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Reflections on Environmental Racism & Justice: “My Sustainability will be Intersectional…”

Written by Stacia Ryder, a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Sociology.

Standing in a cell that could barely hold one person, let alone the 3+ it had restraints for, my eyes darted back and forth from the rusted shackles to the view outside the cell bars. Through the bars, the sun dimly lit the room and I stared straightly at the main house of the Whitney Plantation—the only place dedicated to educating visitors about the plantation experience from the slaves’ perspective—in Wallace, Louisiana. I stood frozen by the discrepancy between the cell and house, the discrepancy between my experiences in America as a privileged white cis woman and those who this cell was intended for.  The disparity demonstrates the very unequal and racialized dynamics of Americans’ historical experiences of agriculture, capitalism, and the environment, where expendable Black bodies were violently destroyed in the name of sugarcane profits for White owners. It also demonstrates contemporary relevance, as the auction block cell used to contain Africans as they were sold into slavery bears striking resemblance to modern day jail cells where African Americans are contained as they are pushed into the penal system by our nation’s prison-industrial complex.

Environmental studies, like most sciences, aim to move us forward and are future-focused. This is particularly true of sustainability, which concerns itself with the utilization of our environment and natural resources in a way that preserves them for future generations. But sustainability science is not ahistorical, and we must also engage in reflexivity, that is, critically reflecting on how the past influences the present and the future. Moving forward requires addressing where we’ve come from and where we are.

Here, I reflect on sustainability and environmental racism and justice in our capitalist society. I make the case that moving forward, we must address issues of inequality, specifically, racial inequality, in order to see success in sustainability practices. My focus on the experiences of African Americans should not discount the intersectional realities of environmental injustices–the unequal distribution of benefits and costs in our relationship to the environment–for countless other marginalized and oppressed peoples in the U.S. and worldwide. For example, injustices in our agricultural and food systems continue to exist for migrant workers of color today.

Environmental justice (EJ) scholar David Pellow recently called for an advancement of ‘critical environmental justice studies’ to explore the intersections of the relationship between social categories (like race) with the environment. Pellow (2016) focuses specifically on violence to Black bodies at the hands of the state, noting that:

“Black Lives Matter challenges the scourge of state-sanctioned violence…with a primary emphasis on police brutality and mass incarceration…If we think of environmental racism as an extension of those state-sanctioned practices—in other words a form of authoritarian control over bodies, space, and knowledge systems— then we can more effectively theorize it as a form of state violence, a framework that is absent from most EJ scholarship” (p. 13).

In addition to state-sanctioned violence, capitalism also plays a role in environmental racism and inequality. It serves to tie together the exploitation of Black Americans in our agricultural history, the disproportionate distribution of toxins that environmental justice was founded upon, and the variety of injustices in the urban and built environment (i.e. neighborhood amenities, public housing, food deserts, gentrification, toxic exposures in the home, and the prison industrial complex). Together, these environmental inequalities (among others) represent the issue of intergenerational environmental justice and its evolving manifestation within capitalism. Like neoliberalism’s ruthless impact on our environment, Black lives continue to be utilized and destroyed as part and parcel of our nation’s drive for profit maximization, in a political and economic system that constantly reinvents more covert strategies for oppressing them.

The relationship between race, the environment, and natural resources extends beyond U.S. borders. W.E.B. Du Bois suggested that the concept of race is a socially constructed and politically meaningful tool of capitalism which was born out of modernity. He posited that the capitalist system functioned on the backs of people of color, globally, and that it was the growth of capitalism prompted the development of the chattel slavery system. In 1920, Du Bois wrote that capitalism brought about “a chance for exploitation on an immense scaled for inordinate profit, not simply to the very rich, but to the middle class and to the laborers. This chance lies in the exploitation of darker peoples.” (p. 504-505). These ‘dark nations’ are what today are referred to (devoid of explicit reference to race) as the “Global South,” or less developed countries. Historically, people of color in the Global South bear the biggest burdens of resource development, while receiving very little payoff (Timmons Roberts and Parks 2006). The globalization of neoliberal ideology, then, has been toxic to both the environment and to our people—but its toxicity is felt most heavily by the marginalized. Faber and McCarthy (2003) note that “the most politically oppressed segments of the population” are “selectively victimized” by corporate practices (p. 39).

