Black Lives Matter is Environmental Justice

These past few months, stuck in our houses amid the pandemic, we’ve all had to do some thinking. Where did the world go wrong? Could we have prepared better for the spread of COVID-19? (Answer: YES) How will we all keep ourselves and our families safe while still participating in the ever-important economy?

All of these questions were put on hold on May 25, 2020 — the day George Floyd, a Black man from Houston, was killed by Derek Chauvin, a White Minneapolis police officer. People rightly flooded to the streets all over the world to protest not only this horrific injustice, but the continued systemic racism exhibited by our police forces and our country as a whole. Eager supporters rushed to donate to organizations like Black Lives Matter and its affiliates to make up for our negligence in addressing the issue of racism in the past. Social media posts displayed individual solidarity with the movement. 

Now, what does Black Lives Matter mean in regard to sustainability? Why am I, an upper-class white sustainability blogger, writing about it? Because we ALL should be talking about, and helping to combat, the legacy slavery and colonialism have left in this country. To Ibram X. Kendi, a historian who teaches at American University and writer of the book How to be an Anti-Racist, a racist is “One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or expressing a racist idea.” A good majority of us have been supporting racism in this country through our silence and ignorance. I certainly have. It is time to speak out. 

Furthermore, Black Lives Matter is intertwined with a very important sustainability idea: environmental justice. I wrote several months ago about the Environmental Justice Team at UT Austin that is working toward creating dialogues about the intersection of race, class and environmental studies on campus. In that post, I offered up this definition of Environmental Justice from the EPA: “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” People of color and impoverished communities have a much greater chance of being affected by climate change and its effects as they are made to suffer the brunt of humanity’s ecological burden. Environmental Justice and its supporters seek to empower these marginalized groups and include them to make a more just movement and world. 

There are a plethora of studies, articles and personal accounts that illustrate the need for environmental justice.  For example, a NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program study called Fumes Across the Fence-Line details the racist tendency toward constructing polluting facilities in and near Black communities. These communities are then exposed to toxic pollutants like benzene, sulfur dioxide and formaldehyde and made to suffer the health effects. According to the NAACP, “There are 91 counties across the U.S. that are building oil refineries or where refineries exist close to more than 6.7 million African Americans.” Yet, in the cities where this targeted racism persists, Black people aren’t suffering alone. Ironically, in more segregated cities, pollution levels are higher overall, not just in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Racism hurts us all. 

Rising sea levels are damaging disadvantaged communities around the globe. Somini Sengupta, a New York Times reporter who focuses on global climate, traveled with photographer Chang W. Lee to several key spots around the world including Metropolitan Manila that are already beginning to suffer the effects of rising sea levels. According to Sengupta, almost 600 million people inhabit coastal areas. Whether or not these people will be able to deal with the impacts of climate change is a question of socioeconomic status. Many people in Manila, where expeditious groundwater extraction and local fishing practices have worsened the effects of climate change, have considered now-flooding areas their homes for generations. These people are typically from low-income, multi-generational families who would rather stay in their flooding homes than move away from the places in which they were raised, their children were raised, their grandchildren were raised. Even if they wanted to move, these individuals lack the funds to move away from the sea or to construct better structures to fight the intrusion of coastal waters. The consequences of humanity’s global ecological effect largely fall to communities who can’t afford to deal with them.

Another New York Times piece by Sengupta details how Northern Kenya has become much hotter and drier due to global warming. In turn, the frequency of droughts has grown, leaving local livestock herders to watch as their goat populations dwindle and their children become malnourished. Sengupta writes, “More than 650,000 children under age 5 across vast stretches of Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia are severely malnourished. The risk of famine stalks people in all three countries; at least 12 million people rely on food aid, according to the United Nations.” While malnutrition and famine is based on a multitude of factors besides just climate change, shifting climates and their effects on local agriculture are worsening these problems in many regions like Northern Kenya. 

While there are so many more examples of environmental injustice in addition to these, the Sustainability movement itself took many years to acknowledge the need for Environmental Justice. Some of its original founders, like Madison Grant, President Theodore Roosevelt, and many others were, unsurprisingly given the prevailing attitudes of the time, racist. In 1916, Grant wrote a book called “The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History,” a work promoting the ideology of White supremacy that was praised by President Roosevelt. Major conservation and environmental groups have been historically exclusionary in their leadership and policy choices. Major acts, such as the Clean Air Act, fail to appropriately address climate change’s influence on minority, indigenous and low-income populations. In addition, some environmentalism strategies that are designed to combat climate change contribute to gentrification, pushing out disadvantaged communities from the places they call home. It is important to acknowledge that many of these individuals, groups and policies were established before environmental justice became a part of environmentalism. This consideration is not a justification — just a reminder. Now that environmentalism has evolved to include environmental justice, we must continue working to develop the movement and the way we think about sustainability. 

Already, changes are happening. The Sierra Club, a well-known environmentalism organization, endorsed Black Lives Matter in 2013. More environmental justice groups have also been gaining traction within the larger sustainability movement. The Climate Justice Alliance, organized in 2013, describes their primary mission as “uniting frontline communities and organizations into a formidable force.” The Green New Deal, a 10-year plan proposed by the U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and U.S. Sen. Ed Markey to switch the country over to completely renewable energy, prioritizes making a just transition and protecting disadvantaged individuals. Environmental groups around the world are starting to put environmental justice first. 

It’s up to us — as individuals, as a movement, as a country — to keep the ball rolling. An inclusive sustainability movement is one that supports Black Lives Matter. Racism has a clear environmental impact. We can’t save our planet without acknowledging, and confronting, our racism. And changing it. 


First of all, recognize YOU can make a difference! I can post all I want about eloquent calls to action and an idealized future, but all of us need to make sure we keep up the effort and make concrete steps toward change. Through writing this post, I’ve discovered a lot of resources; here are some of my suggestions for supporting both Black Lives Matter and environmental justice:

  • Listen to people of color, people of experience in regard to BLM and environmental justice. Follow environmental activists such as: Ayana Elizabeth, Wastefree Marie, Little Miss Flint, Elizabeth Yeampierre, and many more. 
  • Stay informed!
  • VOTE!!!
    • Voter suppression is another issue affecting people of color and other minorities in America, which makes it even more important for those of us who have the privilege to vote to do so. 
    • Make sure you register to vote before the deadline, which varies in each state. Check here to find out the registration guidelines for your state. 
    • Educate yourself on the candidates and their campaigns for each election you participate in. 
  • Find organizations like the Campus Environmental Center (CEC) at UT Austin, the Climate Justice Alliance, the Sierra Club or the Sunrise Movement who are promoting social justice within environmentalism. 
  • Donate!
    • The CEC just released a statement that includes important places to donate in regard to Black Lives Matter. Check that out to find some ways to financially support the movement. 
  • Speak Out!
    • Use your voice to make others aware of the issues of environmental injustice and racial injustice as a whole. Post on social media. Speak to your friends and family. Be part of the dialogue as we further our understanding of the relationship between the environment and racism. 
  • Support eco-friendly, Black-owned everything!  
    • Businesses: Enbois Originals, Hanahana Beauty, BLK + GRN, People of Color Beauty
    • Here is a list  of Black-owned businesses in Austin compiled by KVUE 
  • Volunteer! 
    • Many anti-racist and environmentalism groups need volunteers (from those just donating time to work at informational booths to lawyers giving their expertise). Look into how you can help these groups make a difference. 
  • Contact local representatives; Push for change! 
    • To find your local representative, click here

Written by: Samara Zuckerbrod

Graphics by: Rania Agrawal


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