As someone who is interested in creating environmental change, whether that be fighting climate change or reducing plastic usage, the advice I usually hear is quite formal: encourage technological innovation, use market mechanisms, improve regulation, change consumer behaviour.
Which is why quite different advice I heard at a recent talk really struck me. When asked for three tips for creating environmental change Dr Astrida Neimanis, a lecturer in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney, suggested we “be less racist, be more feminist and learn about decolonisation.”
These are huge topics to dive into but on the surface Neimanis’ advice appears quite powerful. Environmental problems are not just technical issues caused, for instance, by pollution, overuse of resources and destruction of habitats and species. They are driven by the beliefs and values which underlay our political, economic and legal systems and which shape our damaging behaviours. To create change it is crucial not only to understand how these systems damage the environment but why they do and who is paying the greatest price.
I might rephrase Neimanis’ tips: learn about race, learn about gender and learn about colonialism. Each of these concepts and bodies of knowledge helps us understand how the global economy we are all a part of today shapes our lives and the systems we live within. They also help us address issues of injustice regarding which groups experience the impacts of environmental issues the most severely.
Gender for instance is central to understanding climate impacts and climate solutions. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which shapes global climate agreements like the Paris Accord, describes women as being “disproportionately affected by climate change impacts” yet having “a critical role in combating climate change.” Gender equality is the fifth of the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which all 194 countries of the UN General Assembly have adopted and are working towards by 2030.
Indigenous peoples too, according to the UN, are likely to be the first to suffer the impacts of climate change, impacts which will exacerbate the issues many still face as a legacy of colonisation. Environmental impacts like pollution can also be closely tied to race with communities of colour (non-white) more likely live in areas which suffer from high rates of pollution. This has led to recognition of environmental racism.
Learning about race, gender and colonialism then are important for recognising these injustices and creating environmental change to address them. They might also help us understand and address the wider environmental problems we are facing today as well as help us avoid creating future ones. That’s why I’m taking Neimanis’ tips on board.
Photo at top by Neil Palmer (CIAT)