‘The Intersectional Environmentalist’, by Leah Thomas

Greta Thunberg (weißes T-Shirt und Megaphon mitte-rechts) und Luisa Neubauer (daneben in Grün) im Demonstrationszug von Fridays For Future, Berlin, 24.09.21

Review of ‘The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet’ by Leah Thomas

Climate justice is only justice if it includes all of us.’ Vanessa Nakate

An environment book that made a soft landing in September was ‘The Intersectional Environmentalist’ by Leah Thomas. In recent weeks, this book has made a larger impact, as audiences have noted its authenticity and values of caring.

The Intersectional Environmentalist’ is rooted in identity, advocacy and people.

Thomas lays out in depth how climate injustice has impacted communities such as Black Americans, Latinx Americans, Indigenous communities, and Asian American and Native Hawaiians/ Pacific Islanders. For each group, she identifies the challenges of air quality, extreme heat, food security and water access that each group historically had had to face, as well as outlining the continuing issues faced by each group. Although Leah Thomas is an intersectional environmental educator, writer, and creative based in Southern California, she’s also passionate about advocating for and exploring the relationship between social justice and environmentalism globally and feels that every voice needs to be amplified.

Thomas builds on the work of Professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who is a Black feminist legal theorist, who in the late 1980s, focused heavily on the intersecting identities of discrimination that were identifiable then in the legal courts. “Intersectionality was a prism to bring to light dynamics within discrimination law that weren’t being appreciated by the courts”. For Thomas then, intersectionality is the ‘complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism and classism) combine, overlap , or intersect, especially in the experience of marginalized individuals or groups.’ She aims to focus on the ‘sometimes double or triple marginalization that people with several oppressed identities faced.’

Unheard voices

As Thomas states in her introduction, ‘We can’t save the planet without uplifting the voices of its people, especially those most often unheard. As a society, we often forget that humans are a part of our global ecosystem and that we don’t exist separately from nature; we coexist with it each and every day.’

Thomas acknowledges that, in 2020, she felt ‘alone and unheard, without much acknowledgement from the wider environmental community.’ She comments that ‘Our identities flow through our politics, our advocacy, what we care about- whether we realize it or not.’ When her intersectional environment graphic went viral, Thomas realised that there was a global audience wanting to hear this message and that her identity and her voice, were part of the narrative. Thomas’s aim in this book is to inform and acknowledge that ‘social justice and environmentalism are deeply intertwined and that addressing this interconnection is crucial for attaining justice for both people and planet.’ Her drive for an audience to seek out stories of marginalised groups and address the relevant social injustices echoes strongly throughout her message. Indeed, she comments that ‘It is an immense privilege to create space for and hold a piece of their magic and legacies every time the word ‘intersectionality’ is said or written down.’

Thomas divides her book into clear focus areas- Intersectional theory, Feminism and Intersectional Environmentalism, Environmental Justice, Unpacking Privilege, Who’s Affected: the Reality for BIPOC Communities and then effectively concludes with People and Planet.

Thomas argues that ‘Intersectional Environmentalism (IE) is an inclusive approach to environmentalism that advocates for the protection of both people and the planet. IE argues that social and environmental justice are intertwined and that environmental advocacy that disregards this connection is harmful and incomplete.’ She continues that ‘Intersectional environmentalism argues that the same systems of oppression that oppress people also oppress and degrade the planet.’ As Diandra Marizet puts it: ‘Intersectional environmentalism is the lens. Environmental justice is the goal.’

Understanding privilege

As a white male, in the Northern hemisphere, I questioned whether I was being challenged with this book to feel uncomfortable. I felt that it was not Thomas’s goal to finger point and blame, but rather to acknowledge the past and understand that our present is rooted in the past. As Thomas says, ‘The more we talk about our identities and the ways they influence how we experience the world, the better we can understand how they’re connected to both the privileges and prejudices we might experience. The truth is, ignoring our differences doesn’t stop discrimination or lead to systemic change.’ Am I being asked to listen and to understand? Yes. Is this a negative? No.

It is important to note that repeated point in the book, that social injustices didn’t magically stop at some point in the 1970s or 1980s. Thomas points to the many examples of recurring prejudice towards minority communities, whether in Flint, Michigan, or post hurricane disasters. She cites Paul Mohai, an environmental justice expert and professor who found that ‘even when socioeconomic factors are similar across white and non-white communities, the community of color is still more likely to be near environmental hazards.’ ‘Startingly, as of 2019, race is still the number one indicator of where waste facilities are located in the U.S.’

What can I do?

Thomas asks of us all that we abide by the IE tenet: ‘I will amplify the messages of Black, Indigenous and POC activists and environmental leaders. I will not remain silent during pivotal political and cultural moments that impact Black, Indigenous, and POC communities and all marginalized identities.’

She argues that ‘This tenet of the pledge is one of the most important. It’s twofold: it encourages you to 1) amplify the messages of diverse climate leaders and activists and 2) not remain silent.

Silence is what allows the status quo to continue. Together all of our voices are so powerful—much more powerful than we might think.

Thomas concludes her inclusive approach by saying, ‘One day I hope that when people think of an environmentalist, they’ll automatically envision a person who cares very deeply about both people and planet.

The future can and will be intersectional.


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