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Why We Need Intersectional Environmentalism

By Leila Qurei ’21

"A one-size-fits-all solution is no solution at all." (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

In recent months, the entirety of the United States, and the rest of the world to an extent, has been faced with how truly damaged and divided society. Following the death of George Floyd, like many, I was heartbroken but not surprised. I wanted to do something about the plethora of emotions I was feeling. So, I did just that.

I soon began to question what I stand for and how effective I am as a leader. I began to list some of what I identify as and with: I’m a Palestinian-American young woman, an environmentalist, STEM enthusiast, pro-LGBTQ+, pro-BLM, and an intersectional feminist. That last one, intersectional feminism, stood out to me.

Intersectionality. The term was first coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989 and was first an obscure concept. Intersectionality, according to Y.W. Boston, is “a framework for conceptualizing a person, group of people, or social problem as affected by a number of discriminations and disadvantages. It takes into account people's overlapping identities and experiences in order to understand the complexity of prejudices they face.”

To more effectively address the environmental crisis, we need to outline solutions that are tailored for each group of people and their geographic region. A one-size-fits-all solution is no solution at all.

Intersectional environmentalism is the bridge we must cross for the climate movement to prosper and become more effective. The sad truth is that climate change does impact marginalized groups more in comparison to their more affluent counterparts. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs papers, “there is significant variation, with already poor regions being more affected than prosperous regions.” In fact, in the United States, disproportionate percentages of people of color live in areas that are severely polluted with toxic waste, which leads to negative health effects such as asthma, cancer, and high blood pressure. Environmental polluters not only operate in low-income areas but also sometimes target communities of color As such, we must approach climate change as the intersectional problem it is as opposed to an abstract doomsday apocalypse.

The truth is that it’s time that we treat the environmental issues we face as a human issue as opposed to some sort of complex equation; we need to study, analyze, and consider the many facets of this issue in order to come up with effective solutions. When our conversations acknowledge more than just surface-level issues, we’re able to come up with solutions of greater substance. These solutions are more meaningful, have more potential, and take into account the fact that this planet is diverse.

We lose when we surrender to binary thought. This doesn’t just apply to environmentalism—any issue where binary thought is employed to devise solutions has a higher chance of failing. Our approach must be non-binary—the solutions to climate change don’t exist in black or white. We need to start taking a closer look at the gray areas. We must acknowledge that marginalized groups truly do face the harsher consequences of climate change. Everyone has the right to a healthy future and our work now needs to pave the path for that.

Therefore, intersectional environmentalism must become the core of the effort against climate change. To start, please try to implement the points below in your environmental conversations:

  1. Have conversations that are mindful of the environmental challenges faced by marginalized groups.

  2. Include people who have faced these challenges in your conversations and take into account their stories as part of your efforts to devise solutions.

  3. Realize that putting more non-binary thought into your brainstorming is where you are most likely to come up with the greatest and most effective solutions.

  4. Have open discussions and make your eco-club/environmental group a space where members can feel safe enough to speak their minds regarding these issues.

  5. Be mindful that climate change is an evolving issue that impacts everyone in some shared ways and other different ways. Climate change is not a rigid puzzle.

  6. Always be willing to learn and fix/add things to your environmental community.

We cannot fight for the planet alone and expect to be successful. We must fight for people and the planet.


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