But these issues were being (actively) ignored by (white) environmental activists, who were focusing instead on their stock-in-trade issues: biodiversity, conservation and climate change (not climate justice). Further reinforcing the exclusivity of white environmental activist agendas, those employed in the environmental and emerging sustainability policy arenas were almost entirely white.
In response to this exclusion, a group of activists of colour, including Ingrid Pollard, Judy Ling Wong, Roland de la Mothe, Vijay Krishnarayan, Swantee Toocaram and I founded the Black Environment Network (BEN) in 1988 to increase activism, reframe environmental and sustainability agendas and get more people of colour into environmental jobs.
We had read the landmark report Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States(United Church of Christ, Commission for Racial Justice 1987) which had contributed significantly to the development of public awareness in the US of “environmental racism”: the intentional and disproportionate loading of environmental “bads” such as pollution and toxic waste on communities of colour, and the lack of access to environmental “goods”, such as parks and open spaces. The cry for a “justice” framing of environmental and sustainability issues was growing louder in the US, culminating in President Bill Clinton’s 1994 executive order called Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.
Environmental injustice was now a civil rights issue.
At BEN, our evidence was largely anecdotal and remained so until Friends of the Earth’s groundbreaking 1999 report, Pollution Injustice: The Geographic Relation Between Household Income and Polluting Factories, that showed that low-income areas in Britain suffered most from industrial pollution. Race, however, was not factored into Friends of the Earth’s report, unlike Toxic Wastes and Race in the US. We argued that in Britain, like the US, income is a pretty good proxy for race.
With this, and BEN’s work on “rural racism”, we had the beginnings of a British environmental justice agenda.
On a personal level, the justice frame gave me my mantra, which, with every passing year, I’m more convinced is true: “The social justice perspective must be included in green campaign agendas because, short of coercive measures, true environmental wellbeing will only exist when there is human wellbeing.”
Not everyone understood the need for this linkage at that time. While researching a TV programme in the early 1990s, I asked a staff member of a large international environmental organisation if she felt her employees reflected multicultural Britain.
She replied calmly: “Equity is not an issue for us. We’re here to save the world.” While the concept of intersectionality was new at the time, the deep rupture between environmental activism on the one hand and the need for an equity framing on the other was widespread among activists and policymakers.
Not only was this a major factor in keeping people of colour out of both the environmental movement and environmental jobs, but it also kept the “green” agenda away from tackling “social” issues such as poverty, racism, equity and justice.
However, in recent years research has shown that the issue of environmental quality is inextricably linked to that of equity and human equality at all geographic scales. Wherever in the world environmental despoliation and degradation is happening, it is almost always linked to questions of social justice, human rights, racism, equity and people’s quality of life in its widest sense.
From recent floods in Pakistan to excessive heat in formerly redlined US neighbourhoods, from pollution-related deaths such as Ella Kissi-Debrahwho lived within 30 metres of London’s South Circular Road, to the toxic plight of the copper pickers at Agbogbloshie, the world’s largest e-waste dump in Accra, Ghana, the poorest are bearing the brunt of environmental “bads”, and in the case of climate “bads”, they are the least responsible for carbon production.
Today, the situation among activists and policymakers is very different from the 1980s and 1990s. I would argue that it is the justice framing, which was initially called for by activists of colour, that has had the most impact on environmental and sustainability agendas worldwide. We now have the discourses of environmental justice, food justice and climate justice, white supremacy, decolonisation and oppression permeating mainstream environmental and sustainability agendas, activism and policy.
We also have Kate Raworth’s equity-focused Doughnut Economics, the justice-focused Greenhouse Development Rights framework developed and modelled by the Stockholm Environment Institute, the UN Sustainable Development goals which more fully reflect poverty and inequality, racism, Indigenous and women’s rights, and we have Fridays for Future “strikes” in around 450 places worldwide, demanding that rich countries pay reparations for “loss and damage” due to global heating and climate-related disasters.
We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go.
- Julian Agyeman is a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University, and editor-in-chief of Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability
“We MUST respect this earth - it is all we have
Claudio Dametto - South Australia
“I will always Vote to Preserve Our World.
Liam McGregor - Western Australia
“A simple message that even a politician can understand
Felicity Crombach - Victoria
“Please show you care about our future generations!!
Phil Harmer - New South Wales
“Save our world , Life & health before profits.
Kerry Lillian - New South Wales
“Close down all coal mines and Do not mine gas . Make these Companies
Daniel Johnson - New South Wales
“We want carbon free energy!
Edan Clarke - New South Wales
“Feels good to be taking a voter action step
Beaver Hudson - New South Wales
“Great Initiative. Let’s Hold elected officials Accountable to their bosses, us!
John Paul Posada - New South Wales
“We need actions not words we need honest democratic govt We need a pm
Bob Pearce - South Australia
“Thank you for this great resource. I was feeling helpless. Even this small step
Silvia Anderson - Victoria
“If political parties continue receiving political donations, we will rarely have politicians working for
Dan Chicos - New South Wales
“I only vote for people who will take urgent action to restore a safe
Susie Burke - Victoria
“Current government is not representing the opinion of the majority of Australian to meet
Neil Price - Tasmania
“We are fighting to rescue our kids' future from those who seek to steal
Vanessa Norimi - Queensland
“No time to waste Now or Never My vote is for NOW
Rosalie White - Victoria
“I am only 9 but I already care
Ava Bell - New South Wales
“From New Lambton Uniting Church - Caring for our world is a moral imperative.
Niall McKay - New South Wales
“Our federal govt is an International climate Embarrassment - its about time they stepped
Oriana Tolo - Victoria
“Vote earth this time!
Sue Cooke - Queensland
“We are in one on the wealthiest countries in the world. we have the
rowan huxtable - New South Wales
“The climate Emergency is the public health opportunity and urgent priority of the 21st
Mike Forrester - Victoria
“If they want my vote they better act now
Barbara McNiff - New South Wales
“We need to act locally now for the earth. Our only home. Vote Earth
Anne Miller - New South Wales
“I often look at the places I've known all my life and see how
Jim Baird - New South Wales
“Strike one For people power!!! Democracy might prevail outside the current cronyism that faces
Lorraine Bridger - New South Wales
“Our federal politicians Are Afraid to make action on climate change a major election
Jennifer Martin - New South Wales
“climate election, let's go!
Fahimah Badrulhisham - New South Wales
“Great to see this website that is a focus on action for climate change
Lynette Sinclair - New South Wales
“Let’s show politicians and the Murdoch media that climate change is by far the
Jane Aitken - Australian Capital Territory
“If you want to stay in power You need to take action to stop
Jane Bulter - New South Wales
“We are all that stands between terminal climate change and the vulnerable. We are
Carol Khan - Queensland
“We need a Government that Believes this is real and not taking money from
Ken Gray - New South Wales
“I'm voting for my childrens future
Anneliese Alexander - New South Wales