On the surface, the sustainability movement can look very one-dimensional. Personally, I see a ton of other white women who encourage others to eat vegan and stop using plastic, but that is just the tip of the iceberg of what the sustainability movement should actually be, and the reality is that there is a crucial eco-social component that many people are missing.
As a reminder, my last post gave an overview of 5 serious environmental issues facing the world. I won’t rehash it here, but needless to say, the constant threats to the natural world and humanity make it clear that we desperately need to embrace environmental sustainability.
More specifically, we need intersectional sustainability, which acknowledges many of the different factors, identities, and circumstances intersect in the fight for a fully sustainable future.
In this post, I wanted to specifically dive into eco-social sustainability, which is a term that I’m using to describe the overlap between environmental and social issues.
Acknowledging and addressing social differences is one crucial aspect of coming up with environmental solutions that work for everybody rather than a select few.
(This is why although you will see me share content about suggestions for living a lower impact lifestyle, I acknowledge that not only is it not my place to judge people who are not able to implement those suggestions, but also that changes we make as individuals aren’t enough without addressing big systemic problems.)
I am far from the only person who recognizes the need to include social injustices in our examination of environmental injustices.
A Bloomberg article authored by Eric Roston, Paul Murray, and Rachael Dottle states that “We can’t understand life and death on a hotter planet without first understanding inequality.”
Patricia E. Perkins, a professor of environmental science at York University, writes that in order to get the full picture of the climate crisis, “Collaboration and interdisciplinary work including the fields of political ecology, public health, social work, disaster and risk management, economics, anthropology, sociology, ecology, toxicology, medicine, and gender studies is needed.”
Leah Thomas of Intersectional Environmentalist advocates for eco-social justice when she explains that the movement “identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequality.
Harpreet Kaur Paul writes for Greenpeace that “Climate change is already harming peoples’ lives, but those effects are not being felt equally around the world. People in poorer countries and communities are facing the brunt of the crisis. Climate justice means balancing the scales, repairing the damage to these people’s lives but also holding those most responsible for the climate crisis to account.”
As you can see, I am certainly not the first person to call for intersectional environmental sustainability, and I won’t be the last, but I wanted to give an overview of the eco-social issues that I find myself bringing up the most.
Because of the far-reaching implications of the climate crisis and other environmental issues, no aspect of life is exempt from its effects. However, the severity of its consequences are felt differently based on a person’s position within society.
Those with the most privilege are able to shrug off the repercussions of environmental destruction with much more ease than others.
In fact, the consequences of climate change have been shown to most affect people who are poorer, less educated, and less mobile.
Poverty is such a huge factor in this conversation because often it is the poorest countries who are used as scapegoats for environmental problems, with people blaming Southeast Asian countries for plastic pollution or arguing that climate change is being caused by poorer overpopulated countries.
However, the truth is that the world’s richest 10% of people cause half of all emissions.
People living with lower incomes have smaller environmental footprints. As California Attorney General Xavier Becerra points out, “Hard-working people around the globe are some of the best conservationists in the world because they can’t afford not to be.”
But as we know, it is not those richest 10% who feel the effects of their emissions. Those emissions have sped up climate change, which means hotter days for a lot of countries that are hot to begin with. Those higher temperatures result in higher death rates for the poorest people on earth.
An analysis showed that within the next 80 years, climate change will cause low-income countries to see an increase in death rates by 106.6 deaths per 100,000. (On the other hand, countries with eco-social privilege will not see an increase in deaths because they can and will be spending a significant amount of money to be preventing it.)
There are also indirect ways in which environmental issues can harm people living in low-income areas, such as farmers committing suicides because of rising temperatures leading to crop failure.
Poverty often coincides with homelessness (or at the very least, unstable housing), and this creates additional ways in which poor people are vulnerable to environmental issues, as they don’t have even the most basic shelter from heat or climate-related disasters, nor do they have access to basic necessities like clean water or healthcare.
It is impossible to just look at poverty on its own, though, because there are so many other factors that are connected to income inequality and to the eco-social conversation as a whole.
Gender plays a large role in who gets hurt most by environmental issues. Climate change disproportionately affects women, as women on average from every country fit the bill of being poorer, less educated, and less mobile than men.
Women already tend to be expected to do a lot more unpaid work, and the effects of climate change can increase the unpaid tasks expected of women around the world, not only because environmental issues affect tasks such as growing food for the family, but also because they are expected to do more of the unpaid labor of making their own households more sustainable.
Fossil fuels and other types of pollution cause many health effects on humans, but these are more pronounced in women, particularly their reproductive health, but also their mental health.
Disasters caused by climate change are another area where women are put at risk. Disruptions in medical care can leave them vulnerable to more health problems, especially if they are pregnant or elderly. Gender-based violence also increases during these times. And as for mortality, these extreme environmental events kill more women than men.
The eco-social injustice of climate change is even more pronounced when you examine the reality that while it is women being harmed the most by the climate crisis, it is overwhelmingly men who are causing the climate crisis.
And it is men who are resistant to helping the environment themselves.
And it is men who refuse to allow women into top positions of climate policy.
(This is not to turn the eco-social conversation into a “men are trash” conversation, but rather to demonstrate that patriarchy is harmful. It is impossible to solve climate issues without beginning to dismantle the patriarchal institution that caused them.)
You can imagine how all of the above factors make it harder for women to rise to a position of economic stability and political power so that they can positively influence climate and environmental regulations.
But in working toward eco-social justice, addressing this inequality is good for everyone, so we need to stop excluding women from participating in climate solutions at higher levels.
