The broader purpose of the environmental movement - RSA

The broader purpose of the environmental movement

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  • Sustainability
  • Global
  • Social justice

As part of the RSA’s Bridges to the Future work in May, we explored interventions to tackle climate change alongside other global threats to ensure ‘a future that protects people and planet’.

The solutions invariably involved bringing together people with different perspectives and experiences. Since then, the increasingly disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the global protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd in the US have forced us to confront entrenched racial disparities that are being amplified by the current crisis. As we face a growing climate emergency, we must consider how minority groups have been disproportionately affected by environmental injustices and seek ways to align environmental movements with social and economic justice issues.

The effects of climate change are being felt around the world, but developing nations, particularly those in the Global South, are expected to suffer the most significant impacts. This unique vulnerability is due partly to geographical location, as well as socio-economic and governance factors which hinder their ability to prepare for and prevent environmental threats. Many of these regions are already facing prolonged droughts, monsoonal flooding, and catastrophic bushfires.

However, people from these parts of the world are rarely part of mainstream environmental conversations or are shut out of debates. A well-known example comes from Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan climate activist, who was cropped out of a photo  in Davos by the US Associated Press News agency. In a video statement posted on Twitter, Ms Nakate accused the media of racism saying, "We don't deserve this. Africa is the least emitter of carbons, but we are the most affected by the climate crisis...You erasing our voices won't change anything."

African nations, in particular, have long borne the brunt of environmental extraction. Unsurprisingly, the worst offenders are often foreign-owned companies, who, for decades, have been expanding their coal, oil and gas operations in the region. These multinationals have caused significant environmental degradation in countries already struggling with resource scarcity and overpopulation. The Niger Delta, which is home to over 25 million people, is now recognised as one of the most polluted places on earth due to decades of oil spilled during Shell’s operations. In 1993, the Ogoni people of South-Eastern Nigeria protested the damage caused, achieving short-term success and forcing Shell to temporarily suspend their operations. The actors involved in these conflicts didn’t consider themselves environmental or social activists, as they were primarily concerned with their livelihoods. Because of this, their actions and legacy is often overlooked.

Similarly, climate change threatens the survival of indigenous communities worldwide, even though indigenous peoples contribute the least to greenhouse emissions. In fact, many indigenous peoples actively engage in practices that enhance and contribute to the resilience of their surrounding ecosystems, drawing on traditional knowledge passed down through generations. For centuries, Andean indigenous peoples have been experts in dealing with climate uncertainty and risk, and are using new technologies to augment traditional approaches. Similarly, in Australia, indigenous land and sea management practices are being called upon to help restore ecosystems devastated by global warming.

The CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, is now working with First Nation communities to integrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge systems and approaches into their mitigation and adaptation work. In New Zealand, mātauranga Māori, or Māori wisdom, is informing landcare research, restoration and sustainable development through programs such as Manaaki Whenua. Despite this acknowledgement within the scientific community, climate change discussion in the media rarely mentions indigenous peoples. Furthermore, there is no sign of slowing down the destruction of their lands. Global Witness recorded 212 murders of local land and environmental defenders in 2019, which is the highest number of defenders killed in one year.

When we look at the impact of climate change within countries, the disproportionate effect on socially and economically disadvantaged communities is readily apparent, resulting in greater subsequent inequality. According to a recent US study looking at air pollution exposure, ‘Blacks and Hispanics on average bear a “pollution burden” of 56% and 63% excess exposure, respectively, relative to the exposure caused by their consumption’. As the UN has noted, climate change exacerbates existing inequalities, which in turn makes disadvantaged groups more susceptible to climate-related hazards and less able to recover from the damage suffered. This creates a vicious cycle, and further demonstrates the need to acknowledge the relationship between social inequality and climate change, particularly when it comes to policy. 

In October 2019, Wretched of the Earth, a grassroots collective for Indigenous and BAME individuals in the UK demanding climate justice, wrote a public letter to Extinction Rebellion (an international movement protesting against the climate crisis) criticising their primary tactic of getting arrested, stating that “in order to address climate change and its roots in inequity and domination, a diversity and plurality of tactics and communities will be needed to co-create the transformative change necessary.” In response to similar criticisms, Extinction Rebellion US added a 4th demand for a just transition that “prioritizes the most vulnerable people and establishes reparations and remediation led by and for Black people, Indigenous people, people of color and poor communities for years of environmental injustice…” Although this acknowledgement is a step in the right direction, it is unclear what practical steps have been taken. So, what can be done -- as individuals and organisations -- to help environmental justice support social and economic justice and vice versa?

Listen to and support BIPOC communities

As has been pointed out, community activists and indigenous people deserve a lot more attention than they have thus far received in the media.

Despite the environmental movement (as most of us know it) being seen as white and elite, people of colour have been central to climate activism for decades. In fact, the Environmental Justice Movement of the 1980s in the US was championed primarily by African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Pacific Islanders and indigenous North Americans. It started in Warren County, North Carolina in mid-September 1982, when the state government decided to move 6,000 truckloads of toxic soil there. The movement existed to protest the polluted environments which were thrust upon disadvantaged communities and people of colour, showing that joining environmentalism to movements for economic and racial justice is nothing new. But the methods used and the people leading the movements in the public psyche have changed in recent years.

