Is the climate crisis also a race issue?

by Jenny Pickerill, Head of Department for the Department of Geography

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Environmentalism has long been criticised, rightly, for being too colonial, middle class, lifestyle and consumption focused, and racially white. While there are multiple varieties of environmentalism, including environmental justice movements and ‘environmentalism of the poor’, these rarely overlap or intersect with the dominant narratives and practices of environmentalism in the global north. Analysis of mainstream environmentalism identifies a variety of types of ‘othering’ in their discourses and exclusion in their political narratives.

Environmentalisms — defined as those movements who collectively and actively seek to change existing approaches and practices towards the environment — are dynamic, vibrant, and politically powerful. But environmentalism can lack inclusivity and does not always adequately incorporate issues of justice, race and ethnicity, inequality and class alongside its demands for environmental protection. Part of the problem is the chequered history of environmentalism. Support for a ‘fortress’ conservation approach where nature is protected by the exclusion of humans has obvious implications for those whose livelihoods depend on hunting or harvesting. This can be seen in how some environmental campaigns purposefully focus on saving iconic species (whales, old growth trees etc), without necessarily paying enough attention to the social justice implications (people’s jobs, traditional practices) of how this will likely disadvantage particular (often racialised) groups of people.

More recently, environmentalism advocates that humans and nature are inseparable and have to actively co-exist, moving away from a human-exclusion approach. Yet there are important questions about who gets to decide what forms of human-nature coexistence are appropriate and which are not. Here too there are examples of the ‘white saviour’ environmentalist determining how others should live, sometimes drawing upon Indigenous or Black environmental approaches, but ultimately creating stereotypes or co-opting them rather including them as equals.

Most worryingly, mainstream environmentalisms too often struggle to effectively acknowledge their own racism or the uneven impacts of their campaigns on non-white people. Environmentalism has too often considered a lack of black participants as lack of black environmental concern. There is a deeply flawed, but often repeated, belief that the lack of non-white participants in mainstream environmentalism is because of a lack of prosperity — that it is only once people have their basic needs met that they can afford to be concerned about the environment. Actually there is plenty of evidence of non-white concern for environmental issues (and black-led environmental movements and environmental justice organisations), but there is reticence for non-white activists to align themselves with mainstream environmentalism because of their exclusionary history and the failure of contemporary environmentalism to acknowledge structural problems, inequality and the need for social justice.

Social justice is central to environmentalism and it is often concerned with extending justice and equality to non-humans. But when they seemingly conflict, priority is too easily given to environmental protection over all else, with the danger that this tips over into eco-fascism. For some environmentalisms any social justice concerns, or attention to race, is purposefully downplayed in order to generate public support (and donations) for fear of these being unpalatable to their core supporters. Apart from being exclusionary, this lack of discussion of race, colonialism, classism, and intersectionality and a limited acknowledgement of the unevenness of responsibility for the environmental crises we face or a blindness to questions of justice and inequality, can hinder the productiveness and possibilities of environmentalism. In other words, this absence and lack of inclusivity ultimately reduces the effectiveness of environmentalism in seeking change.

There are many black-led environmental movements, environmental justice groups and climate justice campaigns which explicitly link environmental problems and the climate crisis to broader dynamics of social injustice. The uneven effects of capitalism invariably impact non-white populations greatest, not just in extracting labour and resources from the most marginalised, but in creating conditions where the poorest live in polluted places, or are at greatest risk of climate change. Leah Thomas’ use of the term ‘intersectional environmentalism’ to describe how environmentalism needs to be anti-racist to protect the environment and people is useful to make this need explicit.

There are also some hopeful examples of mainstream environmentalists who are (albeit slowly) shifting towards a more human-centred approach to environmental protection. There is evidence of a shift towards a more culturally appropriate and place-sensitive people-centred environmentalism. But many gaps remain, and it is important now more than ever that social justice is considered central to environmental protection, and that more support is given to non-white led environmental movements. Environmentalism is strongest when it actively includes as many people as possible, when it is inclusive, when it works through (rather than ignores) conflict, and understands that we will only survive on this planet if we find ways to co-exist and overcome injustices.

Human: putting the social in science

Putting the social in science at The University of Sheffield.