Reflections of a Shopkeeper - Intersectional Environmentalism and Anti Racism - 1 July 2020

Posted by Louise Humpington on


Over the past few weeks I have spent a lot of time reflecting and educating myself. Reaching out to Black friends, reading more, learning, thinking, and amplifying the voices of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour. Even though I come from an International Development background it has been a learning curve.

One of the things which made me feel deeply uncomfortable when I worked for international NGOs was the way that issues would become siloed. They would often be clumped into themes and each project would work on a problem to be 'solved' by the intervening agency. Despite working at Director level this kind of arrogant white saviour complex (and underlying misogyny) was as embedded in some of my senior colleagues and in the way that some of the systems operated, as the kind of institutional racism which is being addressed both in the US and here.

🐢 One hugely expensive water project became defunct, for instance, because the community engagement process had been executed either badly or not at all. Wells were built on sacred ground in communities that believe ancestral spirits pass through water. So of course they weren't used.
🐢 When I challenged senior management on the inequity between the wage and benefit packages of Indigenous staff compared to expat staff I was told that it was too expensive to equalise the imbalances and so my existing privileges were compounded and enhanced.
🐢 I was told after one meeting that I'd be better off presenting myself as more vulnerable and emotional, as I came across as too challenging. Never would this 'advice' have been given to a male colleague and nor would they have been designated troublesome for being direct.

The sad thing is that the levels of self aggrandisment of some of these individuals is so great, that they probably wouldn't accept even now that this is what they were doing, or that there were systemic issues to address. Ingrained racism and misogyny manifested itself in deeply inequitous decision making, tokenism, and sometimes victimisation and overt bullying.

It's part of the reason I became disillusioned with my career despite my initial passion for it. So when I fell pregnant, I was determined not to get sucked back into that grubby and self indulgent world. There were often attempts to address 'cross-cutting' issues recognising that there were overlaps between the kind of challenges communities faced. But more often than not the donor tail wagged the dog and unless that 'theme' was a priority for that donor, we simply wouldn't have the funding to address it. So communities who wanted to work on eco-forestry projects were instead 'encouraged' (read: 'told' when it comes from an International Development agency through a messenger cloaked in white privilege) to accept a commercial crop planting project instead, because that is what the agency had been offered funding for. Balancing competing interests will always be a management headache, but when these interests determine and dictate the agenda to the exclusion of BIPOC voices, it doesn't matter how well meaning the intention is, it is a form of Racism.

One of the things that I have long championed is the interrelations between human rights and environmental sustainability. What I have increasingly come to realise is that this thinking doesn't go far enough. And that is where the phrase 'intersectional environmentalism' comes from. It is, as Leah Thomas defines, an inclusive version of environmentalism that recognises the impact of environmental issues on marginalised groups. Her article 'Why Every Environmentalist Should be Anti-Racist' is an excellent read in identifying how systemic racism affects BIPOC within an environmental context:

If we are to become not just non racist but actively anti racist, we need to identify and address the ways in which marginalised groups are disproportionately affected by environmental challenges. Whether it is the impact of sea level rise on Island communities, the increase in natural disasters linked to weather pattern changes brought about by global warming, the dumping of landfill rubbish from developed countries in developing countries, the effect of food security crises on already impoverished communities or ones which do not have the capacity to withstand shocks. We need to recognise the importance of including marginalised voices both in the conversation, and as part of the mitigation efforts and adaption solutions. This isn't a new narrative but it is one which hasn't progressed.

What is new is the recognition that intersectionality isn't just a faddy concept. As this excellent article argues: "It is impossible to live sustainably without tackling equality." (

If, until now, you have been thinking that the issue of Racism isn't connected to Environmentalism, I would urge you to reconsider and read those articles. If you are interested in living a sustainable lifestyle my challenge to you is to reognise the importance of supporting and actively championing marginalised groups. That might be uncomfortable and difficult and time consuming. But it is critical.

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