BY ANUSHA GOSWAMI
A framework of racism is now being confronted and retaught to include all marginalized communities in the conversation of climate change. This article covers the importance of intersectionality in environmentalism and the woman that started it all.
Photo by Lucas Allmann on Pexels
A History of Racism in Environmentalism
Historically, environmentalism has been inherently racist and overwhelmingly eurocentric. Spearheaded by rich, privileged men, the narrative has been focused around their needs, often neglecting the voices of BIPOC communities. When the movement of environmental stewardship took hold during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, the group he put together were all white men, many of whom followed racist ideologies, such as white supremacy and eugenics. Even John Muir, who is idolized for his philosophical descriptions of nature, was a vital part of the development of National Parks on Roosevelt’s homogenous and bigoted team. For someone so adamant to preserve the relationship between humans and nature, he failed to engage Indigenous peoples with respect, describing the Natives in the Merced River Valley of Yosemite as “dead or civilized into useless innocence” in his essay collection titled “Our National Parks". However, it was not only Muir who perpetuated this white savior complex over protecting the environment. The creation of the parks themselves was used to further colonize America — giving the settler states reason to move Native populations onto reservations and set aside wilderness areas to benefit white tourism instead. Many of the other men in Roosevelt’s conservationist circle believed in the “conservation of the race which has given us the true spirit of Americanism” and used environmentalism as a guise to pursue this goal. One of these men, Madison Grant, is even remembered for his pseudo-science white supremacist book, “The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History”, more so than his influence on Roosevelt’s conservation movement.
It is key to note that these racist ideas directly impacted how the president’s team decided to allocate their efforts to conserve nature. Roosevelt himself and Grant were especially vocal on protecting land with aristocratic qualities; they loved to talk of the beauty of the elk and buffalo that they preserved, but then hunted them. This is just one example of the ironic contrast between their prejudicial values and the credit they receive today. While some of these men may have opened the conversation about the importance of taking care of the planet, their guiding principles are inexcusable and have allowed the current climate crisis to disproportionately affect minorities.
In 1972, the Sierra Club, founded by John Muir, opposed the idea to pay special attention to underprivileged communities (since then, the Sierra Club has made improvements and is working towards equity, inclusion, and justice). More recently, many laws and regulations — such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts — were written with little to no regard for poorer communities, especially those with high populations of minorities. In early 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Trump administration dismantled infrastructure built in place to confront racial inequity, despite a new study released by the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment providing irrefutable evidence that people of color are more likely to be affected by pollution. Under the Trump administration, the EPA has stopped civil-rights investigations and fired scientists experienced in this area, creating a higher burden on people of color.
These clear inequities fueled a new movement emphasizing intersectionality.
What is Intersectionality?
The term was created by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor of Law at UCLA, to emphasize the ways gender inequality, socioeconomic issues, and racism “intersect.” Its principles confront the ways our system fails to recognize the inequities minority women face, instead of viewing feminism and racism as two different issues to tackle.
In May of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, Leah Thomas pledged to amplify BIPOC voices and rewrite the white-washed environmental narrative. Thomas, a Black environmental activist, took inspiration from Crenshaw and coined the term “intersectional environmentalism” as “an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequality.” With help from co-founders Diandra Marize, Sabs Katz, and Philip Aiken, Thomas created The Intersectional Environmentalist (IE). This new company focuses on various communities impacted by climate change and how it intersects with social justice.
With a diverse team, the IE is able to put out information from a non-Eurocentric point of view in a way that is inclusive and accessible. Some communities they cover are the Black, Latinx, South Asian, East Asian, US Indigenous, Southeast Asian, and LGBTQ+ communities, with their team still growing to include even more perspectives.
Thomas began her environmental journey working for companies like Patagonia and Kate Spade, and because of this she has seen the importance of emphasizing diversity and sustainability in large businesses. For this reason, IE also covers topics such as sustainable fashion and beauty, in addition to agriculture, education, waste, and energy. The company is still developing and expanding its connections and topics it covers, but the founders have already created a large audience in the span of a few months. With over one hundred-eighty thousand followers on Instagram and support from many environmentalists and social justice activists, this group has made significant leaps in educating the public and bringing awareness towards many issues surrounding environmentalism.
Artwork by Anusha Goswami
How Can You Help?
The most important step towards a truly intersectional environmental movement is acknowledging the systemic racism and injustice caused by a history of underrepresenting disenfranchised communities. Amplify voices of these communities instead of talking over them. A serious issue this movement faces is the idea that these communities need “saving,” - white saviorism has proved to be more harmful than beneficial. Follow BIPOC activists and support them either monetarily or through sharing their content. Finally, unlearn what we were told in the past and relearn through books, BIPOC voices, podcasts, and more. This movement can only be successful if we are willing to challenge what we were led to believe and listen to those who are trying to educate us.
Here are some activists, websites, and books you can use to be a part of this movement:
Intersectional Environmentalist Website:
Check out this list of books on goodreads.
Activists on Instagram: