People & Planet: What Is Intersectional Environmentalism?

Intersectional Environmentalism abstract illustration

Intersectional environmentalism — yes, it’s a bit of a tongue twister — is the mainstream environmentalist movement demanding that our planet and its people are both cared for and seen as interconnected.

It’s easy to compartmentalize climate and human needs; however, the reality is, that low-income, typically BIPOC communities, or those who live in the Global South, bear the unequal burden of climate change. 

Therefore, we cannot address the most pressing issues of our day — climate change, racial injustice, and gender inequality — until we lift the voices of those closest to the problem.

As we begin to unpack what it means to be an intersectional environmentalist, it’s important to understand that most — if not all — of the environmental leaders we’ll be highlighting started with the all-too-familiar feeling of overwhelm and conviction to fight for our planet and its people. 

They each dedicated time to listen, learn, and imperfectly show up in conversations, and we challenge you to do the same. 

Our hope with this equally imperfect content hub is that you learn a little more so that you, too, can become an intersectional environmentalist within your own community. 

What is intersectional environmentalism, exactly?

Intersectional Environmentalism (IE) — a term coined by Leah Thomas — focuses on achieving climate justice, amplifying historically excluded voices, and approaching environmental education policy and activism with equity, inclusion, and restorative justice in mind.

In other words, IE is an inclusive approach to environmentalism that advocates for the protection of both people and the planet. 

Before we dive any deeper, it’s important to acknowledge that this movement stems from communities of color who had long practiced this before there was even a term for it.

The evolution of this definition and movement is thanks to the diligent hard work of Black women. As we practice what it means to have a world that advocates for both people and the planet, we are privileged to stand on the shoulders of history-makers and thought-leaders from the Black community.

Social justice and climate justice are connected

You’ve probably come across terms like “social justice” or “climate justice,” and though you may have a rough idea of what each means, we want to make sure that we’re all on the same page! 

Justice is all about fairness. Social justice is fairness manifested within the society that we live in. This includes fairness in anything from healthcare, employment, housing, and more. 

Social justice can’t be achieved without human rights, access, participation, and equity (this is a great visual of equity vs. equality). 

Climate justice, on the other hand, represents the unequal distribution of climate change for groups like Indigenous people, POC, women, and people with disabilities.  

An example of this unequal distribution of climate change can be seen in Africa. Ugandan climate justice advocate Vanessa Nakate shared with the United Nations that, historically, Africa as a continent is responsible for less than four percent of global emissions, and yet many Africans find themselves at the frontlines of climate change.

Climate justice exposes the stark reality that, for centuries, industrialized nations have been freely burning large volumes of fossil fuels while poor, more vulnerable regions have become the most susceptible to its effects — such as rising temperatures and sea levels.

Indigenous communities within the U.S. also find themselves facing relocation from ancestral homes and livelihoods lost due to rising sea levels or drought. The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, for instance, has lost nearly all of its land — the island shrank by 98% from the 1950s to 2018 — and the tribe was forced to relocate to higher ground.

Moving forward, as we advocate to have a society that is inclusive of every person and equitable to all, we must begin to pass the microphone over to those who have previously not been heard and who may just have the solutions we need to address the climate crisis.

The Mother and Father of Environmental Justice

We owe much of today’s environmental progress to the "mother" and “father” of environmental justice: Hazel M. Johnson and Robert Bullard, Ph.D. 

Johnson was a longtime environmental activist from the South Side of Chicago, but when her husband passed away of lung cancer at the age of 41 in 1969, she was certain it was due to environmental injustice and yearned to learn more. When she discovered that a toxic waste facility surrounded the area — a community built for Black World War II veterans — her pursuit for true environmental justice was formalized.

Johnson developed an organization — People for Community Recovery, in 1979, and was later pivotal in creating the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice, which she helped in presenting to Congress in the ‘90s.

Robert Bullard, Ph.D. — who coined the term “environmental racism” in 1979 — was also empowered by his spouse in his fight for environmental justice. His wife, Attorney Linda McKeever Bullard,  brought a lawsuit against Southwestern Waste Management for its plans to put a municipal landfill in a Houston neighborhood where 82 percent of the residents were Black. 

This — as Bullard’s first-of-its-kind study uncovered — was not the only city-owned garbage dump located in Black neighborhoods, in fact, all five were located near Black communities. 

