Historical and present-day injustices have both left black, indigenous and people-of-colour communities exposed to far greater environmental health hazards than white communities’ – Veronica Mulenga
Climate Change and racism are two of the biggest challenges of the 21st Century. Climate change continues to disproportionality affect those who suggest from socioeconomic inequalities, including many people of colour. But the issue doesn’t stop here.
Conversations around climate change continue to use exclusive language and routinely fail to include voices from all respective intersectionality. Lauren Ritchie, a climate justice advocate from the Bahamas, founded the Eco Justice Project in light of this disparity.
Growing up in Grand Bahama, Lauren says that this is when she really got started in environmentalism, stating that beach clean-ups and environmental demonstrations were a constant in her upbringing. : “Being on an island, I was surrounded by its ecosystems and natural beauty but also hurricanes and the threat to the Bahamas. I was always very aware of my island’s position in the climate.”
Having recently graduated from Columbia University, where she studied Sustainable Development, Lauren learnt more about climate change from a Western perspective. As an undergraduate student, her university years were marred by Covid-19: “When Covid happened, I left campus, and I had all of these passions, and I wanted to bring some of what I was learning in my classrooms to the Bahamas because conversations about sustainability didn’t look the same,
“This is when I started the Eco Justice Project, which began as a blog for me to write articles about sustainable food and sustainable fashion. However, when the death of George Floyd happened, I saw the importance of talking about social justice and how it intersects with environmental justice and all the ways that social implications exacerbate climate vulnerability.”
What is the Eco Justice Project?
“It’s a platform dedicated to environmental storytelling but also climate education that’s well rounded and intersectional that spotlights the most vulnerable communities and represents the perspectives you don’t typically hear from.”
Why do you think that white voices dominate conversations around climate change?
“The environmental movement field has always been very white. There was a rise of a certain kind of environmentalism at the time that I was creating the EJP that felt very far-removed from grassroots work, from the work being done by people of colour (POC), their needs and the perspectives of POC. It became very sensationalised and elitist. Inaccessibility was the word at the forefront of my mind.”
What did you recognise needed to be done?
“Education was important to me. I felt that there was a certain amount of climate education that was being done at this Ivy League institution that I was at, and I was building a community there.
“But back home, they didn’t have access to that, and I think, climate change especially, is something that’s so jargon-filled, so science and data-heavy, that I think for a lot of people, it’s hard to digest, and it’s hard to understand, and it’s filled with inaccessible language.
“It’s not disseminated to the people who really need it, so I wanted to build a digital community that was breaking down these difficult topics like environmental racism, neo-colonialism and what that meant for small islands and all of these topics that are a part of a daily reality that people at home don’t have the language to articulate.”
Lauren had no professors of colour in her department during her time at Columbia University, stating that: “That’s been the case for a long time because it comes from inaccessibility. There’s a narrative that ‘black people don’t care about the environment’, ‘this is a white people thing’.
“Sustainability is engrained in black and indigenous culture that you don’t typically see talked about.”
Climate change was talked about as a future problem in Lauren’s studies, however, she feels that it would’ve been better to have discussed current events and why climate change is so significant and all the different social roots that it would affect.
Image Credit: Lauren Ritchie
What is intersectional environmentalism to you?
“Intersectional environmentalism thinks about the way identities affect vulnerabilities in the climate crisis. Whether that’s socio-economically, racially, disabilities, being indigenous communities, or migrant status. There are so many different intersections.
“Having an intersectional perspective on environmentalism looks at the root causes of climate vulnerabilities and how we can address those so that these certain communities are not affected as harshly by the climate crisis.”
How can non-POC support POC?
“Having a better understanding of the needs of these communities. Sharing perspectives is a good way to spread awareness and humanise these stories. Because, in a lot of ways, people are desensitised to statistics. These communities have a lot of solutions to offer. There’s so much that we can learn from indigenous communities. There’s so much knowledge of what it means to live off the land and what it means to value the land.
“A culture shift is important if we are going to tackle this crisis effectively. This comes from learning about other ways of living and not exploiting the planet and pillaging it for resources and what it means to live in tandem and connection with the Earth.
What are climate policies like in the Bahamas?
“In the Bahamas, we have our first climate-conscious leader, which has been interesting to see the difference. It really highlighted the way that past prime ministers had just not focussed on this at all. He’s focused on getting young people involved, he organised the first Caribbean-wide conference to have a unified front at COP 27 - which is a big deal to have small island nations come together and be able to present as a regional community on climate issues.
There seems to be a lot of blame-shifting when it comes to climate change. Is this something you’ve noticed?
“Blame is put on the consumer. When intersectional environmentalism became popular, people concentrated on eco-friendly living and what they could do on an individual level when in reality, the problem is bigger.
“Taking a lot of the onus off of the consumer is good. There’s a lot of power in people. Individuals have a lot to offer in movements. Cultural changes and personal changes that we can advocate for are what change policy.
“These companies have so much money and they’re doing such evil things. When people find climate daunting, they often think there’s nothing to do and they get hopeless.”
What would you recommend for people wanting to learn more about intersectional environmentalism?
“There’s a lot of magazines that have a very nuanced perspective of climate change and I think if you’re really interested in learning more than you should go straight towards this, you can skip the eco-friendly, greenwash, surface-level stuff.
“Actively seeking out new information is a great way to start. You can find a lot of it on @EcoJusticeProject. I would really recommend the spotlight series – it spotlights a lot of different activists and the work that they’re doing in different sectors of climate change. The articles and submissions offer a lot of different perspectives.
To find out more about the Eco Justice Project, click here.