Making environmentalism less about me: Working toward a better world for marginalized communities

I am trying to make my approach to environmentalism less about me. For so long, my attempts at living more sustainability have been haphazard at best and driven by a vague sense of “helping the planet” and limiting my family’s exposure to harmful ingredients.

Perhaps that’s because the “why” behind environmentalism can feel a little intangible and far off. A child of the 80s and 90s, I remember thinking that environmentalism was about saving the planet (thank you, Captain America), making our town look more beautiful (don’t be a litterbug), being more waste-conscious (reduce, reuse, recycle), and protecting endangered animals (save the whales!). When I got older, “global warming” and “climate change” became part of the popular environmental lexicon, with activists like Al Gore arguing that we should save the planet so generations in the future wouldn’t have to pay for our extravagant wastefulness.

These reasons for saving the planet are important – but, as I would later learn, they’re also a little incomplete. Often missing from conversations about environmentalism were how racism and historic inequalities affect which communities are most impacted by climate change and pollution, and how real people right now are experiencing the effects of environmental racism and classism.

Now, I’m trying to approach sustainability from an environmental justice lens – to not just think about preserving the Earth, but also protecting the most vulnerable people in it.

I feel a responsibility to work toward a world where everyone can live in a place that sustains them.

Environmental Justice: What It Is

Environmental justice expands upon environmentalism by looking at sustainability through a social justice lens. For example, an environmentalist point of view may encourage restrictions on dumping certain chemicals because they’re harmful to human health and the environment. An environmental justice point of view would agree with this statement but would go further by observing that toxic dumping occurs more frequently in communities of color and in poorer areas; by advocating for laws that prevent such disparities; and by working to create practices that spread environmental benefits rather than concentrating these perks in whiter, wealthier areas.

This is because non-white communities and poor communities tend to bear the brunt of environmental pollution as well as its physical and mental effects. In A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind, Harriet A. Washington demonstrates how African Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color are exposed to environmental toxins at much higher rates than white Americans. Businesses and municipalities have historically placed toxin-producing facilities and waste sites in communities of color and poorer areas, ignored evidence that showed residents experienced health problems due to toxic exposure, and, sometimes, continued practices they knew exposed residents to dangerous pollutants (for two especially chilling examples, read about Monsanto’s pollution of Anniston, Alabama and the federally-funded Kennedy Krieger Institute study in which researchers were found to have knowingly exposed residents to lead).

And while race is the biggest determiner of whether your home is exposed to environmental toxins and pollutants, poverty is another factor – even though poor neighborhoods tend to subsidize improvements that benefit more affluent neighborhoods.

Why You Should Care

The effects of environmental racism and classism can be devastating. Pollutants cause myriad physical and mental health ailments, contributing to higher rates of asthma (air pollution), hyperactivity and cognitive decline (lead), motor dysfunction (methylmercury), diabetes (air pollution), anxiety (infection epidemics like influenza and potentially Covid-19), and possibly Alzheimer’s (airborne iron particles).

These effects are almost entirely preventable. Improved legislation and enforcement, better business practices, and equitable representation in national and local government (i.e., no voter suppression and gerrymandering) can make the difference. So can our own practices as individuals.

What You Can Do About It

If you’re like me, you want to do something, but feel overwhelmed about where and how to start. First, know that this is incremental work. Going from shopping at Old Navy to spinning our own yarn is not likely to happen for most of us. Second, you don’t have to be an expert to begin. I’m definitely not! But I am willing to make a start – to lessen our family’s environmental impact and to grow in our advocacy for others. Here’s a little of what I’m doing to get started – I hope you’ll consider joining me.

1. Believe victims instead of blaming them.

In A Terrible Thing to Waste, Washington notes how often victims are blamed for circumstances caused by derelict landlords, businesses, and governments. Often, this victim-blaming leans on racist or classist stereotypes. For example, lead poisoning was blamed on people of color’s supposed lack of housekeeping – rather than chipping paint and lead dust in landlord-controlled housing, or the paint industry’s long denial that lead causes mental problems, even though lead’s dangers have been known in the industry since at least the early 1900s. Also, “lazy” behaviors attributed to Southerners were actually symptoms of anemia brought on by hookworm. The parasite tended to enter the feet of those who walked outside barefoot, often because they couldn’t afford adequate footwear.

