Intersectionality in Sustainability

by Irene Kaloyannis Science and Policy Exchange (SPE)

A little bit about me: I’ve been into the environment for quite a while. In eighth grade, I purchased a t-shirt made locally from recycled materials; in ninth grade, I won a contest to call Dr. David Suzuki on Skype; and pretty much all my class time in high school was spent signing GreenPeace petitions. In all these years, my opinions on environmental issues have changed time and time again. For example, in elementary school, when I first learned about seal hunting, I was horrified and adamantly against it. However, by the time I got to university, I was all for it. What changed?

The answer is my perspective. I started to learn bits and pieces of a theoretical framework called Intersectionality when I was in Cegep, though I wouldn’t actually know its name until university. Intersectionality posits that an individual’s social and political identities (e.g. race, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, ability, etc.) may interact to form unique forms of oppression. Whilst gradually being introduced to intersectional principles in Cegep, I learned that seal hunting was a crucial part of the culture of Inuit and other northern Indigenous nations & tribes, and, much like other aspects of their culture, it was under threat by the actions and “environmental advocacy” of settlers like me.

Having been around the block a few times, I’ve noticed a pattern: human rights and environmental sustainability seem to come up against each other quite often. Think of the 2018 debate regarding plastic straws: people were outraged when they saw pictures of turtles choking on plastic straws, the tubes littering the ocean, so much so that bans were introduced. However, disability advocates spoke up and brought attention to the fact that many people with disabilities rely on plastic straws to eat. Alternatives, such as metal straws, can heat up too much to consume a hot meal (an excellent review of some straw alternatives for people with disabilities can be found here).

So far, we have seen one example of environmental racism, the attempt to ban seal hunting (many more examples close to home can be seen in this outstanding 2019 documentary I watched recently), and one example of eco-ableism, the plastic straw ban. Environmental classism can be quite easy to spot as well when we think of how expensive green alternatives are compared to disposable ones. I myself, up until a few years ago, used to stock up on the free disposable sauce and seasoning packets from restaurants in order to save money.

However, it does not have to be this way. Sustainability can become intersectional if we all practice Environmental Justice.

Environmental Justice is a movement in which human rights are considered along with environmental sustainability so that all people can participate in the fight to save the planet and feel listened to. The voices of women, people with disabilities, Indigenous people, LGBTQI2S+, low-income, racialized, or otherwise oppressed people, particularly those who’ve been disproportionately affected by climate change and environmental destruction, are elevated and the intersections between these groups are recognized. It aims to place responsibility on those who are benefitting from the current system at the expense of the environment and the human rights of others and hold them accountable.

When I went to the Walk for Climate in September 2019, I remember really liking this person’s poster.

The fact of the matter is, when it comes to environmental protection, most of us are on the same side — we all call this planet home, and most of us want to preserve it in any way we are able to. The only way to achieve the healthy, green Earth we all want is to listen to each other, work together, and have one another’s backs.

In order to practice Environmental Justice in your daily life, consider these strategies that I use:

  1. Always be mindful of your privilege — be aware of the fact that there are realities that you will probably never understand due to your position, but are just as valid as your own.
  2. If you can, frequently research intersectionality issues in sustainability and hear the perspectives of those affected (through social media, books, and other sources). If you cannot, be aware that these issues exist and try to be mindful of them.
  3. Call attention to the voices of those affected and elevate them on your social media platform(s), with the goal of centering them in the conversation.
  4. Think critically about how different groups will be affected by a governmental or corporate decision and speak out if you notice inequality (ideally getting input from advocates of that group first).
  5. If you can, support organizations (financially or with your time) that work to both protect the environment and achieve social equity, particularly grassroots organizations. My personal favorites are Black, Latinx and/or Indigenous environmental groups (broad ones like Piña Soul and RAVEN, or ones that work in a specific community like Free Grassy Narrows and Unist’ot’en Camp) and organizations that stop the commercial flow of toxic waste from high-income countries to low-income nations (like the Basel Action Network).
  6. Spread the word about Environmental Justice! Most people have never heard this term.

There is tremendous strength in numbers, and the only way to attain those numbers is to get everyone on board. Solidarity is key moving forward. The future is Environmental Justice!

Edit: Teanna Empowers, the fantastic YouTuber who created the video “Sustainability and Zero Waste Videos are Elitist…” (linked earlier in the post) recently came out with another excellent video on the topic, “Sustainability and Zero Waste… maybe shouldn’t be so individualistic”. I highly recommend it!