Environmental Racism: And why your environmental advocacy must be anti-racist

Updated: Nov 2, 2020

First of all, I want to acknowledge that I am not an expert on this topic. Although I consider myself to be a person of colour, this alone does not make me an expert on environmental racism or racial justice in general. I experience a huge amount of privilege due to my skin colour, my proximity to whiteness (as half Japanese & half English), my class and the fact that I am an able-bodied cis-woman. However, I am unlearning and learning along with the rest of you, so I thought it was important to share this. I would recommend you take it upon yourself to do your own research. Below are some links that I have found useful in my research and some inspiring young BIPOC environmental activists who you should definitely be following if you're not already! There will also be links to organisations you can donate to if you are able to.

What is Environmental Racism?

Environmental Racism is a form of systemic racism that leads to BIPOC communities being disproportionately affected by the burden of climate change or environmental damage. Through discriminatory policy-making and enforcement of laws, BIPOC communities are forced to live in close proximity to places that could have negative impacts on their health and safety such as landfills, hazardous waste sites and industrial facilities. Racism and discrimination mean BIPOC communities (and low-income communities) will be most at risk of experiencing the life-threatening impacts of an increasingly unpredictable climate. Of course, Environmental Racism isn't a new idea. The term was originally coined by Benjamin Chavis, a Black civil rights activist/leader, in 1982. He highlighted that 'policies are deliberately targeting BIPOC and excluding them from positions of power'.

Deniers of environmental racism may say that income has more of an impact on your proximity to pollution (as well as other forms of environmental damage), and although income plays a role, race is a far more accurate indicator for this than class. There is also the very real issue that the people who contribute least to the climate crisis, are the most affected by its impacts. In fact, the richest 10% are responsible for over half of the world's global carbon emissions, while the poorest half of the world's population only contribute 10%. You don't need to be an expert to see that the planet is experiencing a higher frequency and intensity of natural disasters like tornados, cyclones, floods and forest fires. The people most affected by these disasters are the same people who are contributing very little to their increased frequency.

The recent bush fires in Australia, although extremely damaging to entire communities and wildlife affected, the legacies of colonialism and racism meant the indigenous peoples of Australia were uniquely impacted by the fires. Sacred land and culturally significant sites burned to the ground, erasing much of what was left after the gruesome history of 'colonisation'. If you're not well versed on Austr alian history, I would really recommend you educate yourself. Even if you're not a white Australian, white people everywhere should know of the brutality of the British invaders and the current government. The loss experienced during the bushfires is made all the more troublesome when you're aware of the fact that the people most affected by the fires are the same people who contribute least to the climate crisis AND hold the answer to preventing the fires. Aboriginal Australians have taken care of the land for thousands of years and have the knowledge to prevent fires but because of racism, they are excluded from positions of power, where they could have a huge impact on policy and decision making.

Image Source: Artwork by Kika Mcfarlane

(https://www.kikamacfarlane.com) (https://www.instagram.com/p/CB_DP4AHXo6/ )

Excluding BIPOC communities from the environmental conversation is not only damaging because of its direct impact on their communities, but also because it excludes entire cultures and experiences that are deeply rooted in the advocacy of the planet and all its people. Exclusion of BIPOC communities is actually hindering our fight against climate change. In the US, 57% of Black people and 70% of Latinx people are concerned about the state of the planet, compare that to only 49% of white people and it is clear that we are excluding a huge part of society from the conversation. White people have long dominated 'environmental advocacy' spheres, some of your favourite environmental organisations will have largely white leadership teams. Even the fact veganism is generally associated with white women eating smoothie bowls, while most BIPOC communities have a rich history of eating vegan foods (yet get little to no recognition), is a result of environmental racism. White people are also credited for "inventing" the plastic-free/slow-living movement even though it was also white people who invented the capitalism that lead to this obsessive overconsumption of goods we don't need.

EU plastic waste exports to South East Asia

An example of environmental racism that is very relevant to our blog is the EU's (including the UK) exploitation of South East Asia as a means to unburden themselves of 'hard to recycle' plastic waste. I was first made aware of the fact the EU exports plastic waste to Asia when China announced they would no longer be importing plastic that wasn't at least 99.5% pure. At the time, I had no idea how problematic this was, or how this would impact South East Asia. Due to China's decision, Western countries decided to instead burden countries such as Malaysia with the plastic problem.

This a huge problem when you become aware of the fact that SE Asian countries don't have the infrastructure or facilities to deal with the immense volume of impure plastic that is very difficult to recycle and poses environmental health hazards. Of course, Western governments are completely aware of the fact these countries are unable to process our waste but still decide to treat SE Asia like one big landfill site. Almost half of the EU's plastic waste is exported to SE Asia, with 7% of this ending up in the ocean (that's a whopping 180,000 tonnes!

Not only are we in the West treating Asia like a dumping ground but we're also blaming them for being 'the worst ocean polluters'. It seems rather hypocritical to send half of our plastic waste to Asia knowing full well that they can't recycle our low-value plastic, then blames them when it ends up in the ocean. Here in the West, we have the money and the facilities to recycle almost all types of plastic, but due to bad policy-making and our governments' unwillingness to fund recycling initiatives, we end up exporting our post-consumer plastic. Donald Trump himself has wrongly called out Asia for "abusing" the oceans and turning them into "landfills", all while refusing to deal with the plastic waste in his own country and exporting to those countries he claims are "abusers of the oceans". Trump, along with others are spreading misinformation and it's extremely dangerous considering he's the president of one of the most powerful countries in the world (not that it's completely surprising as its completely in character for him). This is environmental racism in action! We can not choose to be ignorant about these things and become complacent in our environmental advocacy. Yes, we must fight for the planet and all the beautiful habitats and animals we care about so much, but we must also fight for the people who contribute least to environmental damage/climate change but are impacted most. This is just one example of environmental racism, there are literally 1000's of others that all deserve their own 1000 word dissertation style analysis. I'd recommend you do your own research and continue learning!

Image source: Artword by Annabelle Golden (https://www.instagram.com/graphicsandgrain/ )(https://www.instagram.com/p/CC_q3lunM8a/)

How we can combat Environmental Racism

  • Support BIPOC run outdoor, environmental & non-profit organisations

  • If you are a conservation/environmental non-profit then you have to diversify your organisation, hire BIPOC and pay them as much as you would pay a white person doing the same job

  • Support BIPOC owned sustainable brands

  • Amplify BIPOC voices

  • Vote for parties that have policies that protect BIPOC communities + put pressure on the government by going to protests/signing petitions/writing letters to your MP's

  • Talk to your friends and family - conversations about environmentalism and racism are tough conversations to have separately let alone when you combine them. However, if the conversation is difficult it means it's worth having

  • If you are someone who works in education, have the conversation with your students. If the next generation is educated early on, they will be better equipped to tackle racism in their futures. Remember that if BIPOC children are never too young to experience racism then white children are never too young to unlearn and learn about racism

  • Spread the word on social media and diversify your feed - this might seem like an arbitrary action, but you never know who will see something you post and how it will impact their journey in unlearning thousands of years of racism. Remember that just posting on social media is not enough. Performative allyship is toxic and does more harm than good


BIPOC activists (FYI there's way more than the list below but these are some of the people I follow, you can and should look for yourself to find people online that align with your beliefs and the type of content you personally like to see on your feed)



Mimi x

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