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Environmental justice is racial justice

In the last blog, I talked about going vegan for environmental reasons given the devastating impact of a meat and dairy diet. This blog examines the links between environmental harm and racism. Environmental harm is being recognised more and more as a symptom of racism with many arguing that tackling racism is the priority to combatting environmental damage. This blog argues that understanding environmental harm as a symptom of broader inequalities is vital to addressing its roots and its devastating impact on the global south and many communities in the global north.

We are more aware than ever of the sheer amount of plastic that ends up in our oceans these days thanks to filmmakers and campaigners. According to the Natural History Museum, ‘between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans each year’[1]. Countries in the global north have been dumping their waste on the global south for many decades. According to Friends of the Earth (FoE), between 1988 and 2016, 168 million tonnes of plastic waste was sent to China from the top ten plastic waste exporters that included the US and the UK. FoE explain how waste dumped in our recycling bins is often ‘low-grade, dirty and mixed plastics’ so it ends up in the global south where it is incinerated, dumped in landfills or leaks into the local environment[2]. It’s cheaper to export our waste than recycle it properly, so the global south is effectively used as a huge landfill site sustaining our consumption.

Recently, more countries have stated they will no longer accept our waste, Malaysia even sending back huge containers of rubbish to source countries including the US and UK. Their environmental minister Yeo Bee Yin said, “Malaysia will not be a dumping ground to the world… we will fight back. Even though we are a small country, we cannot be bullied by developed countries”. In the rush to find alternate sites, it was again the global south that had to deal with the consequences. Thailand and Vietnam agreed to take more waste but local environments were so overwhelmed that much of the waste entered rivers and found its way into the oceans. As a result, 90% of plastic found in the oceans is said to come from ten rivers, eight in Asia, including in China, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. According to Greenwood-Nguyen and Roth in The Conversation, this is often enough to lay the blame on them[3] despite the waste coming from the global north.

However, plastic is disposed of in many different ways which demonstrates links between environmental harm and racism including in the global north. In the US for example, plastic is firstly overused in BIPOC (black, indigenous and persons of color) communities as it is cheaper given its subsidised prices,[4] with the link between ethnicity and socio-economic deprivation well known. These communities often have fewer financial means of providing recycling opportunities[5] so the only alternative is landfills, incinerators and other waste disposal options. According to, 79% of all incinerators in the US are located in ‘environmental justice communities’, areas housing BIPOC, non-white and lower income families. This leads Chante Harris to write, ‘environmental risks are allocated disproportionately along the lines of race, often without the input of the affected communities of color’[6].

In the UK, links between economically deprived areas (including BAME communities) and poor air pollution has also been demonstrated, one report finding a 32% higher concentration of carbon monoxide pollution, 46% higher concentration of sulphur dioxide and 40% less green space[7]. A 2019 report from Natural England found that BAME Britons ‘are exposed to particulate matter pollution at rates 19-29% higher than white Britons[8]. The recent coroner’s decision linking the death of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah to air pollution is an important case in point. Ella, who lived near the South Circular Road in Lewisham, died in 2013 following an asthma attack. She is the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as her cause of death.

The above demonstrates why it is crucial in tackling climate change that we understand that environmental harm is a symptom of structural inequality and racism that reveals the ongoing presence of colonial attitudes in both the global south and north. Getting that message out is important so that people can understand the implications on the lives of those from other countries and communities. That means greater attention must be paid to voices from the global south and BIPOC communities who reveal the impact this has on their lives. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s contribution to feminism and intersectionality is also important, reminding us of the multiple faces of discrimination, not just embedded in racism but gender inequality, with women of colour bearing the brunt of environmental harm. Anne Karpf’s recent book How Women Can Save the Planet provides a detailed examination of this, from girls making 12 hourly daily trips to collect water, or the links between cooking with solid fuel and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of newborn babies each year[9]. Environmental harm is undoubtedly disproportionality affecting non-white communities and recognising this is vital.

Anne Karpf also raises other interesting issues, however, including being rather disparaging about green lifestyles, particularly in how they can blind people into feeling they are part of the broader solution. Certainly, the notion that buying bamboo cutlery and wearing clothes from charity shops no longer sounds good enough once the reality of climate change as a symptom of racism is revealed. Instead, it rather patronisingly appears to replace one form of consumerism for another, nestled within the option of choices that many of us have in our daily lives. However, I do see a green lifestyle as a means of resistance against the root causes of racism and gender inequality that includes the political economy, and hence I choose to see it as one part of a toolkit that can be used to oppose racism. What is important, however, is making that connection and sharing it with others so it is clear that only in achieving racial justice do we achieve environmental justice.

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] Karpf, A. (2021) How women can save the planet, p.19-20

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