Giving Compass' Take:
- Cameron Oglesby explains the origin and meaning of intersectional environmentalism and compares the phrase to environmental justice.
- What role does terminology play in shaping social change? How can funders ensure that the environmental organizations they support actively incorporate intersectionality and justice in their work?
- Learn more in our Climate Justice collection.
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So what is intersectional environmentalism, exactly?
According to Leah Thomas, a prominent environmental influencer, intersectional environmentalism is a movement, not a moment: “It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequality. Intersectional environmentalism advocates for justice for people + the planet.”
Like the concept of anti-racism (something many green organizations released statements espousing this past summer), intersectional environmentalism suggests taking a proactive rather than a wait-and-see approach to dismantling the systems of white supremacy within eco-spaces. Many fans of the expression said they considered intersectionality to be the driving force behind this idea, a set of morals to guide them in the traditional environmental movement.
Thomas’ definition advocates for a more inclusive form of environmentalism, one interwoven with the anti-racist principles linked back to the Black Lives Matter movement. The biggest green organizations say they care about diversity but are still overwhelmingly white? That’s an intersectional environmental issue. Your local college has a recycling program but doesn’t teach environmental justice in the classroom? That’s an IE issue too. Low-income communities and people of color are more likely to be exposed to polluted air, soil, and water? Check, check, check.
But not everyone is clear on this movement’s new vocab, including some of the environmental movement’s biggest equity figures. “I’m not mad at anybody for coining a new term but that’s it. It’s a term,” said Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University who is known as the “father” of the environmental justice movement.
Bullard says Thomas’ definition sounds familiar … because it’s basically the same as environmental justice. “It doesn’t signify anything different than what we have already developed and institutionalized in the work,” he said. “It’s a catchy concept. It’s trendy, it’s sexy. But how does it apply on the ground in communities that are fighting environmental racism?”
Intersectional environmentalism serves as a kind of generational marker. Even the word intersectionality, coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, means different things to different age groups. To many older millennials and their forebears, it is an overly wordy and academic addition to perfectly good terminology already in existence; a movement can be intersectional, but intersectionality is not a movement in itself, they say.
But young people say those arguments miss the point. Gen Zers don’t relate to intersectionality because it’s fun to say (it’s not). The appeal comes from its framework, which emphasizes the idea that everyone’s individual worldview is shaped by many overlapping identities and privileges. By putting words to those differences, one acknowledges the need for a deeper kind of commitment to fighting racial injustices, especially when it comes to the mainstream environmental movement. That, they say, makes it a separate entity from its predecessor.
“The intersectional environmentalist ‘movement’ is trying to make it mandatory that you’re advocating for Black and brown lives,” Thomas said, “or else you might as well not call yourself an environmentalist.”
Read the full article about intersectional environmentalism by Cameron Oglesby at Grist.