This lawsuit became the first in U.S. history to charge a corporation with racial discrimination in its environmental practices.

Bullard was brought in as an expert witness and quickly became the leading voice for environmental justice research. He wrote and published a number of research papers and books, and later helped plan the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991. 

It was at this summit that the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice were developed, and Johnson and Bullard’s work overlapped. He defined environmental justice as a concept that “embraces the principles that all communities, all people, are entitled to equal protection of our environmental laws, health laws, housing laws, transportation laws, and civil rights laws.”

While these two leaders are only two of the many Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Pacific Islander, people of color, and Asian activists who shaped this movement, Johnson and Bullard were truly innovative in defining, leading, and empowering a movement for generations. 

What’s the difference between intersectional environmentalism and environmental justice?

Even though IE and environmental justice sound strikingly similar, they represent two distinct movements. They both advocate for the fair treatment of all people, however, where they diverge is how each defines the word environment. 

Environmental justice — Dr. Robert Bullard’s field of study — broadly defines “environment” as spaces where we live, work, play, and learn. 

“Environmental justice is nothing more than this whole principle: people have the right to a clean, healthy, sustainable environment without regard to race, color, national origin. It’s just that simple,” Dr. Bullard told Vox

Environmental justice’s primary focus is on people’s inherent rights, not the conservation or preservation of the planet. 

Intersectional environmentalism, on the other hand, believes in all tenants of environmental justice, however, it also believes that people and the planet are deeply intersected.

Think of IE as the child of environmental and climate justice. 

“One day, I hope that when people think of an environmentalist, they’ll automatically envision a person who cares very deeply about both people and planet,” Leah Thomas shares in her book, "The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People and Planet."

What’s the history of intersectional environmental justice?

As previously mentioned, intersectional environmentalism is derived from the tireless work of bold Black women. The Combahee River Collective, an intersectional group of Black lesbian women, was formalized in 1974 in response to the lack of representation in both the feminist and civil rights movements. 

The collective joined together to develop the Combahee River Collective Statement, which was a key document in developing contemporary Black Feminism. 

Professor, lawyer, and feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (you may have seen her amazing TED Talk on intersectionality) furthered what the women in The Combahee River Collective were fighting for by coining the term intersectionality in 1989. 

Crenshaw first publicly laid out her theory of intersectionality when she published a paper in the University of Chicago Legal Forum titled “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex.” You can read that paper here

She argued that in the eyes of the law, treating Black women as purely women or purely Black — as they did in the 1976 DeGraffenreid v. General Motors case — have repeatedly ignored specific challenges that face Black women as a group.

Crenshaw’s theory slowly made it back into public consciousness when it went mainstream by being added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015 and gaining worldwide attention during the 2017 Women’s March where organizers spoke on women’s intersecting identities and the social impacts associated with it. 

Leah Thomas coined the term intersectional environmentalist

Just as intersectionality gained recognition and steam through collective rage, so too did it reemerge in May 2020, as a result of the senseless murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.

In response, eco-influencer Leah Thomas (@greengirlleah) posted a viral Instagram post calling on her community of dedicated environmentalists to once and for all see environmentalism as intersectionally connected to social justice. 

“I honestly did it on a whim during the summer of 2020. I was in my bed under my covers, frustrated and on Canva, and I just typed out, okay, this is the type of environmentalism I want. I'm an intersectional feminist. I want to be an intersectional environmentalist. This is what it means,” Thomas shared in a conversation with the Good Good Good team

Her post read, “I’m calling on the environmentalist community to stand in solidarity with the black lives matter movement and with Black, Indigenous + POC communities impacted daily by both social and environmental injustice. Please swipe to learn more about intersectional environmentalism and take the pledge.”

In that moment, Thomas coined the phrase intersectional environmentalism, a term that she says is an inclusive approach to environmentalism that advocates for the protection of both people and the planet.

Following her original post, Thomas co-founded a platform — Intersectional Environmentalist — dedicated to providing resources, information, and action steps to support IE and how to dismantle systems of oppression in the environmental movement.

“IE argues that social and environmental justice are intertwined — and that environmental advocacy that disregards this connection is harmful and incomplete,” Leah shared. 

The platform has grown to over 400,000 Instagram followers, offering practical tips, thoughtful commentary on current events, and shareable graphics to spread the word.

Thomas also went on to release her debut book in March 2022. 

