How to Be an Intersectional Environmentalist…and Why There is No Other Way to Be One
By: Josephine Agueci
"While the basis of environmentalism is taking action to protect the environment, I have noticed that many of us in this space often forget to ask the question, “for whom?”" - Josephine Agueci
Image: Alexandra Bowman, The NYT
As someone who has been a part of the environmentalist community for several years, I have always been inspired by the passion of those around me in advocating for a more sustainable world. While the basis of environmentalism is taking action to protect the environment, I have noticed that many of us in this space often forget to ask the question, “for whom?”. Until recently, as a person who has grown up with various privileges, my answer has always been, “for everyone; all humans, all species, and for future generations”. While I still believe this to be true, I now know that meaningful environmentalism is much more nuanced than that.
As a graduate student studying sustainability management, much of my studies have been focused on intersectional environmentalism, a concept that I am confident needs to be at the foundation of all sustainability education and environmentalist actions. Intersectional environmentalism is an inclusive form of environmentalism that advocates for both people and the planet, recognizing the interconnectedness of injustices to the natural world and to marginalized communities. As environmental injustices and inequities disproportionately impact vulnerable and racialized communities, advocating for social justice, including racial justice and Indigenous rights, must be at the forefront of all meaningful environmentalism.
"Intersectional environmentalism is an inclusive form of environmentalism that advocates for both people and the planet, recognizing the interconnectedness of injustices to the natural world and to marginalized communities."
As someone interested in how you can fit into the movement and become a more impactful environmentalist, it is important to consider how your actions can centre around intersectionality. That is, the interconnected nature of social categories such as race, class, gender, and sexuality, and how these identities contribute to the forms of environmental privilege or discrimination individuals may experience.
For instance, while encouraging everyone to purchase less packaged food and more organic produce is a good way to reduce pollution, it is not inclusive in that it is inconsiderate of cost differences and the prevalence of food deserts. Another example is fast fashion, a topic I am particularly passionate about; although the issue is caused predominantly by those of us with disposable income, we cannot encourage people to change without considering the inclusivity of available alternatives. Many sustainable fashion companies, for instance, have below-average size options and have histories of racial discrimination within their management teams. There are many complex issues to consider, so it is important to bring these to the forefront to ensure that our environmentalism does not just benefit more privileged individuals and communities. Environmental issues are never simply just about the environment.
"We cannot encourage people to change without considering the inclusivity of available alternatives."
Shifting your environmentalism towards intersectionality begins with becoming educated on the ways in which environmental racism and injustices prevail within society. Take the time to learn and unlearn through reading about historical civil rights and environmental movements, environmentalism from the perspective of Indigenous, Black, and POC individuals, and environmental justice in general.
When absorbing sustainability-related information, be sure to consider diverse perspectives and the complexity of the issues at hand. Further, it is integral to take what you’ve learned and unlearned and place it at the forefront of your environmentalism. Advocate for climate justice by highlighting its interconnection with systemic racism, for example. Be explicit with who environmental issues impact the most, and help people to understand why this is the case and how we can work to dismantle unjust systems. Even more important than sharing what you’ve learned and unlearned is amplifying underrepresented voices. An intersectional environmentalist does not attempt to help non-white people in a self-serving manner (“white saviourism”) but rather uses their privilege to uplift the voices of individuals, communities, and organizations who are already fighting against local environmental injustices. Finally, use your vote and your dollar, along with your voice, to strive for change.
At the heart of environmentalism is a desire to make the world a better place. Intersectional environmentalism is a more robust form of environmentalism which considers environmental racism, focusing on actions which challenge the systems that perpetuate injustices faced by marginalized communities. After all, the world is not a better place unless it is a better place for everyone.
To continue your journey towards meaningful, intersectional environmentalism, start by visiting Intersectional Environmentalist, a media and resource hub, Environmental Justice Canada, a Canadian environmental justice research group, and Ecojustice Canada, a non-profit law organization supporting environmental justice for all.
About the Author: Josephine Agueci (Sustainability Management Student, Intersectional Environmentalist)
Josephine is passionate about intersectional environmentalism, sustainability education, and community engagement. She is currently a graduate student in the Masters of Science in Sustainability Management program at the University of Toronto Mississauga and also works at the school’s Sustainability Office as a Sustainability Operations Assistant. Josephine believes in the ability of people to make positive changes in the world if they come together synergistically, finding strength in their individuality and value in their differences. In her spare time, you’ll find her on a picnic, reading, doing yoga, baking, or spending time in nature.