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Why Climate Activists Need To Pay Attention To The Black Lives Matter Movement




When I first started learning about sustainability, I realized that there is a huge racial underbelly that tends to accompany the notion of green living. It is not often discussed, nor is it really visible - after all, what does race even have to do with sustaining the environment? As it turns out, much more than I initially thought. 


Regardless of how sustainable you are, interest in sustainability often starts with the resources you may come across and which of it may capture your attention. For many of us, that would be the internet, which is  arguably the largest free network available for resources on almost any topic. If you are a social media user who enjoys following sustainable influencers or content creators, or enjoy educating yourself on environmental matters, you may have noticed that many individuals who are part of this green movement appear to be white. Of course, there are many environmentalists who aren’t, and it is important to recognize that there is still somewhat of a stigma around people of colour (POC) who are interested in sustainability.  


If I look homewards at my brown community and within my South African background, many POC I have encountered don’t understand the importance of sustainable living. My efforts to start a conversation about the topic are often met with dismissive behaviour and laughter, especially when they discover that I am a vegetarian. “What kind of brown person are you if you don’t eat meat” and “It’s the government's priority to take care of the environment” are common responses that I often hear. Some individuals see sustainable living as a white and elitist way of being, and not something which they can (afford to) do themselves. Based on my personal experience, many of these individuals also happen to be minorities. 


The issue is, minorities are the very people who need to be having these conversations with each other as studies have proven time and time again that many black, indigenious and people of colour (BIPOC) communities are the ones who are heavily impacted by climate change. Minorities are more likely to live near toxic facilities and poorer minority communities may not have access to healthcare, health services and health insurance.  When discussing environmental injustice and race, we should also look at the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM)  movement for various reasons. 


BLM is a global pro-black (not anti-white) movement which actively seeks to end racial inequality and aims to generate discussions centering around police brutality. The incidents of police brutality being referred to here happens specifically in the US and was founded in 2013, a year after the murder of Trayvon Martin. Since Martin’s death, BLM has gained significant traction, especially these past few weeks after the murder of George Floyd. For many environmentalists, the conversation about how the environment and race go hand in hand is a topic that is slowly being spoken about. Another hashtag movement that has started to trend online is #EnvironmentalistsForBlackLivesMatter. Racial tensions and inequality are being addressed, as we acknowledge how severely communities of colour are impacted by climate change, and how climate leaders are ultimately the ones who are able to protect BIPOC. 


One example of this can be seen through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tradition of protecting vulnerable communities. These communities include people of colour, indigenous populations and individuals from low income backgrounds. This tradition is one that Mustafa Ali, a former environmental justice leader, pleaded with Scott Pruitt (the administrator for EPA) to uphold after he resigned. Since then, Trump signed an executive order which reversed policies previously put in place by Obama, policies which were intended to slow down the impact of global warming and protect air quality in the US. This notion significantly puts indigenous people at risk, with Ali stating that, “It is a very clear indication, especially for vulnerable communities, that their lives don’t seem to matter to this administration.”


Environmentalists are publicly discussing ways to solve the climate crisis, especially as racial injustice is revealing itself to be more visible than we had previously realized - it exists in our own backyards. It also exists in many different parts of our world, the very world which we as environmentalists are aiming to sustain. Sequently, #EnvironmentalistsForBlackLivesMatter stands for intersectional environmentalism and acknowledges that dismantling white supremacy is environmentalism and states that if you are not helping the BLM movement, you probably shouldn’t be calling yourself an environmentalist. 


After all, Black Lives Matter is not just a hashtag and it is certainly not just about police brutality in the US. Instead, it also addresses the old systems which have taken new forms, speaks up about how colonial power structures have arguably allowed many developed countries benefit from the exploitation of BIPOC people and land, and how that is still rampant in today’s society. Environmentalists standing up for the BLM movement means that many green activists are acknowledging how our society is dehumanizing and devaluing black culture, land and lives. It advocates for justice - both for the planet and for the people who live in it.  #EnvironmentalistsForBlackLivesMatter further argues that, in order to protect the planet we seek to sustain, we need to tackle environmental injustice and to do that, we need to tackle racial injustice. 


The message from #EnvironmentalistsForBlackLivesMatter is clear: BIPOC individuals are an ecosystem and they need to be protected too. 


Sources:
Bliss, S., Bliss, S., Bliss, S., & Bliss, S. (2017, June 8). Stopping Climate Injustice. Retrieved from https://www.resilience.org/stories/2017-06-07/stopping-climate-injustice/

Cohen, I., Nieves, E., Fahys, J., Lavelle, M., Berwyn, B., Glick, D., … Berwyn, B. (2020, June 3). As Protests Rage Over George Floyd's Death, Climate Activists Embrace Racial Justice. Retrieved from https://insideclimatenews.org/news/02062020/george-floyd-racial-justice-police-brutality-environment-climate-activism

Instagram post via @greengirlleah about Intersectional Environmentalism - https://www.instagram.com/p/CAvaxdRJRxu/

People of Color Are on the Front Lines of the Climate Crisis. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.greenamerica.org/climate-justice-all/people-color-are-front-lines-climate-crisis



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