The Movement for Black Lives called for divestment from fossil fuels in 2016 and pointed out that sources of pollution are often concentrated in poor and non-white neighborhoods. In September 2016 (before Extinction Rebellion even existed), a group of 9 activists from Black Lives Matter UK chained themselves together on the runway of London City Airport to highlight the environmental impact of air travel on the lives of black people locally and globally.

It is essential that environmental movements work together with grassroots organisations which represent a diversity of people in order to build a stronger, more participatory and inclusive movement.

Cross-organisational funding and partnerships

No global issue can be solved by lone actors and select organisations.

Wild In The City is a group whose sole aim is to make nature in the UK more inclusive. They want to help people of colour who live in urban areas reconnect with the natural world and, at the same time, improve their well-being and mental health. The group’s founder, Beth Collier, recently signed a statement written by an international collective of Black environmental leaders from the US, African nations and the UK, which outlines minimum requirements environmental fields should take to eradicate racism. The letter’s main calls to action are around funding and partnerships - “a lack of funding for Black-led initiatives creates disparities in the voices heard and the ideas implemented within the environmental field… Partnership is an opportunity to support and cooperate, however larger organisations often compete rather than collaborate with Black initiatives and communities, even in issues relating to Black participation.” Organisations and institutions in positions of power need to champion and support minority-led social justice groups, to ensure their voices are heard or perhaps even move aside so that others have a chance to lead.

Acknowledge the role of the public

As the RSA has argued previously, we need to engage the public in deliberative democratic processes to respond to key issues like climate change.

A Citizens’ assembly gives citizens from all walks of life the opportunity to hear evidence, reflect on an issue, find common ground and recommend what the government should do. An interim briefing in June 2020 from climate assembly UK showed that 93% of assembly members ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ that “as lockdown eases, government, employers and/or others should take steps to encourage lifestyles to change to be more compatible with reaching net zero.” We hope the final recommendations address the multiple linkages between social justice and climate change, and the need for joint solutions. If the coronavirus outbreak is still seen as an opportunity for a green recovery, it should also be seen as an opportunity for restoring social and racial justice.

RSA Oceania and the RSA Sustainability Network are hosting a six-part online event series with one event,'From Crisis to Sustainability -- Building Equity and Equality' on the 13th August, that aims to answer this very question. Visit the RSA Oceania Podcast to explore other events in the From Crisis to Sustainability event series.

Philipa Duthie is RSA Oceania Director

Hila Chenzbraun is RSA's Digital Assistant, working on the Make Fashion Circular project and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion group



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  • Good to see some info on Australian developments in land management. Some indigenous land management practices sit well for small landholders, and could be scaled up to help ‘all creatures great and small’. This would require big thinking, and big investment – and we’re now up for this!

    I grew up on a small cattle property in eastern Australia … the traditional idyllic lifestyle (interrupted only the boarding school idyll) and rural property melding economics and semiotics: the white house built in times past with timber cut on the property; the enormous country kitchen with a wood stove that never quite went out; a distant mountain peak that you could almost touch in the crisp winter air; horses trotting up for their daily apple treats (easier to bridle them); and the happiest Hereford cattle on the planet – for 99.9% of their lives!

    Best practice fire management was implemented by a ‘lone actor’ who would have been surprised to know he was operationalizing indigenous land practice. That lone actor was my father who every day, post afternoon tea lit small fires around the property to ‘burn off’ vegetation that could present a fire hazard over the summer. He superintended the fires until the evening dew damped them down to ashes – a different spot 365 days of the year – for all his decades. We never had a fire out of control, though the bush fires raged around us. My Dad never wanted any help, and quietly sent me back to ‘do some study’ when I occasionally dropped over. For him it wasn’t only land management – it was a contemplative experience at the end of most days. For someone who never touched alcohol or tobacco, this was ‘Dad’s smoking time’ ... a quiet family chuckle.

    Now move on some decades and scale it up! This type of gentle land management is now well beyond ‘lone actors’, and needs an enormous national work force. It will be a surprise to know that across the Australian continent there are no full-time paid rural fire services. They are all local volunteers who would be insulted to be paid by government to do what they do out of community spirit. To effectively manage a fire-prone continent – we need to manage this attitude as well. A full-time paid rural fire service is needed in every state to deal with Future Fire. An objection has always been: ‘What would they do for the rest of the year?’ The answer now is: ‘Implement indigenous fire management practices of superintended slow small ‘ burn-offs ‘ every day.’ That’s enough to be keeping them busy on a full salary. And yes … they can combine with the great spirit of existing volunteer fire services when they risk their lives together over summer. The cost would be the cost of raising another army, but I think we’re up for it after last summer.

    And good that the CSIRO is investigating traditional fire management possibilities – and catching up with my Dad!