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Why civil rights and protecting the planet go hand-in-hand

Jennifer Collins
September 15, 2021

When environmental disasters strike, those already discriminated against can be hit hardest. But marginalized communities can also set a model for resilience.

DW Global Ideas Webspecial "Environmental Jusitice"
DW's environmental justice series explores the the insections between race, gender, sexual orientation and disability

As the global ecological crisis impacts ever-more lives, it is becoming clearer that we cannot talk about cimate change, pollution or biodiversity loss without talking about inequality — whether that's 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, says: "There is no climate justice without racial justice. There's no climate justice without gender justice. There's no climate justice without queer justice." 

In decades past, environmentalism was often cast as an elite concern — a cause for those with the luxury not to worry about more immediate problems like putting food on the table or resisting violence and discrimination. But increasingly, it isn't enough to talk about "saving the planet" or "protecting nature" as if these aims were distinct from addressing social inequality. 

Environmental justice movement takes on environmental racism

Environmental campaigns against deforestation, waste dumping or open-pit mining have often been led by — or joined forces 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, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Houston's Texas Southern University, was among the first to use the term "environmental justice" back in the 1970s. He showed how entrenched patterns of racial injustice meant communities of color were more likely to live in the shadow of polluting power plants or garbage dumps, and more likely to suffer ill health from poor air quality.

Today, US Americans of color are still exposed to average nitrous oxide emissions 38% higher than white US Americans, and are 75% more likely to live in communities that are next to oil, gas facilities or other polluting industries, according to a 2017 study by the Clean Air Task Force and 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 vowing to "secure environmental justice."

But environmental racism certainly isn't an issue specific to the United States. Deep-rooted prejudice against the Roma, for example, has allowed authorities to push communities belonging to Europe's largest ethnic minority into hazardous environments — treating them, in the words of one Roma activist, as "human garbage." 

Roma community, Pata Rât, Cluj, Romania
Many of the Roma community at Pata Rat were evicted from homes in the city of Cluj and forced to live on environmentally hazardous garbarage tipImage: Bogdan Dincă/DW

Climate injustice on a global scale

On a global scale, we're all living through a climate crisis — but we're not all in it together. Rich countries in the global north are responsible for 92% of the historical emissions that have been driving up global average temperatures since the industrial revolution. Even China is only just using up its carbon budget.  

What is climate justice?

Meanwhile, those countries that have benefited least from fossil-fueled economic growth — and therefore have less money to spend on adapting to a warmer world — are seeing the most damage. 

And when ecological disasters hit — whether it's climate-change-induced hurricanes, flooding, drought or the loss of fertile soils, forests or fish stocks — those already at a disadvantage because of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, class or income level tend to be hit hardest. 

Ecological crisis exacerbates inequality

Back in 2005, Hurricane Katrina prompted many US Americans to question whether climate change was now threatening its own coastal cities. But this wasn't the only difficult question the catastrophe raised. 

As Black communities for evacuation and aid — and those scavenging the wreckage for food and basic necessities were branded looters — many wondered if the authorities' response would have been different if New Orleans had been a majority white city. Meanwhile, local media reported that some emergency shelters turned trans people away.

Ugandan LGBTQ+ activist Shawn Mushiga
Ugandan Shawn Mushiga believes that the principals of permaculture can help build resilience in the LBGTQ+ community Image: Tony BlackWolf

One of the iconic images of Hurricane Katrina was that 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 congregated. The American Association of Retired Persons later found that 73% of those who died as a result of the Hurricane were over 60, and the majority of these individuals had a medical condition or disability.

These inequalities haven't gone away, and nor are they confined to the US. More recently, elderly and disabled people died after flood evacuations failed in Germany and Japan. 

And then there is the half of the world's population who do the majority of the world's unpaid work — such as care of children, the elderly and infirm, and water collection, as well as much subsistence agriculture. These burdens further increase 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 fall back on than men. They are often the first to lose educational and job opportunities and are more likely to be pushed into early marriage. Female climate refugees, meanwhile, are at increased risk of sexual abuse and trafficking.

But looking at ecological collapse from an intersectional perspective doesn't just point to our collective failures — it also points to solutions. 

Woman in mangoves forest, Colombia
The livelihoods and independence of a community of women Colombia's Pacific coast depend on clean water and healthy mangrovesImage: Lia Beltrán Valero

Civil rights activists build resilience

Black communities fighting to hold companies accountable for pollution dumped on their doorsteps were on the frontlines 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, denied support from family, community, church or public services, have many decades experience of grassroots political organizing, community building and providing alternative networks to look after and heal one another — as well as fighting 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 got creative and experimented with alternative ways of communicating a message of change.

Disabled environmental activist Samuel Flach takes part in a theater performance about defence of ancient forests, Slovenia
Disabled environmental activist Samuel Flach takes part in a theater performance about defence of ancient forestsImage: Ursha Rahne

Meanwhile, women-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 go hand-in-hand with protecting ecology. 

Ecofeminism equates the exploitation of women's labor and bodies with exploitation of natural resources. And it is often the same systems and attitudes that treat ecology as disposable that put just as little value on some sectors of human life. 

In the search for alternatives, it is precisely those with a long history of resisting these systems and developing alternatives who might lead the way to a different future.

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