Civil rights

Explained: Why civil rights and protecting the planet go hand in hand for environmental justice


As the global ecological crisis affects more and more lives, it becomes increasingly clear that we cannot talk about climate change, pollution or loss of biodiversity let alone inequality – whether determined by gender, race, class, sexual orientation or disability. As Thenjiwe McHarris, a leading Black Lives Matter activist and co-founder of Blackbird, an organization that helps build political movements, puts it, “There is no climate justice without racial justice. There is no climate justice without gender justice. There is no climate justice without strange justice. “

In decades past, environmentalism was often touted as an elite concern – a cause for those who have the luxury of not worrying about more immediate issues like putting food on the table or resisting violence. and discrimination. But more and more, it is no longer enough to speak of “saving the planet” or “protecting nature” as if these objectives were distinct from the fight against social inequalities.

Environmental justice movement tackles environmental racism

Environmental campaigns against deforestation, waste dumping or surface mining have often been led by – or partnered with – indigenous peoples defending their land rights or communities fighting for the right to clean air , water and the health of their children.

Robert Bullard, professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University in Houston, was among the first to use the term “environmental justice” in the 1970s. He showed how entrenched models of racial injustice meant that communities of color were more likely to live in the shadow of power plants or polluting landfills, and more likely to suffer from poor health due to poor air quality.

Today, Americans of color are still exposed to 38% higher average nitrous oxide emissions than white Americans, and are 75% more likely to live in communities near oil, gas, or other facilities. polluting industries, according to a 2017 study by the Clean Air Task Force and the civil rights group The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Earlier this year, US President Joe Biden acknowledged “the disproportionate health, environmental, economic and climate impacts on disadvantaged communities” when he signed an executive order promising to “ensure environmental justice “.

But environmental racism is certainly not a problem specific to the United States. Deeply rooted prejudices against the Roma, for example, have allowed the authorities to push communities belonging to Europe’s largest ethnic minority into dangerous environments – treating them, in the words of one Roma activist, as “rubbish”. humans ”.

Global climate injustice

Globally, we are all living in a climate crisis, but we are not all in the same boat. Rich countries in the north of the planet are responsible for 92% of the historic emissions that have increased average global temperatures since the industrial revolution. Even China is only depleting its carbon budget.

Meanwhile, the countries that have benefited the least from fossil-fueled economic growth – and therefore have less money to spend to adapt to a warmer world – are taking the most damage. And when ecological disasters strike – be it climate change-induced hurricanes, floods, drought or the loss of fertile soils, forests or fish stocks – those who are already disadvantaged in because of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, class or income level tend to be the hardest hit.

The ecological crisis exacerbates inequalities

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina made many Americans wonder if climate change was now threatening its own coastal cities. But that was not the only difficult question raised by the disaster.

As black communities for evacuation and aid – and those who salvage the wreckage for food and essentials were hallmark looters – many wondered if the authorities’ response would have been any different if the News -Orléans had been a predominantly white city. Meanwhile, local media reported that some emergency shelters have turned away trans people.

One of the iconic images of Hurricane Katrina was of the wheelchair-bound body of Ethel Freeman, a 91-year-old woman who died dehydrated in the sweltering heat outside the convention center where flood escapees gathered. The American Association of Retired Persons later found that 73 percent of those who died as a result of the hurricane were over the age of 60, and the majority of those people had a health problem or disability.

These inequalities have not disappeared and are not confined to the United States. More recently, elderly and disabled people have died after failed flood evacuations in Germany and Japan. And then there’s half the world’s population who do the majority of the unpaid work in the world – like caring for children, the elderly and the infirm, and collecting water, as well as much of subsistence agriculture. These burdens increase even more in times of scarcity and disaster – when wells dry up, crops fail and human health deteriorates.

At the same time, women tend to have fewer financial resources to rely on than men. They are often the first to lose education and employment opportunities and are more likely to be pushed into early marriage. Women climate refugees, on the other hand, are at increased risk of sexual abuse and trafficking. But looking at ecological collapse from an intersectional perspective not only indicates our collective failures, it also indicates solutions.

Civil rights activists build resilience

Black communities who fought to hold businesses accountable for the pollution dumped on their doorstep were at the forefront of the fight for environmental justice long before the term became a buzzword in mainstream political debate. And many of their tactics – sit-ins, for example, and school strikes – have their roots in the civil rights movement.

LGBTQ + people, who are denied the support of family, community, church or public services, have many decades of experience in grassroots political organization, community building and advocacy. providing alternative networks for caring for and healing each other, as well as leading successful campaigns for legal change. And while some activists with disabilities have found themselves excluded by environmental movements that have failed to be inclusive, they have also been creative and experimenting with alternative ways to communicate a message of change.

Meanwhile, female-led groups – like these on the Afro-Colombian Pacific coast – are finding that organizing to protect their rights to economic independence, freedom from violence and a safe environment to raise their children goes hand in hand with the protection of the environment. Ecofeminism equates the exploitation of women’s work and bodies with the exploitation of natural resources. And it is often the same systems and attitudes that treat ecology as throwaway that place just as little value on certain areas of human life.

In the search for alternatives, it is precisely those who have a long history of resisting these systems and developing alternatives that could pave the way for a different future.