Cassandra Nguyen | July 20, 2022
The environmental movement as a political and social phenomenon originated in the 1980s from communities of color in the USA. It began as a response to the unfair distribution of environmental harms to marginalized groups in terms of race, class, gender, age, and location. Specifically, the term “environmental racism” calls attention to the fact that communities of color, especially low-income ones, disproportionately suffer from exposure to pollutants, toxins, and other hazards like waste-dumping and extreme weather. They are not only much more likely to live in vulnerable areas, but also lack the resources to recover from damage. The premise of environmental racism is that these conditions are not coincidental. In the words of sociologist Bunyan Bryant, environmental racism is “those institutional rules, regulations, and policies of government or corporate decisions that deliberately target certain communities for least desirable land uses, resulting in the disproportionate waste of communities based on prescribed biological characteristics.” It is the unequal protection against toxic or hazardous waste exposure and the systematic exclusion of people of color from decisions affecting their own communities. Essentially, some communities are designated as disposable and are then deliberately targeted for harm or denied protection from it. We can see environmental racism manifest itself in the waste dumping in Africville, e-waste dumping in Ghana, mercury dumping in Grassy Narrows, and so many others.
The issue of environmental racism stems from the discrepancy in privilege between different races and classes in society. People often have the idea of nature as this untouched wilderness that is separate from us, but the boundary between people and nature is very much a human construct born out of the exceptionalism we feel as a species. In reality, humans are actually part of nature.The conceptualization of nature as separate from us, as outside of us, allows some people - especially the privileged - to feel untouched by climate disaster. This perceived sanctity allows them to do things like dump their waste in spaces deemed as less valuable, and to turn their backs on the destruction of racialized and marginalized communities on the front lines. While climate change is a conceptual issue for the privileged, it is wreaking very real havoc for the marginalized.
Furthermore, the idea of nature as this separate, pristine landscape ignores Indigenous people, and the fact that they have lived for centuries in sustainable and integrated relationships with nature. For instance, the entire premise of the conservation movement is that we need to protect nature from people by fencing off certain parts of it because we otherwise would be destroying it. This is a very colonial way of looking at land because the underlying message is that it is something to be conquered rather than nurtured. National parks, for example, are deemed as pieces of land that we fence up to preserve. On paper, this seems like a good thing. In reality, Indigenous communities in those areas are forced out. They are evicted from their own land because the traditional knowledge and ways of living that have sustained them for centuries is not valued in elitist and conservationist conversations about the environment. Rather than trying to absolve environmental issues in highly polluting, capitalistic, urban areas, society decides to damage the lives of Indigenous peoples because they are seen as less valuable. In response to the climate crisis, people think that a suitable solution is to dispose of sustainable communities rather than fix the environmentally harmful ones. However, no matter how out of sight the waste seems to the privileged, it always ends up hurting other communities.