Social Justice and Environmentalism Walk into a Bar…

Feb 23, 2017Guest Blog0 comments

Introduction by Dr Tracey Phillips, CEO Gondwana Alive

To our nature loving audience this blog may come from left field but it talks to an important topic. As an ecologist and sustainable development specialist, for over 20 years I have worked on integrating environmental, social and economic matters to ensure the well-being of all. I am so steeped in this philosophy that I don’t see them as separate matters any longer. However, a short while ago a young colleague and activist, Jordan King, reminded me that social justice and environmental justice do not always see eye to eye, and that if we wanted them to find each other we needed to start a dialogue. So in the interests of starting that dialogue and in celebration of Social Justice Day on the 20th February 2017, I asked Jordan to write a guest blog for us.

Jordan is a free-lance writer, currently studying Journalism and English Literature. Here is what she had to say…

Social Justice and Environmentalism Walk into a Bar…

by Jordan King, Guest Blogger

So they’re sitting at your bar, besides serving them beer brewed by a well-paid, benefits receiving working-class in a recyclable bottle, how do you make sure they become friends? First off, for those of you that don’t know, social justice and environmentalism are not friends. They could be and indeed, most definitely should be, but a great deal of dialogue and robust engagement needs to be put in for this to happen.

The terms mainstream environmentalism and social environmentalism are often used to describe the different streaks of environmentalism, with the latter considered to have already made friends with social justice. This is because social environmentalism focuses largely on how environmental damage affects human beings and how disproportionate that effect is. In other words, it recognises that the consequences of environmental harm to humans are not immune to the phenomena that run our society, like racism, sexism, classism, and pretty much every other –ism there is.

Is this actually a thing?

Although this sounds like conceptual, abstract intellectualism, it can be seen in fairly recent examples. 2014’s August brought some of Cape Town’s most torrential rain, causing flooding that affected thousands of dwellings in informal settlements all over the city. Khaylelitsha, having been built on the Kuils River flood plains bearing the brunt of Cape Town’s flooding the most. With little immediate response, residents walked around their homes in ankle-deep, ice cold water, got ill, and some were left with no homes at all. Only a couple of weeks ago, the Southern Peninsula’s mountains were blackened with yet another fire, and whilst residents all over the area were asked to evacuate – the middle class included – the informal settlement on Red Hill would have been most severely at risk.

Don’t get me wrong, a burnt down house is a burnt down house and it would be awful for anyone. But people who live in informal settlements live in dwellings built with very weak, very flammable materials, have no insurance, have few cars to flee with, and most probably don’t have many friends and family-members to flee to, given that they’re probably in the same situation.  Now obviously a body of water or fire is not going to stop at the houses of the middle-class and go “oh sorry, wrong address.” But the point is that society’s social injustice has made it that anyone who falls subjects to the –isms are simply just more vulnerable to suffering more damage and reaping less help from these kinds of things. Social environmentalism focuses on combatting this dynamic.

So what is mainstream environmentalism?

Mainstream environmentalism focuses less on people and more on ‘the wild’. It looks at things like the conservation of wilderness, protecting endangered animals, promoting recycling, reducing deforestation, combatting pollution, etc. Mainstream environmentalism is often critiqued mostly for prioritising these things over the well-being and equality of actual human beings, and for doing so in a way that is unapproachable to the ‘everyday person’ and only accessible to academics, legal practitioners, and the likes. Of course the argument for mainstream environmentalism is that besides that fact that the planet is in dire need of saving, conservation and combatting environmental harm, reduces the amount of harm there is for vulnerable demographics to fall victim to in the first place.

Which one should we be endorsing?

However, in the interest of both social environmentalism and mainstream environmentalism individually, the two cannot afford to exist as separate ‘movements’ anymore. The reason for this is that we simply cannot wait for equality to be achieved before working to fix the planet, and we simply cannot wait for the planet to be fixed before working to achieve equality. To use a word that is often used in social justice discourse, we need to have an intersectional approach to environmentalism and social justice.

A really good example of the interlinked nature of the issues as well as the interlinked activism that is necessary, is the Standing Rock protests. The Dakota Access pipeline was going to be installed (and as of recent legislation may still be) beneath the Missouri River where the water would likely become contaminated and the pipeline would defile Native American sacred burial land. The pipeline has been protested by environmentalists, Native Americans, Black Lives Matter activists and was met with the police brutality that seems to have become part of any protest package.

If it was only that water was going to be contaminated – it would warrant the same protest, if it was only that Native American burial land was going to be defiled – it would warrant the same protest. The fact that is was both is not unique and recognising how interlinked these issues are is perhaps the first step to interlinking the movements completely. And if social justice and environmentalism leave the bar with nothing different other than having realized how much they have in common, we’ve been good bartenders.