“We can’t save the planet without uplifting the voices of its people, especially those most often unheard."

Intersectional environmentalism takes a holistic approach to examining the issues that face people and our planet. It explores the ways in which marginalized communities are disproportionately affected by challenges such as climate change, highlighting that environmentalism must also consider culture, gender, race and more.

The BIPOC community is affected in a number of ways that are not considered or spoken about enough when looking at the impact of environmental issues on people.

As discussed in this Environment 911 piece on why its not so simple for everyone to just reduce plastic waste, environmentalism tends to skew towards and favour white, middle- to upper-class citizens. The faces of environmentalism are overwhelmingly white and racial minorities lack representation in the groups of decision-makers that control the future of the planet.

Furthermore, BIPOC are disproportionately impacted by the effects of the climate crisis due to their proximity to hazardous waste sites and chemical factories, which create toxic conditions that have severe impacts on the health of these communities. According to a study by the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, Black people are exposed to 1.5 times more airborne particulate matter than white people, and Hispanic people were about 1.2 times more exposed than non-Hispanic whites.

This is a dire problem for these communities, and if non-BIPOC are complicit in solving this problem, then we are part of it. If we are not being actively anti-racist, we are perpetuating racism.

So how can non-BIPOC work in intersectional environmentalism?

It’s time (well, it’s long overdue time, but better now than never) to take a closer look at the numerous ways that environmental challenges manifest in the BIPOC community.

Especially over the last year, the Black Lives Matter movement has gained momentum and awoken many of us to the systemically ingrained injustices that have been harming BIPOC throughout history, while our privilege has allowed us to live in ignorance.

We have a responsibility to learn, unlearn, grow and act. We must use our positions of privilege to support and be allies to BIPOC communities who have faced oppression in so many ways—climate change being one of them.

Time, mind and energy

In her article “I’m a Black Climate Expert. Racism Derails Our Efforts To Save The Planet", Ayana Elizabeth Johnson describes how racism, injustice and police brutality are harmful because of the brainpower and creative hours they steal from Black people.

“As a marine biologist and policy nerd, building community around climate solutions is my life’s work,” Ayana writes. “But I’m also a black person in the United States of America. I work on one existential crisis, but these days I can’t concentrate because of another.”

Her article goes on to ask, “How can we expect black Americans to focus on climate when we are so at risk on our streetsin our communities, and even within our own homes? How can people of color effectively lead their communities on climate solutions when faced with pervasive and life-shortening racism?”

Non-BIPOC people not only have the privilege of avoiding the disproportionate risks of climate change that are faced by the BIPOC community, but also the privilege of not having to deal with the day-to-day burden of systemic racism, fending off racial micro-aggressions, and trying to work up the ladder of white supremacy. Non-BIPOC are free of the mental and emotional turmoil of having to deal with racism every day all day, and we must step up to compensate for this unfair and unwarranted discrepancy.

So what can we do as BIPOC allies?

Education and awareness

Non-BIPOC must do our best to take the emotional labour off BIPOC people in the fight against racism. We must be actively anti-racist.

We must educate ourselves, educate others, acknowledge and prioritize marginalized communities and promote diversity. We must amplify and echo BIPOC voices, and use our voices to speak up in our own communities that are lacking understanding. Read books, watch documentaries, have conversations, listen to podcasts, attend protests, donate, support BIPOC businesses, donate time and money—do whatever you feel is right, not what you feel is comfortable. The podcast Sustainability Defined has curated a running list of resources that focus on race within the context of sustainability.

We must keep diversity top-of-mind, keep each other accountable, have tough conversations with family and friends, confront our own unconscious biases. Drop any sense of ego and defensiveness, be conscious, keep learning and growing and doing the work.

Amplification and inclusion

Leah Thomas, founder of Intersectional Environmentalistan organization committed to dismantling systems of oppression by amplifying historically silenced voices in the environmental movementstates: We cant save the planet without uplifting the voices of its people, especially those most often unheard."

It is important that, while we are fighting for environmentalism, we must fight for a planet that is sustainable for everyone. Non-BIPOC must consider BIPOC in all actions and conversations about the planet.

We must vote for BIPOC in political and professional parties, include BIPOC in sustainability conversations, and highlight them in environmental movements. Every decision and action that we make as non-BIPOC climate activists must also consider the impact on the BIPOC community. Are we being inclusive of all groups of society? Are we working to reverse the inequalities? Are we giving space and opportunity for those that have been oppressed? The way our society is structured has allowed non-BIPOC to easily neglect these considerations, so we must work to make them a conscious and consistent priority.

As BIPOC allies and environmentalists, it is important to not treat the two as mutually exclusive issues when they are so deeply intertwined. As non-BIPOC, we must do our best to use our privilege to ensure our environmental work is inclusive of everyone, for the betterment of our planet and the people on it.