Want to Be an Environmentalist? Start With Antiracism

Wanjiku Gatheru
·6 mins read

At face value, the issue with plastic seems simple. Every year millions of tons of plastic debris pollute the oceans and endanger wildlife. A quick Google search on the problem will reveal thousands of heartbreaking images of turtles, whales, and other wildlife succumbing to plastic terror. Thankfully, as environmental issues have made their way into the public consciousness, so has advocacy surrounding the plastic epidemic.

This month celebrated Plastic-Free July, a global movement that envisions a world free of plastic. If your timeline looked anything like mine, this translated into feeds awash with useful tips to transition to a plastic-free, zero-waste lifestyle. It’s crucial help, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The issue with plastic is far greater than a marine debris problem. The truth is the same throwaway culture that disposes our planet disposes of people too—especially people of color.

We don’t have a plastic crisis. We have an environmental justice problem. According to Robert Bullard, the father of the environmental justice movement himself, environmental justice is the principle that all people are entitled to equal environmental protection regardless of race, color, or national origin. It states that all people deserve the right to live, work, and play in a clean environment. When it comes to plastic, this standard goes unmet.

From extraction to waste disposal, these communities go without the resources or political clout needed to oppose exposure to toxic infrastructure.

Around the world, communities of color, and Black and Indigenous communities in particular, are the hardest hit by the world's growing dependence on single-use plastic. From extraction to waste disposal, these communities go without the resources or political clout needed to oppose exposure to toxic infrastructure.

The damage begins at inception. Plastic is made from fossil fuels that are extracted through fracking, a process that releases hazardous air pollutants and has been tied to a host of health problems, including birth defects, cancer, and asthma. These fossil fuels are then refined and processed into plastics in petrochemical plants. The impact on human health is catastrophic and occurs across racial lines—and it’s bigger than a few water bottles.

Look no further than St. James Parish, Louisiana, home to a predominantly Black community housed in “Cancer Alley,” an area in which residents are at the highest risk of developing cancer in the entire country. Cancer Alley also houses one petrochemical plant for every 656 residents, a tragedy that grants it a second name, the Petrochemical Corridor. In a country where the racial breakdown of the local population is the number one indicator for the placement of toxic facilities, it is no surprise that various communities of color experience similar power dynamics that reinforce environmental racism across the country.

Unfortunately, this chilling reality is not new. The environmental justice movement itself emerged in response to the 1982 dumping of PCB toxics in the predominantly Black community of Warren County, North Carolina. The movement is rooted in opposing the power dynamics that make plastic possible.

If communities of color are experiencing the worst of plastic pollution and the dynamics that make it possible, why aren’t their stories centered in the conversations surrounding the problem?

With such an obvious historic and contemporary connection, the question presents itself: If communities of color are experiencing the worst of plastic pollution and the dynamics that make it possible, why aren’t their stories centered in the conversations surrounding the problem?

Climate justice essayist Mary Heglar suggests that it comes down to framing. Or the lack of it. According to Heglar, the environmental community participates in “existential exceptionalism,” which she explains as the tendency for the movement to see existential threats like climate change and racism as contending and unrelated. BIPOC may feel like environmentalism—as a concept—is unrelated to issues that pertain to our lives.

As a Black environmentalist, I can confirm: While I grew up caring about the environment and issues like plastic pollution, I simply did not see myself as an “environmentalist.” For the majority of my life, the term sat in an ivory tower of power, privilege, and whiteness and felt inaccessible and unrelated to my well-being. While I now know this to be untrue, the exclusivity of the community remains.

While people of color make up 36% of the U.S. population, we account for only 12% to 16% of the staff of environmental organizations. This is especially frustrating because Black people are significantly more concerned about climate change than white people (57% versus 49%), and Latinx people are even more concerned (70%). It’s clear that we do care about the environment; it’s just that conventional environmentalism isn’t framed to center our lives. However, a new wave of environmentalism has gained traction and may be the answer to this problem. It’s called intersectional environmentalism.

Defined by eco-communicator Leah Thomas, intersectional environmentalism is an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for people and the planet. In acknowledging the intersectionality that is inherent in how people experience the environment, it also calls for solutions that appreciate our varied experiences. In applying this framework to the plastic crisis, intersectional environmentalism calls on us to reframe disposability, in the hopes that solutions to the crisis are built on a foundation of equity.

Much like plastic, BIPOC and other marginalized people are “thrown out” of environmental conversations, from our underrepresentation in the workplace to the way mainstream, zero-waste lifestyles often co-opt Indigenous practices and outprice low-income folks. Even well-meaning plastic solutions like plastic-straw bans have raised concerns about ableism in the sustainability community. We must do better.

If we are to solve the plastic crisis or any environmental problem, sustainability advocates must understand this—there is no such thing as “sacrifice zones” without sacrificing people. We must reimagine a world that tolerates neither.

Lucky for us, a world without plastic isn’t a far-fetched dream. The plastic crisis was created in a lifetime and has the potential to be solved within that same time frame. However, the ability to solve it rests on a willingness to rethink the way we view the problem itself. A couple years ago, I watched a TED Talk by Van Jones in which he came to a similar conclusion. He asked the following: “How can this movement be so passionate about saying we don’t have throwaway stuff, no throwaway dead materials, and yet accept throwaway lives and throwaway communities like Cancer Alley?” Eleven years have passed since its airing, yet the call to action remains the same.

Failing to recognize the plastic crisis as an environmental justice issue calls into question the integrity and effectiveness of the movement as a whole. In order to achieve a plastic-free world, we need to embrace the framework of intersectional environmentalism—in reimagining both disposability and a world worth fighting for.

Wanjiku "Wawa" Gatheru is a 21-year-old environmental justice advocate and founder of BlackGirlEnvironmentalist. She is the first Black person in history to receive the Rhodes, Truman, and Udall scholarships. You can follow her work on Twitter or Instagram.

Originally Appeared on Glamour

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