However, gender is not the only thing that puts someone at a disadvantage.
Someone’s sexuality and gender identity may make them more vulnerable to environmental issues as well. LGBTQ people are at a higher risk of climate change effects, given that on average they are less likely to have stable housing than other populations.
Trans people are further impacted since they are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than the cisgender person in the US. And as we touched on before, climate-related disasters can cause an uptick in gender-based violence, which could also affect LGBTQ individuals.
Homophobia and transphobia need to be eliminated, not just because it is morally correct to treat LGBTQ individuals respectfully and provide them protection from environmental destruction, but also because homophobia is another side effect of patriarchy that prevents straight men from being involved in climate solutions.
Once again, this proves that there is a very real need for intersectional eco-social sustainability solutions, since it really is impossible to fully address the environment without addressing social inequalities.
People with disabilities make up the largest minority group in the world, and the challenges they face are only becoming more pronounced as climate change and environmental issues exacerbate challenges for them and further cause more people to become disabled.
The climate crisis makes it necessary for many of us to adapt to the changes to our environment. However, this is not an easy task for disabled individuals, as they generally have “limited access to knowledge, resources and services to effectively respond to environmental change.”
And unfortunately, they are often more affected than others by environmental issues due to limited mobility and other debilitating conditions.
Despite the fact that so many people with disabilities are negatively affected by climate change, they are often excluded from climate solutions. Eco-friendly communities may not take their accommodations into consideration, and certain initiatives, like a tax reduction for biking to work, can exclude them further.
It is important to understand that conversations about climate need to take disabilities into account and include disabled people in the decision-making, which underscores the need for eco-social approaches.
Race and Ethnicity
Race and ethnicity also play an extensive role in an individual’s or group’s susceptibility to environmental destruction, and that usually intersects with other factors such as gender as well.
For example, Indigenous peoples are less likely to be included in wider conversations about the climate, even though they are at huge risk of the consequences, and Indigenous women in particular are being affected most strongly via the intersection of their gender and ethnicity.
Despite this, and the fact that Indigenous peoples only make up 5% of the total world population, they play a huge role in environmental preservation, protecting 80% of the world’s biodiversity. That’s an amazing accomplishment, and yet their reward is to be more vulnerable to the environmental threats that eco-socially privileged people continue to cause.
And they are not the only group that is vulnerable to environmental issues.
In many parts of the world, people of color are afforded less eco-social privilege due to their higher risks of living in poverty. This is also tied to systemic racism, which makes it harder to fight against environmental injustices.
In the US, Latinos are more likely to be concerned with climate change than white people, and that is likely due to a number of factors including that their culture and income level make conservation a necessity, and simply that it affects them more.
Indeed, there is a lot of evidence to confirm that although white people tend to cause more environmental issues, it is BIPOC who are more likely to suffer more from air and water pollution.
It is more often communities of color that are used as dumping grounds for toxic waste or industrial sites that emit harmful pollution.
Put in stronger terms, “Pollution is killing Black Americans.”
It should go without saying that we need to include these affected communities in eco-social climate solutions, and that working for environmental justice and racial justice go hand-in-hand.
Many of the above factors are also connected to a person or community’s geography. If you have ever used the terms “third-world country,” “developing country,” or “low-income country,” then you understand this.
After reading the previous sections, then you know by now that poverty-stricken countries are more likely to suffer from climate change, despite the fact that it is largely high-income countries causing high emissions. (A person in the US, Canada, or Australia has a carbon footprint at least 150 times bigger than a person from Malawi.)
The disparity in eco-social privilege between the global north and global south goes way back.
Colonialism has historically maintained systems of geographic inequality all while destroying the environment in the process.
Even before the Industrial Revolution ushered in man-made emissions, colonists threatened biodiversity by importing flora and fauna from home, with no regard for the disruption it might cause to natural ecosystems.
Today, even as previously-colonized countries are still dealing with the effects from the Age of Imperialism, they are also being burdened with a different type of colonialism.
For example, although Indonesia gained independence from the Netherlands in the 1940s, it is very much still victims of the global north’s influence in the form of being sent trash and toxic waste that it doesn’t have the infrastructure to process. And it’s far from the only country that suffers from toxic waste colonialism.
Furthermore, low-income countries like Indonesia and others are tasked with using their own natural resources to produce consumer goods that will largely be purchased by high-income countries.
Not only does this colonialism destroy the environment, but it continues to perpetuate income disparities, which we know further puts these populations at risk.
However, poverty is not the only factor in geographic vulnerabilities.
The farmer suicides I mentioned above were recorded in India. Because of their location on the planet, the increased heat is more pronounced. So a poor farmer living in India is more likely to suffer from climate change than a poor farmer living in Sweden, where the additional heat may actually extend the growing season.
Small island nations are more vulnerable to being entirely swallowed by rising seas within a matter of decades, whereas larger countries’ loss of coastline is relatively smaller and less urgent.
The downsides of a global world means that it is very easy for someone’s actions from the global north to harm someone on the other side of the world. But by the same token, that same connectedness could be what helps us address these problems.
Empowering Marginalized Voices
With all of this somber information in mind, the good news is that because all of these people are so strongly affected by the climate crisis and environmental destruction, they have a special insight into how to address environmental sustainability.
We need to address social inequalities so that marginalized people and communities can be empowered to participate in climate discussions and policies.
If we do that, we have a real chance of effectively addressing environmental problems.
Continuing the Conversation
Do you have more eco-social issues that I didn’t touch on? Were any of these issues surprising to you? Let me know in the comments!