Ciara Boyle

August 1, 2020

Intersectionality & sustainability: Real change requires ALL voices being heard

Intersectionality & sustainability: Real change requires ALL voices being heard

Ciara Boyle

August 1, 2020

Intersectionality is a word that you’ve likely heard more in 2020 than ever before, but what does it actually mean? Here we lay bare the basics, and explain why the sustainability movement must diversify and champion intersectionality if it is to succeed. 

The type of sustainability that we see portrayed in the media is one that is almost exclusively white and Western. Incredibly reductive, not to mention inaccurate, a false narrative has been generated around what sustainability is and who participates in it. If we as citizens are serious about creating a better tomorrow, it is crucial that we take an intersectional approach to sustainability. Hearing a diverse range of voices and perspectives is nothing short of imperative in this fight against climate change and the current environmental crisis our planet is experiencing. 

What is intersectionality?

Intersectionality describes a new form of prejudice that is created when two or more biases overlap. A person who falls into two or more marginalised groups experiences a new and separate form of marginalisation that cannot be understood by separating and examining each prejudice individually; ie. looking at different social issues through the lens of intersectionality allows us to comprehend the effect of multiple prejudices acting together at once. This is necessary when examining the sustainable movement due to the severe environmental effects that are disproportionality felt by people experiencing intersectional prejudices. 

The people who will be most negatively impacted by climate change are often people in the least privileged positions. Their situation makes it harder to adapt, making them the most vulnerable. These people are more likely to live in neighbourhoods where they are exposed to a greater amount of air pollution, a lack of natural spaces and other environmental hazards.

Marginalised groups are also more likely to experience poverty and struggle to have political representation, which is needed for change as well as economic power. Globally, poorer countries lack the infrastructure to safeguard themselves against the devastating effects of climate change. Not only do these people live in areas that experience higher environmental risk,  but these areas are specifically targeted on the basis that there are less stringent human rights and regulations in place and that the people in these places have less political power. It is these intersectional issues that compound to result in additional risk.


Hurricane Katriona as a case study

According to multiple sources in America, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, neighbourhoods that were predominantly occupied by African American people of a lower socio-economic class were disproportionately affected by the hurricane. This was due to a lack of investment in infrastructure and a poorly planned and executed response which was enabled by the intersectional prejudice facing them. Hurricane Katrina highlights the value of an intersectional lens when discussing environmental activism.


Neglected voices, ignored experiences

The movement towards environmental sustainability so far has largely neglected intersectional voices and perspectives such as those from indigenous women, therefore erasing both experiences and knowledge that are necessary in understanding and progressing the environmental movement. To continue the sustainable movement, we need to listen to the voices of those facing intersectional prejudice as they are often the ones experiencing climate change and environmental destruction most severely. By hearing intersectional voices, we can understand how what we do in the West directly affects such groups and learn from these perspectives what is needed to fight climate change and the environmental crisis.  

Though intersectional voices are not given enough of a platform in the movement, they do exist. Take for example, Clemencia Herrera Nemerayema, one of Conservation International’s Indigenous Women fellows and her work in the Columbian Amazon.  Or Elvia Dagua, a Kichwa indigenous woman from the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian.  She is an advocate of both the environmental protection of her native territory and of the rights of women.

There are a vast number of resources available that have been created from such perspectives to educate. By diversifying your media, you can learn about those perspectives and their value. Through a more diverse movement we will be better equipped to deal with the challenge of climate change and the environmental crisis.