What is Intersectional Environmentalism and Why is it So Important?

What is Intersectional Environmentalism? 

The term “intersectional environmentalism” was coined by activist Leah Thomas, founder of the organization Intersectional Environmentalist, as “an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet.”1 Even though we’re just starting to hear more about environmental justice in the media, the concept of the movement has been around for a long time, and it still needs to be talked about more. 

Green Shaming

While the green movement has gained popularity in the past few years, it feels more exclusive than ever. As passion for the movement intensifies, a new social phenomenon known as “green-shaming” has emerged.

Green shaming occurs when advocates for the green movement stigmatize others for not doing enough for the environment.2 While it’s true that we all need to improve, green-shaming ignores the fact that not everyone has the privilege, resources, and disposable income to change their lifestyle overnight. Often, the more sustainable option can be more expensive. Fuel-efficient cars, organic produce, and metal straws all cost money, and marketers have even latched onto green-shaming to encourage eco-concerned consumers to purchase expensive, but unnecessary, “sustainable” products.3 

A clear example is PETA’s proposal following the Detroit water crisis: if residents go vegan for one month, then PETA will pay for their water bill.4 In the midst of a humanitarian crisis, withholding aid that could save lives is a cruel way for any organization to promote its agenda. And, it ignores limiting factors like food deserts, that prevent people from going vegan, or even having access to fresh food in the first place. A 2017 report showed that 30,000 Detroiters didn’t have access to fresh food.5 ‘Green-shaming’ citizens who are already struggling to access basic human needs doesn’t accomplish anything, and it pushes the narrative that environmentalism is only for the privileged.  

And, green-shaming drives people away from joining the environmental movement. Joining a community filled with cancel-culture can be daunting, to say the least. Not to mention, the environmental movement is very ‘whitewashed.’ Despite the fact that people of color make up 38% of the US population, and minorities are more likely to support increased funding for environmental initiatives, people of color only represent 12.5-15% of the staff in environmentally-focused NGOs.6 This ‘green ceiling’ silences minority voices regarding environmental issues, even though minorities are more likely to be impacted by environmental destruction. If we want to promote comprehensive and lasting policy changes, we all need to work together and support each other. The climate crisis is too urgent to exclude and discriminate. 

NIMBY Policies 

Today, minority populations are suffering the worst effects of environmental destruction. The not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) approach to addressing pollutants has kept toxic fumes concentrated in communities of color for years. A 2018 study conducted by the EPA found that race was a stronger predictor of exposure to PM 2.5 (a harmful pollutant) than poverty.7 

The heavier environmental burden placed on minority communities is largely due to redlining practices. Redlining is the systematic denial of various services by federal governments, state governments, and the private sector to minority groups either directly, by rejecting mortgage requests, or indirectly, by raising prices. Historically, these practices have pushed black and brown people into less safe and less appealing neighborhoods. 

Data collected by the Science Museum of Virginia and the University of Portland shows that historically redlined districts are on average 5 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than non-redlined districts, with the disparity often reaching 20ºF. Being exposed to higher temperatures places residents at a higher risk of heat-related mortality and health impacts associated with carbon pollution, not to mention the higher energy bills, sparse access to green space, and limited job opportunities.8 As the climate gets hotter, minorities will face the brunt of the damage. 

But redlining isn’t the only policy that has harmed people of color in the United States. Years of discrimination and systemic violence against racial minorities has led to disparities between white communities and communities of color, including a higher vulnerability towards COVID-19. Ihab et. al found that white people breathe in on average 17% less pollution than they create, while Black and Hispanic people inhale 56%-63% more pollution than what is caused by their consumption.9 The reality that privileged populations are able to project the consequences of their consumption on minority groups presents a clear inequity that must be solved.

White Environmentalism 

There’s no question that minorities experience environmental destruction differently from their white counterparts. While minorities are left to suffer from pollution, a key paradigm of the environmentalist movement remains the appreciation and preservation of ‘pristine’ natural landscapes – a stance that is distasteful, to say the least, when minority populations are still largely gasping for fresh air in overcrowded and highly industrialized areas. 

The establishment of National Parks, while seemingly benign, has a dark history of colonialism and ethnic cleansing. A large portion of today’s national parks, lands that were proclaimed to be “untouched” by humankind, were home to indigenous peoples. The National Park Service Organic Act of 1916 states that the “fundamental purpose” of national parks is to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of … future generations.”10 And, the Wilderness Act of 1964 holds that “[i]n order to assure that an increasing population … does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States … leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition. . .”11 But what the statute claims are “unoccupied” lands were actually home to millions of indigenous people. 

