Intersectionality: Changing Environmentalism for the Better

In response to the murder of George Floyd last year, environmentalist and writer Leah Thomas made an important Instagram post. The first slide contained a graphic which said “Environmentalists for Black Lives Matter,” followed by slides discussing a new term that would quickly spread: intersectional environmentalism. This viral post began an intersectional environmentalist movement for the advocacy of what Thomas described as “justice for people and the planet.”

Intersectionality theory was coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in a paper she wrote in 1989, which documented specific examples of legal loopholes that disregarded the unique challenges faced by Black womxn. Her paper led to the creation of intersectional feminism. Historically, the publicized feminist rhetoric has been mostly made up of the experiences of White womxn. Intersectional feminism works to explain how sexism can be compounded with other identities, social statuses, and experiences not acknowledged under the term “feminism.”

For example, Black queer womxn may not only experience sexism, but also discrimination based on their racial identity and sexuality. These identities can manifest into societal outcomes like one discussed in Crenshaw’s 1991 article in the Stanford Law Review. The article discusses how womxn of color are less likely to contact the police due to hostility and historic discrimination from law enforcement towards marginalized communities. Consequently, many incidents of domestic violence go unreported. Examples like this demonstrate the importance of intersectional feminism in fully understanding people’s experiences related to their multiple identities. Women gather around a table Photo by RF._.studio from Pexels When Leah Thomas was an undergraduate student in Environmental Science and Policy at Chapman University, she noticed a lack of acknowledgement and advocacy within her education for Black and Brown people despite the fact that they are more likely to be subject to the negative health outcomes associated with environmental pollution and destruction. Examples of this disparity (as described by the Princeton Student Climate Initiative) can be seen in everything, from the higher likelihood that BIPOC live in areas with bad air quality and in close proximity to hazardous waste, to the disproportionate amount of BIPOC who die of environmental causes. This disparity, often referred to as environmental racism, is the result of power structures which negatively affect people of certain identities or income levels. Because of this idea, Thomas was drawn to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectionality theory, and felt it could be applied to the environmental movement. After widespread support in the media, Thomas connected with other young environmentalists (Diandra Marizet, Sabs Katz, and Philip Aiken) to co-found the Intersectional Environmentalist platform, which now has a website and roughly 271,000 followers on Instagram.

So, what does intersectional environmentalism mean exactly? According to the Intersectional Environmentalist website, “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.” Recognition of the fact that historically oppressed groups are more often exposed to negative environmental impacts should be the focus of the environmental movement. We cannot continue to whitewash the environmental movement and ignore social justice issues. As pointed out by contributors to the Intersectional Environmentalist platform, BIPOC people and cultures worldwide have been contributing to the environmental movement since its beginnings. From restorative caretaking practices of indigenous peoples to anti-pesticide movements among Latinx and Filipinx farmworkers, these contributions and practices should not go unrecognized. It is crucial to understand how culture, social justice, human rights, and environmentalism are intertwined to make activism more inclusive and effective. Summer Field Photo by FelixMittermeier from Pixabay Given the awareness that has built in this past year about social injustices and racism in the United States, I am trying to take this year’s Black History Month to find ways to implement anti-racism and support for BIPOC communities into my life year-round. For me, thinking about intersectionality, and exploring the Intersectional Environmentalist platform has been helpful and eye-opening. While the organization is less than a year old, they have many resources on their website, including podcasts, personal essays, and a variety of resources to learn more about intersectional environmentalism as a lens and a list of BIPOC-owned businesses to support. They also have many people on their council who are doing amazing social justice and environmental advocacy work. Their Instagram features perspectives from many creators on current events and important issues, and they frequently post information about virtual events on a variety of platforms.

In a time when we need to be socially distant, it brings me hope to see people motivated to support and educate each other. Social justice and environmental movements are extremely important, and thanks to intersectional environmentalism, their connections can be identified and used to fuel change for a better future.