Intersectional Environmentalism

by - June 18, 2020

Following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Artery and international outcry over police brutality in the US and systemic racism which plagues societies all over the world, many people have educated themselves on these issues more than ever before. Thus, for the first time, black women have topped the paperback charts for both fiction and non-fiction writing in the UK (Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race, and Bernardine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other), which prompted criticism of the publishing industry over why it's taken this long. Countless petitions have been circulated via generating over 100,000 signatures so parliament has to debate them (links to which are at the end of this post). Protests have broken out, forcing communities to examine why we still have statues of slavers and colonisers, and anti-racism has been at the forefront of everyone's mind in the past couple of weeks.

Conservationists are no exception, and have been engaging in this global conversation. At most climate change protests, or really whenever climate change is mentioned, you often hear the phrase: there is no climate justice without social justice. Intersectional environmentalism advocates for both the protection of the planet, and of people, whereby social issues are valued as highly as environmental issues.

The human-element of conservation is as prevalent  if not more  than any other animal. While the term "wildlife conservation" emphasises the importance of wildlife, conservation as a discipline centres around people. The needs of people, the impacts of environmental issues on people, the reliance of people on the environment, and the promotion of cultural values and equality, are at the forefront of all conservation conundrums.

Leah Thomas wrote a beautiful article for Vogue entitled "Why Every Environmentalist Should Be Anti-Racist".  In the article she explains how social justice can often be seen as an add-on to environmental justice campaigns, instead of a core element of those campaigns. To believe we can solve environmental issues without first tackling racism is a nonsense. The two issues are so deeply embedded within one another that to separate them is to deny such links between them, and to deny that is to deny the oppression of BAME people as a result of both environmental injustices and conservation actions.

For example, climate justice involves revolutionising our economies and infrastructure. This process will undoubtably create thousands of jobs. Who gets those jobs? Who benefits from a green economy? In the past, minority communities have been left out of these answers. ⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣

Furthermore, climate change impacts disadvantaged and minority communities more than it does anyone else. Black people are 3x more likely to die from asthma-related causes than white people (US data), 80% of people displaced by climate change are women, and 75,000 African Americans were displaced by hurricane Katrina. The impacts of that hurricane (2005) were disproportionately felt by the black community of New Orleans, and the population has not yet recovered. ⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣

Conservation historically has not been innocent of oppression and racism. The history of white conservationists in Africa, Asia and South America is an ugly one: "white saviours" telling local people what to do and how to do it. Conservation has historically followed a fortress model: acquire some land -> put a fence around it -> proclaim it a protected area for nature conservation. This has led to thousands of indigenous communities being pushed out of their homes; people who have unrivalled knowledge of the terrain and ecology have been deliberately excluded.

A vast majority of conservation efforts are still held by foreigners or descendants of colonial settlers. White foreigners often occupy higher paying jobs or managerial positions, over local people who often have greater local knowledge and experience of the land. Black voices in conservation are often lost in a sea of white, often male, voices who can shout the loudest because they're shouting from a raised platform of privilege.  Recent years have seen a move towards more inclusive, community based management, which is essential and important and we need to see more of. I found this instagram post explained the white saviour problem in conservation well. This article is also well worth a read, detailing how young black Africans are often not offered the same opportunities as young, white foreigners. I am very aware that a lot of the experiences I have had in conservation in Africa would not have been available to me if I was African, and that's just wrong. I hope to do more to right this wrong. 

Furthermore, treating environmentalism and racism as two separate entities is a luxury for white people that black people cannot afford. In this must-read article in the Washington Post by Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, "Racism derails our attempts to fight the climate crisis", she explains that not only do BAME communities experience disproportionate impacts due to climate change, but black conservationists and climate scientists cannot  simply ignore racism and focus solely on the environment. Racism makes it harder for them to do their jobs. She wrote: "Even at its most benign, racism is incredibly time consuming." Without fully understanding the toll racism has on black people and addressing it, we are doing a disservice to black people within our industryThe article is so powerful and thought-provoking: please read it.

The reason social equality cannot be treated separately from climate change & conservation is because they have 𝘯𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘣𝘦𝘦𝘯 𝘴𝘦𝘱𝘢𝘳𝘢𝘵𝘦, and they aren’t now.⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣

A lot of us are undergoing a process of unlearning the white story we have been told and replacing it with the truth. The history of racism, colonisation, slavery, and exclusion. The on-going suffering of BAME communities and structural racism present in every facet of society. The disproportionate impacts of the climate crisis on black communities. 

Be critical of who you get your information from. I have been deeply disappointed in many white conservationists I admired in the past weeks, who have said either nothing, or very little on these issues. You cannot call yourself a conservationist if your brand of conservation only focusses on wildlife or white people. 

I appreciate anyone who takes the time to read my blog. I put a lot of thought into my posts and I hope they are informative and enjoyable to read. However, I want to use this platform to amplify black voices. As a white person, it is easier for me to be seen and heard. But I can never fully understand what BAME people go through. Nor can I speak to these issues with the same authority as I am someone who learns about racism, rather than experiences it. All the articles I have linked throughout this blog post were written by black scientists/conservationists. Please, if you're reading this, read them. I am also going to link some social media accounts to follow. 

We have a responsibility to be actively anti-racist, to continue supporting the BLM movement in its entirety and to educate ourselves. Thank you again for reading and supporting this blog. 

Black conservationists to follow:

Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: if you only follow one instagram account, let it be hers. She is an incredible scientist and powerful black, female voice in this field and we should all be listening to her:

Danni Washington was the first black woman science TV host and her feed is full of stunning photos and great information:

Leah Thomas, an activist who speaks so clearly on intersectional environmentalist:

Dr Raychelle Burks. Chemistry academic with great tweets about being a scientist  and science in general:

I could go on for ages but THIS POST links several accounts and so does THIS POST. Check them both out.

Petitions to sign:

Here are some petitions for UK citizens/residents to sign. They need over 100,000 for parliament to debate that but the more they have the better! So do sign even when they're over 100,000 already. 

  1. Teach Britain's Colonial Past as part of the UK's Compulsory Curriculum:
  2. Improve Maternal Mortality Rates and Health Care for Black Women in the UK:
  3. Add education on diversity and racism to all school curriculums:
  4. Introduce Mandatory Ethnicity Pay Gap Reporting:
  5. Condemn the US government for the use of force against its citizens:
  6. Create an independent investigatory commission to help protect ethnic minorities:
  7. Making the UK education curriculum more inclusive of BAME history:
  8. Make is compulsory for Black and POC UK histories to be taught in the Welsh education curriculum:
  9. Suspend future sales of tear gas and other crowd control equipment to the USA:
If there are more that I have missed, please leave a link to them in the comments so everyone can access it. They take less than a minute to sign & confirm via email, and it really can make a difference.

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