The goals of environmentalism can never be achieved without first confronting the economic and racial structures that led to environmental degradation in the first place.
Against a backdrop of rising sea levels and raging wildfires, concerns about climate change and sustainability have been intensifying in recent years. Simultaneously, the topic of racism has also emerged as a prevalent concern on the global stage. Accordingly, international movements urging for environmental responsibility and racial justice, such as Fridays for Future and Black Lives Matter, have developed into some of the most influential causes of our generation. Unfortunately, however, the issues of sustainability and racial justice are too often considered to be separate causes for concern. The reality is that environmental issues and racial justice issues frequently intersect and feed into each other; environmental degradation in particular can be seen to perpetuate systems of racial inequality.
Such a system is reliant on the exploitation of both labor and resources, a process that ultimately ends up harming people of color and indigenous communities the most.
In order to fully confront environmental degradation and all its effects, we must first confront its root cause: capitalism. At its core, capitalism exists purely to generate profit and enable economic growth. Such a system is inherently reliant on the exploitation of both labor and resources, a process that ultimately ends up harming people of color and indigenous communities the most. These groups are ultimately the ones forced to bear the brunt of the consequences of environmental degradation, a phenomenon that is often referred to as environmental racism. Indicated by “any decision-making processes and distributive patterns that burden minority groups disproportionately,” manifestations of environmental racism are evident almost everywhere in the world, both in the most industrialized of nations and in nations that are still developing.
In just the United States, for instance, there is plenty of evidence to support the notion that people of color are particularly disadvantaged by the effects of environmental degradation. Across the board, racial minorities in America are disproportionately more likely to live in areas that experience high exposure to carcinogenic air and water pollution and toxic waste. Meanwhile, non-Hispanic white Americans have the lowest exposure rates to such contaminants. The biggest indicator of environmental racism from these statistics is that people of color in America are consistently exposed to far more contaminants than they produce, while the opposite is true for white Americans. The World Economic Forum reports that annually, Latinx Americans are exposed to 63% more pollution than they produce while Black Americans are exposed to 56% more pollution than they produce. Meanwhile, non-Hispanic white Americans are exposed to 17% less pollution than they produce each year. Such discrepancies allude to the tendency for empowered groups – such as wealthy, predominantly white Americans – to ensure that the consequences of expansive industry fall primarily on less empowered groups, often at a great cost.
Such discrepancies allude to the tendency for empowered groups to ensure that the consequences fall primarily on less empowered groups, often at a great cost.
Take, for instance, ‘Cancer Alley,’ a region in Louisiana, USA, that spans between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The area hosts the highest concentration of petrochemical plants in the entire nation, exposing nearby residents to extreme levels of toxicity. Residents in the region, who are mostly Black and living in poverty, are 50% more likely to develop cancer and other adverse health effects. Or look at Flint, the predominantly Black community in Michigan that in 2014 experienced mass lead poisoning due to contaminated drinking water. Such prolonged exposure to unsafe water in Flint has also been linked to lasting neurological disorders among children in the community.
Similar scenarios are present in developing nations as well. Corporations in developed nations routinely transport their toxic waste to developing nations who typically aren’t capable of disposing of it in any reliable or safe manner. As a result, people living in countries with already poor health infrastructure are additionally burdened by increased diagnoses of “cancer, congenital malformations, endocrine disruption, and neurotoxicity” because of the excess waste they are made responsible for. Furthermore, global industrialization has led to the widespread displacement of indigenous people from their land. For instance, 68% of indigenous lands in the Amazon has been compromised by industrialization. Similarly, in the United States, sacred indigenous land is routinely claimed by the state for development projects. In recent years, sacred burial sites for numerous tribes have been imposed on for initiatives such as the Dakota Access Pipeline and oil and gas extraction in Bears Ears National Monument.
the prioritization of profit over ecological welfare has led to an unsustainable level of land and resource exploitation.
Ultimately, it is clear that the capitalist mindset of Western nations drives environmental degradation; the prioritization of profit over ecological welfare has led to an unsustainable level of land and resource exploitation. But beyond this, it is also clear that Western nations, particularly the wealthy, primarily white people living in Western nations, have been unwilling to face the consequences of such exploitation themselves. As a society, we have turned a blind eye to the environmental and health costs of rapid industrialization, instead choosing to dump them on impoverished people of color across the globe. Accordingly, in order to move forward sustainably, Western nations must not only confront and remedy the burdens that we have placed on generations of indigenous people and people of color, but also challenge the system that has prompted us to do so. Only by prioritizing people over profit, and rejecting the fundamental aims of capitalism, will the goals of environmentalism ever be achieved.
Art by Darcey Joyce