How is this connected to issues of sustainability? Environmental justice frequently concerns itself with the distribution of environmental burdens and benefits, while sustainability goals are often aimed at reducing environmental burdens. But it is the global capitalist system—a neoliberal system which operates at times both consciously and unconsciously as racist, patriarchal, classist, and heteronormative—that is driving both the volume and the distribution of unequal environmental burdens. Pellow (2016) and others discussion of intersectionality–the understanding interlocking systems of oppression–can help us bridge understandings of environmental justice with sustainability via a discussion of climate justice and just sustainability.

In the context of sustainability and climate change, impacts are often felt “first and worst” by marginalized groups both in the U.S. and worldwide—groups who typically contribute least of all to the problem. On a global scale, these uneven burdens and benefits create a stalemate over how actions to reduce the impacts of climate change can be engaged in, in a fair and equitable way (Timmons Roberts and Parks 2006). As a result, little progress is made. The consequences of this non-action will indeed affect us all, but it will not do so evenly. This is problematic from a day-to-day standpoint, as we know that more equal societies tend to fair better—in terms of health and social problems—than unequal ones. Our sustainability efforts must therefore take into account equity issues from the onset, and must be designed to ensure that climate adaptation efforts work to guarantee the establishment and preservation of a safe environment for all, now, and indefinitely.

So how do we begin to do so?  We must acknowledge the systemic root of our environmental problems and their embeddedness in our political and economic system which oppresses in the name of unbridled capitalism. Actors and institutions in power must acknowledge their role in perpetuating oppression and work to deconstruct it. We must continue to focus on inclusive environmental governance efforts, both within and outside of our public service institutions and our current economic system. As an example, executive director of Green 2.0 Whitney Tone has developed directives for diversifying the sustainability C-suite, and points to a diversity checklist organizations can use in their hiring process. We need people of color to gain access to and power over environmental decision making processes, to reflect considerations in decision making that can only come from knowledge gained within the set of their collective historical experiences of environmental oppression. The same is true for all marginalized groups.

Pellow (2016) argues we must also start to conceptualize what it looks like to work entirely outside of our system of state governance. Working to disrupt oppression within a system that creates it can only take us so far. Faber and McCarthy (2003) call for enhanced grassroots strategies to develop a sustainability movement that incorporates justice and equity.

Finally, we must prioritize diversity as imperative for the success of sustainability and science more generally. All of this has been established by scholars and activists of color, but it is critical that we continue to highlight and support these voices. When calls for diversity and inclusivity sprung up in the planning of the Science March on Washington, a barrage of scientists reacted poorly and expressed disdain for the injection of ‘identity politics’ into science. Yet science undeniably is a system of knowledge that was largely developed in a way that privileges people in power, historically, wealthy white men. And in the past it has been repeatedly used to justify discriminatory practices. For those of us whose research reveals that colonization, racism, classism and sexism are indeed scientific and sustainability issues, we have a responsibility to speak up. In addition, (and particularly those of us who wield the most privilege) we have a responsibility to listen. In that spirit, here is a list of leaders of color working on environmental issues.

All of this has become even more urgent as we have witnessed a resurgence of dangerous nationalist and racist ideology permeating through U.S. government leadership. It is this same leadership which threatens the progress of sustainability and environmental science, has deemed the environmental movement “the greatest threat to freedom and prosperity in the modern world,” and has been guided by an ethos not just of “America First,” but “Market First.” Intersectional sustainability efforts, that is, those that consider interlocking systems of oppression, are how we push back on the exploitation of marginalized people and of resources, the economic drivers of our changing climate. To borrow a frank line from Flavia Dzodan’s approach to feminism, “my sustainability will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit.”


Faber, D. and McCarthy, D., 2003. Neo-liberalism, globalization and the struggle for ecological democracy: linking sustainability and environmental justice. Just sustainabilities: Development in an unequal world, pp.38-63.

Pellow, D.N., 2016. Toward a critical environmental justice studies: black lives matter as an environmental justice challenge-corrigendum. Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, 13(2), pp.1-16.

Roberts, J.T. and Parks, B., 2006. A climate of injustice: Global inequality, north-south politics, and climate policy. MIT press.


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