The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People and Planet” — which is one of the longest names ever — is the textbook that I always wanted,” Leah laughed. “But instead of being a boring textbook, it has rainbows and art throughout. And it's all about intersectional theory, ecofeminism, the history of the environmental justice movement, and lots of examples of intersectional environmentalism.”

Nuance, Thomas argues, is at the heart of IE and is displayed through the overlapping identities we carry, such as race, gender, and religion. As we understand what part of our identities we hold privilege, we can begin to leverage those aspects for good. 

“And even with myself, there's just so much nuance to my identity. Like, there are areas where I might hold privilege, but I know for sure being Black and a woman, those are not those areas where I hold privilege. So it's just really important to consider that nuance,” Leah commented. 

In a time when sustainability and environmentalism feels overwhelming, hopeless, or unattainable, Thomas has provided some much-needed grace, compassion, and nuance. 

Our team sat down with @greengirlleah ahead of her book’s launch to talk about IE, her experience as a Black environmentalist, and how vital it is to find time to rest as an advocate. 

How to be an intersectional environmentalist:

Becoming an intersectional environmentalist first and foremost calls for each of us to show up, imperfectly. We won’t know all the answers, but that should not keep us from using our unique expertise and voices to advocate for the protection of our surrounding environment and neighbors. 

Just as every environmentalist started out as a student, therefore, we’re invited to do the same. We learn to become responsible stewards of our communities through education and awareness — and we’ve got a few recommendations we hope will jumpstart your IE journey:

1. Learn from books on Intersectional Environmentalism.

As we begin to read and understand what it means to protect both people and the planet, we must challenge ourselves to widen our perspective. If you’re going to start anywhere, we recommend starting by learning from the leaders mentioned in this post. 

For all things IE, “The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet” by Leah Thomas is a great tool to deepen your knowledge of the movement while also learning more about BIPOC and LGBTQ+ grassroots activists around the world.  

If you’re looking to dive into environmental racism, look no further than Robert D. Bullard’s library of books. We recommend starting with “Unequal Protection: Environmental Justice and Communities of Color.”

All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis,” edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson is another wonderful book of essays from women at the forefront of the climate movement who are harnessing truth, courage, and solutions to lead humanity forward.

2. Be mindful of every voice in the room.

Have we unintentionally been excluding other voices? It’s our responsibility to use any kind of privilege we have in the service of advocacy, especially for those who, through systemic systems of oppression, find it challenging to be heard or respected. 

Being an intersectional environmentalist starts at your kitchen table, team meetings, or community organization gatherings. 

If you’re as passionate as we are about IE, an immediate action step that’s accessible to everyone is identifying where we hold privilege and how we can decenter ourselves in order to create space for others in our community. 

In the Goodnewspaper: The Intersectional Environmentalist Edition, we shared a few inclusive questions we can use to ask ourselves — and the organizations we work with — in order to provide an environment for everyone to be heard. But, in case you’re not already a subscriber, here’s a little taste: 

  1. What does it look like to create a safe and welcoming environment for people who have historically been excluded and have been underrepresented in my community? 
  2. How can I use my strengths to add value without ego? 

3. Support and learn from intersectional environmental organizations

As more BIPOC environmental leaders — like Secretary Deb Haaland — are holding high-ranking positions in environmental spaces, we have hope that they will begin to recognize and equip grassroots organizations that have historically been excluded from the conversation. 

Organizations like The Solutions Project, an environmental advocacy group creating opportunities for women of color to gain access to community funding, and American Forests, an organization creating place-based tools and pathways to a healthy, more sustainable environment for both humans and animals, are both creating unprecedented access for communities of color to have safe, healthy environments. 

Other people and organizations that are doing a great job at providing access to the environmental space are: Queer Nature, a multi-racial and cross cultural LGBTQ+ organization offering an alternative refuge and access to outdoor education, and Isaias Hernandez (AKA @queerbrownvegan) who is on a mission to elevate environmental education to newsfeeds in a fun, approachable way. 

The intersectional environmental justice movement was started by individuals — primarily BIPOC — who sought to address the inequity of environmental protection seen in low-income neighborhoods across the U.S and the Global South.

We love to celebrate the amazing work being done to protect people and the planet and hope that you, too, honor the efforts and accomplishments of these change-makers and channel their same energy into the pursuit of lasting and meaningful justice.

Article Details

March 30, 2022 11:36 AM
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