The fallacy of the ‘unpeopled wilderness’ in regards to indigenous land fundamentally dehumanizes indigenous people. It implies that land occupied by indigenous people can be considered land that isn’t inhabited at all, and diminishes sacred indigenous land to solely its aesthetic purposes.12

Further, the Indigenous Utopia myth that holds that native people have always, and will always, live in harmony with the environment harms indigenous communities. Indigenous people in Bolivia, for example, have been under scrutiny for attempting to reclaim the Amazon rainforest to use it for their own survival and progress. Conservationists claim that the land should be kept as unoccupied as possible, but they ignore the fact that the Amazon was occupied by indigenous groups for millennia.13

The idea that indigenous people must live “close to nature” implies that indigenous people are not deserving or capable of living in a post-industrial world or enjoying new technologies that we have today; the pervasiveness of this rhetoric contributes to systemic oppression against native people.14

Towards Sustainable Solutions 

A sustainable shift towards mitigating environmental injustices involves both comprehensive policy change and individual non-governmental action. The first step is to solve the root of the problem: reducing harm to the environment.15 The Climate Equity Act introduced by Senator Kamala Harris and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez prioritizes marginalized communities in regards to environmental regulation.16 On an individual level, we can all make a difference: reducing our energy consumption, for example, can create small changes that add up to big results. 

The other component to bridging the gap between environmentalism and social justice is amplifying POC voices in the environmental community. Without a diverse perspective on environmental policies, it’s impossible to create a global movement that is necessary to solve a global problem. Taking affirmative action to reduce the racial gap in environmental NGOs ensures that those who are affected most by climate change have a say in the solution. 17


1 Thomas, Leah. “What is intersectional environmentalism?” Intersectional Environmentalist. https://www.intersectionalenvironmentalist.com

2 “Why Green Shaming’s Got to Go.” Sanovoi. 2 July 2018. https://sanovoi.com/2018/07/02/why-green-shamings-got-to-go/

3 “Green with Shame.” Business Insider. 12 December 2019. https://www.economist.com/business/2019/12/12/green-with-shame

4 “PETA to Detroit: Go Vegan for a Month, We’ll Pay Your Water Bill.” NBC News, 30 July 2014. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/peta-detroit-go-vegan-month-well-pay-your-water-bill-n168896

5 Hill, Alex B and Amy Kuras. “Detroit Food Metrics Report 2017.” Detroit Food Policy Council and Detroit Health Department, 2017. 

6 Levine, Marianne. “Minorities aren’t well represented in environmental groups, study says.” Los Angeles Times, 28 July 2014. https://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-environmental-groups-diversity-20140728-story.html

7 Mikati, Ihab, Adam F. Benson, Thomas J. Luben, Jason D. Sacks, and Jennifer Richmond-Bryant. “Disparities in Distribution of Particulate Matter Emission Sources by Race and Poverty Status.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 108, no. 4, April 2020, pp. 480-485. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2017.304297.   

8 Cusick, Daniel. “Past Racist ‘Redlining’ Practices Increased Climate Burden on Minority Neighborhoods.” Scientific American, 21 January 2020. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/past-racist-redlining-practices-increased-climate-burden-on-minority-neighborhoods/

9 Chalabi, Mona. “Minorities in the US breathe in more air pollution caused by white people.” The Guardian, 9 June 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2019/jun/09/black-hispanic-people-air-pollution-inequity-study.

10 16 U.S.C. § 1.

11 16 U.S.C.§ 1131(a).

12 Kantor, Isaac. “Ethnic Cleansing and America’s Creation of National Parks.” Public Land and Resources Law Review, vol. 28, 2007. https://scholarship.law.umt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1267&context=plrlr 

13 Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. Alfred A. Knopf, 2019.

14 Rubenstein, Hymie. “The Myth of Indigenous Utopia.” C2C Journal, 8 November 2017. https://c2cjournal.ca/2017/11/the-myth-of-indigenous-utopia/

15 Laurie Kaye Nijaki. “Justifying and Juxtaposing Environmental Justice and Sustainability: Towards an Inter-generational and Intra-generational Analysis of Environmental Equity In Public Administration.” Public Administration Quarterly , SPRING 2015, Vol. 39, No. 1 (SPRING 2015), pp. 85-116. SPAEF. http://www.jstor.com/stable/24372044.  

16 Friedman, Lisa. “With the Biden-Harris Ticket, Environmental Justice is a Focus.” New York Times, 12 August 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/12/climate/kamala-harris-environmental-justice.html

17 Mock, Brentin, “ Are There Two Different Versions of Environmentalism, One ‘White,’ One ‘Black’?” Mother Jones, 31 July 2014. https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/07/white-black-environmentalism-racism/

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