books climate change social justice

The Intersectional Environmentalist, by Leah Thomas

Leah Thomas is a climate educator, the founder of the Intersectional Environmentalist collective, and also a case study in my book of someone who puts justice at the centre of their environmentalism. As someone I’ve learned a lot from already, I’ve been looking forward to her book for a while.

What exactly is intersectional environmentalism then? It’s “an inclusive approach to environmentalism that advocates for the protection of both people and the planet.” That sounds uncontroversial (or at least I hope it does). In practice it takes deliberate attention and that’s why it’s worth naming and articulating. The default is that decisions will be made by the most powerful, and their priorities will prevail.

We see this all the time: the UN climate talks taking decades to even begin to address climate justice. The lack of urgency around the climate crisis, knowing that the global North is less vulnerable. Conservation approaches that dispossess African communities. Clean technology investments that serve richer areas first, while minority communities breathe more polluted air. Climate ‘leadership’ from gentlemen like Bill Gates or Elon Musk, while the millions suffering the harm of climate breakdown go unheard. “Social and environmental justice are intertwined,” writes Thomas, and “environmental advocacy that disregards this connection is harmful and incomplete.”

If the green movement wants to do better, we have to be proactive about it. We need to understand how some groups have been sidelined in discussions. We need to open our arms in solidarity to a broader set of campaigns – in the past, indigenous land defenders or Black-led protests around pollution were not seen as environmentalism. We need to be alert to the ways that privilege affects our framing of environmental problems, and the solutions that get prioritised. Most of all, we need to listen.

In the author’s own words, The Intersectional Environmentalist is written “to raise awareness of unsung heroes, look beneath the surface, and reflect on missteps in social and environmental movements so that future movements can improve.”

In that spirit, it’s very much a resource book, with a real diversity of content. The book introduces vocabulary and defines key terms. It offers short and clear explanations of important ideas and campaigns, with brief histories of the environmental justice movement, or the Combahee River Collective, or ecofeminism. Intersectionality is kind of a clunky word and the literature around it has often been quite academic. Thomas makes it understandable, and perhaps most importantly, practical. These are supposed to be things that readers act on, ideally in a community context. With discussion questions and prompts, this is a book that will read well in community, with opportunities for learning together and doing things differently.

There’s also a diversity of voices, with guest contributions including German activist Sheena Anderson, Lisa Tatu Hey from Kenya, and Scotland’s Michaela Loach – whose recently announced book is top of my reading list for 2023. There is inevitably more of a focus on the US context, and climate justice within America, but there is plenty for readers elsewhere to learn from. Perhaps especially here in the UK, where environmental justice is still quite an under-developed field, and questions of class, race and gender don’t often surface in climate discussion.

In short, I wish I’d had this book to draw on years ago. But it’s available now and you can get it from Earthbound Books UK or US if you’re so inclined.

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