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Cayte Bosler headshot

Environmental and Justice Activists Need to Join Forces

By Cayte Bosler
justice activists

The environmental movement can learn from those who come from a tradition of resistance and have organized their struggle in movements like Black Lives Matter and Idle No More, founded by First Nations. The protests enveloping our country today are seeded by centuries of injustice and violence, by underlying power imbalances and inequalities that have never been truly addressed. The founders of these social movements knew then and now that they cannot combat violent oppressors through pure persuasion. So they resist.

Resistance inspires. Defiance in the face of a violent, oppressive culture can inspire another person’s defiance. Even when an uprising is only beginning, when the path forward is unclear, it is essential to resist. All together. The goal: to defeat a system fundamentally, historically, and intentionally based on mass exploitation in the interest of profit for a privileged few.

We cannot expect to win long-term human rights from societies based on violent oppression, flagrant ecological abuse, and silence about the links between environmental abuse, discrimination, and development. The global exploitation of the environment and the poor is accelerating even as the elite grow wealthier than ever before. The ecosystems that support life —  for our own survival and for the countless species going extinct — are systematically poisoned, scorched, and gutted bare.

Environmental intersectionality recognizes that racism, classism, sexism, and other oppressions are interlinked with climate and environmental problems. This approach seeks to bring egalitarianism by ending the isolation of those separate efforts. The goal is to combat a power structure that is increasingly concentrated in a ruling class through a system of racism, patriarchy, ecocide, and violence. Throughout history, power has functioned by dividing and ruling, pitting groups against each other. We can take a lesson from this, or continue to be defeated by it. We win or lose together.

Environmentalists and justice activists cannot stay isolated in their movements. To be effective at combating climate change and countless other social and environmental injustices, we must acknowledge the links between the abuse of nature and people, and devise strategies to protect the planet, to resist its demise – even when doing so is frightening. Especially then. Ultimately, resisting mass exploitation on all fronts is the only thing that will make us safer.

For many — especially people of color — the impacts of climate change and the degradation of environmental harm are not a future concern. It is life or death, and it’s happening now. If we want to reverse the losses, we need to begin to speak honestly to each other about the long history of abuse that has led to the unrest, rage, and grief that we feel today. We need to confront how power works in society, including in regions where exploitation of indigenous people and the ecosystems they call home go unnoticed by mainstream media.

Environmentalism does not work without defending the places people live. Whom and where ultimately bears the brunt of climate change and environmental degradation has everything to do with class and race. The legitimate anger fueling the protests is caused by structural violence: chronic stress and lack of access to health care, lack of affordable housing, discrimination (to name but a few), as well as countless examples of environmental racism. The EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment released a study in 2018 indicating that people of color are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air. One out of every six black children has asthma, almost twice the national average, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To address such inequalities, Mustafa Santiago Ali founded the Office of Environmental Justice within the Environmental Protection Agency. He quit in 2017 when one of the attorneys who had fought the EPA most strenuously was made its chief administrator.

In addition to poverty, lack of clean air, safe drinking water, health care, and more—all of which lead to “preexisting conditions”—many communities of color are confronted with the threat of coronavirus and are more vulnerable to the pandemic. Reports estimate that people of color are twice as likely to die from COVID-19.

Environmental racism is a term born from the environmental justice movement of the ’70s and ’80s, when injustice simmered until it erupted into an organized resistance. In 1978, the Ward Transformer Company dumped PCB toxic waste along the shoulders of a North Carolina road, eschewing new environmental laws they deemed too costly. The toll on the land: 60,000 tons of cancer-causing contaminated earth along 240 miles of highway.

The answer? The North Carolina government chose Warren, a predominantly black community, to build its mandated facility to dispose of the continually manufactured chemicals known to cause birth defects, skin and liver problems, and cancer. Community leaders organized protests and other actions to resist the assault on their homes. During six weeks of protests, the police arrested over 500 people. The state had assigned hundreds of patrol officers to the area and even put the National Guard on alert.

The result? Despite public outcry, the facility was built anyway.

