Environmental Justice and Privilege

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The first wave of environmentalism that arose in the latter half of the last century was largely a white movement that grew out of idealism and a romantic picture of nature. It centered around the preservation of nature for the sake of nature rather than the impact that environmental destruction had on people’s lives, in particular the lives of marginalized peoples. It was therefore far removed from the lived experiences of people faced with the consequences of environmental destruction.

In the face of climate change the environmental movement has had to think in more global terms than ever. Terms like environmental justice and climate justice attempt to capture the intersectionality between environmentalism and other forms of social injustice, particularly wealth inequality and racism. And yet even today the environmental movement is largely a white movement, or at least the mainstream environmental movement is largely disconnected from grassroots environmental justice activism. By excluding people of color from the environmental movement, we are painting a picture in which only white people care about sustainability, instead of one where people of color care strongly about these issues and how they pertain to their communities, and where they are recognized as an integral part of the environmental movement.

One problem is that environmentalism and sustainability mean completely different things to different people. While to one person it might mean buying vegetables at the local farmer’s market or putting solar panels on their roof, for someone else it might mean demanding clean air or reliable access to drinking water. It is therefore important to realize that our experiences with nature are largely defined by our privilege. We cannot ignore the intersectionalities surrounding the environmental movement. This holds true within the US, but even more so across countries.

What does it mean when Hilary Clinton pats herself on the back after the Paris climate agreement while countries across the world are already experiencing increased droughts and famines as a result of climate change. Similarly, how much does it really help if a wealthy Palo Alto tech entrepreneur spends thousands of dollars on a Tesla while communities in Richmond are still faced with the pollution of the oil refinery?

We can so conveniently ignore these other struggles that are not directly connected to our own lives and pick out the aspects of environmentalism that appeal to us and fit comfortably into our privileged life styles, but in order to create a movement that addresses all people’s concerns with regard to the environment they live in, we need to understand how our own privilege influences the ways in which we interact with, and seek to protect, the environment.

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