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Why social justice is the lens we need to approach environmentalism

We know that communities comprised of people of color (POC), Native peoples, and low-income folks bear the harshest consequences of climate change and environmental health hazards, experiencing higher mortality rates from pollution, water shortages, and rising sea levels—to name a few. Yet, for too long, environmental movements have largely ignored the plights of the most vulnerable populations who have been fighting on the frontlines for decades for more equitable siting of toxic waste facilities or for radical climate action. Our environmental community on campus has mimicked this trend: We’ve catered to the largely white, upper-class face of sustainability, telling people to recycle more, or to opt for reusable drinkware in the dining halls. We focus on these individual- and consumer-based action approaches because we see the climate crisis and the inequities it exacerbates as too big, too systemic to combat. Yet we have power in our privilege, and we need to leverage it. We need to take the opportunity of Climate Action Week to focus on how our identities inform our work, and shift the conversation to a realm of activism that values the leadership of people who have been ignored in environmentalism for far too long. We need to bring the social justice lens to the forefront of this conversation instead of getting distracted by efforts to bring more reusable bags to the Co-op when we buy our organic produce.

This year, the planning team for Climate Action Week has tried to plan events that will foster a conversation around environmental and climate justice, one that we hope will last well beyond the confines of 7th week. We recognize that environmental events on campus typically reach the same audience, one which has professed its commitment to this work for various reasons, but has maintained high barriers of entry. We need to get better about creating a more inclusive, accessible movement, one which foregrounds the leadership of people of color, Native peoples, and people from low-income backgrounds. We’re taking on the theme of environmental justice to provide a through-line for each of the events related to the Week, a few of which will feature climate justice activists who come to this work from outside the academic arena.

The environmental justice movement has a very different face from the big “green groups” who fight for wilderness conservation and intergenerational equity. Environmentalism and environmental action has, for too long, been an issue that requires a certain level of privilege to have the time to care about. But when you put it in terms of equity and justice and take the focus off of protecting the fish, it feels much closer and more relevant. It begs for an inclusive, activist movement to unite other social justice issues, protecting the most vulnerable populations and valuing their leadership at the vanguard. With this urgency in mind, we are prompted to turn an inward lens to environmentalism on this campus, which tends to fall firmly in the camp of individual-based action approaches. We have to take the opportunity of Climate Action Week to push ourselves farther than reusable straws: We have to examine the barriers of entry into environmentalism on campus, what kind of changes and reorienting we want to see in that community, and foster a self-aware conversation about inclusivity and the face of our leadership so that this conversation can continue beyond just 7th week. I hope you (you!) join us in the events we have coming up, and hopefully stick around for the long haul to be a part of building this movement.

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