Why The Environmental Movement Must Be Intersectional

If your environmentalism isn’t intersectional, isn’t striving for greater equity, greater justice — then your environmentalism is incomplete. 

When you think of environmentalism, do you think of justice work? If you don’t, then it’s time to level up your environmentalism.

This is the mission of environmental justice, a movement insisting that work to protect the planet necessitates work to protect the people who live on it — that to protect the environment, we must also protect vulnerable communities.

Minority and low-income communities are more likely to live in areas exposed to toxic waste, landfills, highways, and other environmental hazards, according to a 2011 article in the American Journal of Public Health. 

Further, people of color have less access than their white counterparts to clean air and natural spaces, according to a 2019 study by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and a 2019 study by Landscape and Urban Planning, respectively. 

And the Flint water crisis is one of the most glaring examples of environmental injustice in modern time — a city with mostly low-income residents and people of color didn’t have reliable access to clean water for nearly five years.

Environmental justice offers a movement for both social justice and environmentalism. And it matters because communities aren’t affected by climate degradation equally — lower-income communities will be impacted first, and they’ll be impacted more seriously.

illustration by carra sykes

One way to push for environmental justice is to not only get involved in changing your personal habits, but also to learn about environmental policies and advocate for greater protections in communities that experience the most serious ramifications of the climate crisis, such as communities affected by fracking, coal-fired power plants, and water pollution.

One young activist created a movement last year to include the concept of intersectionality in environmentalism. Leah Thomas, who launched Intersectional Environmentalism in 2020, nods to Kimberlé Crenshaw, a lawyer and feminist scholar who coined the term “intersectionality,” a framework that underscores the way aspects of a person's social and political identities combine — or intersect — to create different modes of discrimination and privilege.

When Thomas published an “Environmentalists For Black Lives Matter” post in May last year, it went viral. The environmental movement was primed for the conversation given the Black Lives Matter movement was at the forefront of American consciousness following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers just days before.

“Social justice cannot wait,” Thomas wrote. “It is not an optional ‘add-on’ to environmentalism. It is unfair to opt in and out of caring about racial injustices when many of us cannot. These injustices are happening to our parents, our children, our family and our friends. 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.”

Following her original post, Thomas co-founded a platform for resources, information, and action steps to support intersectional environmentalism and dismantle systems of oppression in the environmental movement. Their website has information on topics such as agriculture, education, waste, fashion, infrastructure, and more. The platform has grown to nearly a quarter-million Instagram followers in less than a year, offering practical tips, thoughtful commentary on current events, and shareable graphics to spread the word.

Thomas’s work helps to drive awareness to the environmental justice movement, especially among young social media users. When more people learn about the ways environmentalism interacts with social justice, when this knowledge comes into the collective consciousness, we can begin to imagine and create a world in which all people have equal access to a safe, clean planet.

Learn about intersectional environmentalism from environmental activists and sustainability advocates by visiting intersectionalenvironmentalist.com and @intersectionalenvironmentalist on Instagram. You’ll learn about topics such as agriculture, current events, education, waste, fashion, infrastructure, and more. 

Listen to our podcast interview with Leah Thomas here.

Article Details

January 31, 2021

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