Environmental injustice always has been, and always will be, inextricably linked to racial injustice. For centuries outsiders and colonists have exploited foreign lands and indigenous peoples for their labor and resources, often causing irreparable harm. Today with the demands on the planets natural resources on the rise, the infliction on vulnerable populations continues with an upsurge in environmental degradation, destruction of habitat, pollution, and human rights abuses. Unfortunately, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities around the world are frequently the first to be affected. Many of these communities, are losing their homes and loved ones from hazards associated with drilling, mining, the building of dams, deforestation, polluting factories, large scale agriculture, new roads, and other destructive activities. Defending their lands can not only be dangerous, but their problems are often underrepresented in the media. BIPOC activists oftentimes face violence and racism when speaking up. A bigger, more inclusive space needs to be opened to peoples of all races, religions, and cultures in the environmental movement, so that deeper problems can be addressed and we can begin to all work together to protect the one planet we all share.
The Amazon Rainforest displays some of the greatest examples of climate and environmental injustice throughout history. Indigenous communities in the Amazon have dealt with capitalist-driven intrusion for centuries, causing trauma to both the land and its people. When foreigners started exploring the rainforest after Pizarro’s conquest of the Incas in 1532, they brought disease and violence with them as they searched for precious resources to profit from. This initial intrusion killed many natives and started a long history of exploitation and ethnocide in the rainforest. From the horrible environmental and cultural atrocities from the 19th century rubber boom, to continued mining and deforestation that has increased despite warnings about the critical state of the Amazon, the entire world has treated the rainforest as an endless well of wealth with little regard for its well-being, including the people that live within it. What’s worse is that many indigenous and local peoples are extremely impoverished, vulnerable, and easily exploited by outsiders for their cheap labor. These susceptible populations ironically participate in the destruction of the forests they call home just to feed and clothe their families. Those who do speak out against the injustice and deforestation risk being killed. A recent rise in murders of indigenous Amazonians activists proves the continued violence and injustice connected to climate change.
Many places in the world have experienced similar, climate-related problems. Increased flooding caused by climate change disproportionally affects disadvantaged populations- especially poor, coastal countries. Bangladesh, for example, experienced Cyclone Amphan in May and then torrential rain and flooding late July. These disasters have wiped out homes, crops and livelihoods in the developing country, even though it emits much less carbon than many other countries. The United Statesis not protected from climate-related disasters either. When hurricanes Katrina and Maria hit New Orleans and Puerto Rico, marginalized communities suffered most because of they lived in places with poor infrastructures and were unable to get adequate resources in time. It’s not a coincidence that these same communities who are more vulnerable to natural disasters are also more vulnerable to contracting and dying from COVID-19. These links are proof of systematic racism and neglect, both domestically and internationally.
The United States has plenty of its own examples of environmental and social injustice. Many low-income housing developments, for example, are built in high-risk flood zones because the land is cheaper to build on. Socio-economic disadvantages make it hard for residents to leave, and disasters can be devastating when they occur. Air pollution is another factor that disproportionally affects Black communities, especially in the South’s Caner Alley– an 85-mile stretch that hosts over 150 oil plants. And of course, there is long and ugly history of violence between the country’s Native and the US government, which encouraged systematic killings, cultural suppression, and many instances of Native American displacement in the name of manifest destiny. Incidents like the Dakota Access Pipeline prove the continued disregard of their land, culture, and well-being. Native tribes around the world still experience similar disruption as their cultures and homes are not prioritized over profit from big corporations and governments.
Because BIPOC communities are so disproportionally affected by climate change, and because they are oftentimes deeply connected to the land they live on, it is not surprising that people of color are more concerned about climate change than Whites. A recent poll conducted in the USA from Yale and George Mason University highlights levels of climate change consideration in different communities. Findings indicate that Hispanic/Latino and Black Americans are more alarmed, and more willing to take action than Whites.
Despite these reactions to Climate Change, activism in the United States lacks diversity. Many of the names associated with environmentalism, such as Rachel Carson, Al Gore and Greta Thunberg, are White. A 2018 study from Dorceta Taylor revealed an astounding lack of minority representation in environmental organizations’ staff and board positions (less than 20%), and a decline in reporting diversity data since her initial study on diversity in environmental organizations in 2014. This proves that environmental organizations are not putting in the proper work to be more inclusive. This is a problem because it means that these organizations are less likely to reach or be trusted by BIPOC communities who are experiencing the effects of the climate crisis firsthand. The whiteness of environmentalism in the United States is rooted in privilege, racism, and systematic suppression, and it needs to be addressed in order to create more comprehensive solutions.
Even though more diversity is needed, everyone must still continue to play a role to mitigate the affects of climate change and environmental degradation. The climate crisis needs all the attention it can get. Organizations like Green 2.0 must continue to play a role for educating and empowering the BPOC community. The representation by BIPOC communities isn’t just a simple matter of hiring a more diverse staff – it’s a systemic issue that will take time and investment. When people of color don’t have the same education and networking capabilities as their White counterparts, they are oftentimes not included in the conversation. Another issue is that socio-economically disadvantaged communities are too busy struggling to feed their families or battling the racist system. This has been particularly true in the COVID-19 era, which is why the proposed Green Recovery plans could benefit both the environment and society.
It is all peoples responsibility to acknowledge the race gap and make up for it. This means listening to BIPOC communities, giving them platforms to speak from, speaking up for them, and working with- not around- them. Initiatives like the Sunrise Movement have been more active in these demands since the killing of George Floyd in May, and it is crucial that this momentum continues. Reaching out to activists who are familiar with their community and its specific need, and asking “How can I use my privilege and my skills to help you achieve your goal?” is the kind of collaboration that needs to happen.Thankfully we’re getting closer and closer to getting there, but we still have a long way to go.