Part of environmental justice is centering traditionally marginalized voices. That means believing people when they notice higher rates of physical and mental ailments in their community. Had officials – and the nation as a whole – listened to the residents of Flint, Michigan, perhaps more people could have been saved from exposure to unconscionably high lead levels.

2. Support advocates nationally.

On the national scale, I’m voting for candidates who advocate for communities of color and poor communities, and who hold businesses and municipalities accountable for harmful practices. Nationally, you can also support organizations like Earth Justice or the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, two organizations that Washington recommends in A Terrible Thing to Waste. Both organizations advocate on behalf of people experiencing the effects of environmental injustice and work to hold entities accountable for harmful actions.

3. Participate in local government and support the entire community.

Locally, we can often have great impact, as many decisions about where to place dumps, toxic sites, and the businesses and processes that produce them are made at the local or state level. We can vote for candidates who engage with the community, who hold derelict businesses and municipalities accountable, and who advocate for spending taxpayer money in a way that benefits the entire community, rather than the whitest and most affluent neighborhoods. We can also support community activists with donations, publicity, or volunteerism.

Keep in mind that mitigating the effects of environmental racism may not look like planting a tree but instead simply supporting programs that benefit marginalized residents. For example, a healthy diet, access to adequate healthcare, and early childhood education are important ways to lessen the effects of some types of environmental toxin exposure. Supporting food banks, community health centers, and education programs through financial donations or volunteerism can therefore be important ways of providing resources for those experiencing the effects of environmental pollution.

4. Live more sustainably.

For me, living sustainably is challenging; I drive an SUV, I get takeout way too often, and my bathroom cabinet is filled with more plastic skincare bottles than I care to admit. So, I’m trying to take steps toward sustainability with the intention of making larger strides as I continue.

At home, I’m working to reduce the amount of plastic packaging I purchase. Yes, most plastic is technically recyclable, but a lot of plastic still ends up in landfills, and landfills are more likely to be situated near communities of color or poor communities. I’m starting very small by buying soap bars instead of body wash in plastic bottles, using concentrates instead of buying multiple spray bottles of cleaners, and completely finishing a product before getting a new one so I don’t end up with fifty million quarter-full bottles of shampoo.

A second thing we’re doing is being greener in the kitchen. This means wasting less food, choosing takeout options that use sustainable packaging, and eating less meat and fish (meat consumption is a notoriously high contributor to environmental pollution).

Finally, I’m buying clothes made of biodegradable natural fibers and that are made ethically and sustainably. I do this not only to reduce my own environmental harm, but also to signal to the fashion industry that there is money to be made in being sustainable, environmentally just, and racially conscious. Fast fashion not only has a short shelf-life, it also tends to exploit poor workers and contribute to environmental pollution through use of toxic dyes and other production chemicals.

When I can, I buy clothes from brands like Selva Negra (a Latina and Filipina-owned brand I’m excited to try), Amour Vert, Laude the Label, Harvest and Mill, or Emerson Fry, which use ethical manufacturing practices, sustainable production, and natural fibers. These are pricier options, so when paying full price feels out of reach, I keep an eye out for sales or buy secondhand clothes from places like Poshmark and Ebay.

The Privilege of Choice

Having choices is a privilege. Our family has had the choice to live in a part of our city that has not historically experienced the effects of environmental racism. We also have the ability to make choices that limit our exposure to certain toxins and that reduce our carbon footprint. Because of that, I feel a responsibility to work toward a world where everyone can live in a place that sustains them.

Please know this blog post is not a judgement. Many of us, including me, have a lot of work to do. Instead, consider this post an invitation to become more aware of environmental justice and what you can do to make the world a better place.

3 responses to “Making environmentalism less about me: Working toward a better world for marginalized communities”

  1. Thank you, Irie, for this compassionate and practical posting about environmental justice. Thanks, too, for sharing about clothing labels you look for.

  2. […] Professionally, my goal has been to look for opportunities to address equity in the projects I participate in. This means bringing in team members that can evaluate the socioeconomic impact of a project or working on projects that advance sustainability (BIPOC communities are disproportionately affected by climate change). […]

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