For many years, the mainstream environmental movement has been propagated by white, middle-class individuals speaking out against issues such as DDT in the 1960s and 1970s, and throughout the last century, the conservation of natural spaces in the face of industrial development. While these are important causes, and gains have been made in both areas, it is important to consider the perspectives that have long been left out of the environmental movement, and those being most affected by environmental crises now, namely climate change. BIPOC face many systematic, environmental issues, including issues related to clean drinking water, vulnerability to natural disasters, and close proximity to waste facilities and harmful industrial centers. Despite the overwhelmingly white landscape of American environmentalism, environmentalists need to pivot to fight for climate justice, centering racial justice at the heart of our work, and including marginalized voices in order to craft well-rounded climate solutions.
A Whitewashed Environmental Movement
Even as climate change has become a mainstream issue in the environmental movement, certain voices have still been left out of the discussion. Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color (BIPOC) often live in communities more susceptible to the effects of climate change, including more frequent and harmful natural disasters, increased air pollution, and sea level rise for those living in small, island communities. Voices from these communities are systematically excluded from decision-making processes, despite their wisdom and experience dealing with the burden of climate change. Few are aware of the plight of marginalized communities, and the climate solutions being crafted now often favor those making the decisions, primarily white and older individuals with less at stake in our changing climate.
Some activists do not consider this to be a flaw of the movement– often, these are individuals unaware of the effects of climate change on under-represented communities, or those unwilling to compromise or shift their own views to accommodate others. These activists need to change their viewpoint in order to truly create effective, lasting change that helps the many, not just the few. Only solving issues pertinent to one’s own situation is a narrow-minded way to address any challenge, but creates particular problems for minorities disproportionately affected by this crisis. It is crucial now more than ever to adapt the environmental movement to be inclusive and considerate of marginalized perspectives, a change which needs to be embraced wholeheartedly by privileged individuals in power, who hold decision-making sway and influence.
Indigenous communities have long been at the forefront of conservation and preservation of natural spaces, albeit without the support of mainstream environmentalists. In approaching the climate crisis, it is crucial to listen to the wisdom of Indigenous voices, who have often watched the earth change in ways others are unaware of. Because of their close connection to local ecosystems, Indigenous communities have seen our changing climate and how it has affected both their ways of life and the success of plants and wildlife. By working alongside these activists to preserve their ways of life, all activists can come to terms with traditional solutions, and realize the importance of saving our climate for these communities, who often have little say in decision-making processes. Individuals like Gaagigeyaashiik (Dawn Goodwin) are mobilizing in their own communities, and deserve the support and recognition of activists everywhere. Websites like Our Climate Voices seek to tell stories from Indigenous communities and others, in the hopes of educating others about the effect of climate change on these communities, and spreading awareness.
Decision-Making and Division
In light of the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, many are now becoming aware of the idea of environmental racism. Many, like writer Sophie Mackin for Medium, are now tracing the current climate inequalities back to “the legacy of colonialism, slavery, and exploitation”. Decisions made by powerful white people have left BIPOC disproportionately affected by pollution and waste, more likely to lack access to clean drinking water, and more likely to have their communities damaged by natural disasters, without the economic ability to move or defend against these disasters.
By recognizing this, it is easy to see the ways in which BIPOC have been left out of decision-making, and harmed by the decisions resulting from these historic systems. To move past this heinous past, it is crucial that we “work together to finally stop promoting the economics of extraction and instead incorporate social justice into economic decision-making”, according to Sophie Mackin. Elizabeth Yeampierre identified the ways in which the same can be said of the modern environmental movement, which she says was “built by people who cared about conservation, who cared about wildlife, who cared about trees and open space… but didn’t care about black people”. We need to both modify our decision-making systems to include these voices, but also seek out solutions that help and support BIPOC communities, instead of upholding systems that benefit white people.
How To Support Marginalized Communities
As climate activists now become aware of the harm facing BIPOC communities, it is crucial that we step back and truly ask how we can best support these communities, and include them in decision-making in the climate movement. Becoming an “intersectional environmentalist” means advocating for “both the protection of people and the planet”. It means putting marginalized voices and opinions at the forefront of our work, and discarding solutions that do not meet the needs of these communities. There are many ways to further this cause.
We, as climate activists, should be including BIPOC activists in our work, and asking who is missing from our movements. Listening to and learning from these activists is incredibly important as well, and it is up to white activists to take the initiative and educate themselves. Take it from these two young women, who were united by climate activist Bill McKibben in order to educate the general public about the effect of climate change in both of their very different homes of Greenland and the Marshall Islands. They want others to consider how our actions affect their homelands, and listen to their heartbreaking stories, not only with the intention of educating ourselves, but also with the goal to act in order to truly help these communities.