of color can often have limited access to clean water, public green spaces and air free of pollutants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that people of color are more likely to live by polluters, as polluting industries are more commonly located in their communities. As a result, communities of color are often surrounded by air that’s polluted and experience disproportionate effects of pollution.

And on a local scale, we can see the impact that wildfires have had and continue to have on already marginalized communities. Statewide wildfires have caused the air quality in various parts of California to rise to unhealthy levels. Individuals who face homelessness have had no escape from the air quality. Those with chronic health diseases and disabilities face greater health risks with unhealthy air. And PG&E’s most recent power outage affected low-income individuals and those with disabilities who rely on technology.

But these are only a few examples of how social inequalities intersect with environmental issues. The media attention around the environmental movement must start centering the voices and experiences of the marginalized, those who experience the effects of environmental degradation firsthand. 

The clock on saving the planet is ticking. Some scientists have estimated that we have only 12 years before the impacts of climate change become irreversible. If we don’t have images in the media outside of privileged identities, we will continue to ignore those most impacted by climate change. And we literally cannot afford to. 

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