Time and time again, people fight for their survival and the survival of the places they call home and they lose. It has everything to do with who has power and what violence is deemed acceptable. Environmental justice means delegitimizing sanctioned violence that oppresses many communities into cooperating with exploitation and environmental and blatant racism. It means within each of our communities and activist networks, we need to build meaningful resistance to achieve an equitable, sustainable culture and economic system by combining efforts that liberate communities of color and liberate the planet.

Across North and South America, people have continued to be attacked and pushed off their ancestral land so that those in power can exploit resources — trees, minerals, petroleum, water — for private profit and to fuel an unsustainable global economy based on overconsumption and waste. We all use those products. Our privilege comes at the cost of another’s destruction. Nevertheless, that has not always been the case in history, and it does not have to be the case now.

I have seen some of this exploitation first-hand. For example, in Chiapas, the southern-most state of Mexico, I was invited by a remote indigenous community to report about an aquifer, their sole drinking water source, drained by the Coca-Cola corporation. The affront of Coca-Cola on the already water-stressed conditions of Mexico is well known.

In Arizona, while investigating threats to the Colorado River, I met with members of the Navajo Nation. They described the response in their community after toxic waste from the Gold King Mine spilled into the Animas River, turning the water a shocking yellow. It is an incident for which the EPA has taken fault, but members of the Navajo said the clean-up did not address the humanitarian crisis experienced by their communities. Joe Ben, a member of the Navajo Nation, was working on his farm when he heard about the impending disaster. “The first thing that came to my mind was: where’s the contingency plan?” he said. “Where’s the alternate source of water? Zero.”

“During that time, EPA sent out water holding tanks for Navajo families to use,” added Deon Ben, an activist and young member of the Navajo Nation. “The tanks they sent had oil residue in the water still, and they told us the tanks had been tested and were perfectly fine to use. That shows how federal agencies provide for Native American communities.” He detailed how lawyers showed up representing the EPA and coerced community members to sign away the right to sue the federal government for the disaster.

The pattern of destruction and violence required by industrial culture and mass exploitation is global.

Last summer in Bolivia, while conducting wildlife surveys in the Amazon rainforest, I collaborated with and learned from indigenous guides who live off the land and depend on the forest and river for almost all of their essential needs. Leaving the small town of Rurrenabaque by boat to enter the forest, one sees “no represas” (translation: no dams) inscribed by locals across the levees. The government has prospected the river for a hydroelectric dam to sell energy to Brazil. If built, it will displace thousands of land-based communities and irreversibly destroy some of the world’s only remaining wilderness, home to threatened and keystone species, including ones that haven’t even been described to science. My local colleague told me that despite their fear of reprisals, his community continues to resist through organized meetings and actions even when met with arrests, attacks, and disappearances (the word used to describe possible, but unproven murders) by the Bolivian government.

Fresh in the minds of Bolivian environmental activists is the massacre of Chaparina, where national police brutally repressed indigenous marchers protesting the construction of a government-proposed highway through the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory. At least 19 were officially reported dead, including women and children killed by gunfire, though some groups maintain that the death toll was higher.

How can we endeavor to protect the planet when its frontline defenders are being killed or intimidated by state-sanctioned violence? How can we expect to solve the climate crisis if our strategies do not include protecting life above corporate, government, and elite interests? Again, environmental advocates can learn from movements born from violent exploitation who are organizing to resist that violence.

Viable movements need supportive cultures to sustain them. They require healthy norms of behavior, processes to handle conflict, and ways to defeat destructive internal divisions and competition that stymie even the best-intentioned efforts toward progress. Horizontal hostility—a concept defined by Florynce Rae Kennedy, an African American lawyer, feminist, civil rights advocate, lecturer, and activist—occurs when activists fight against each other over differences rather than vertically against the oppressor. This behavior leaves relationships, activist networks, and movements in shreds.

A livable planet for all requires solidarity, using our shared principles and humanity to rise together to protect nature and banish injustice.

Previously posted on State of the Planet, hosted by the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Image credit: Clay Banks/Unsplash

Cayte Bosler headshot

Cayte Bosler is an environmental journalist, a conservationist, and a graduate student at Columbia University where she trains to tackle complex and pressing environmental challenges.

Read more stories by Cayte Bosler