I recently had a discussion with a colleague (we’ll call him Chris) who is also in the climate justice space. We were talking about the fact that some climate activists and communicators are worried and frustrated that, despite now moving out of the initial crisis phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, media interest in climate and environmental issues is low. 

Then, the conversation went something like this:

Chris: I think the problem is that we (as privileged climate activists and communicators) think our siloed environmental and climate agenda must be driven to the top, on its own. Then we are surprised when it doesn’t work because people are worried about other issues.

In South Africa, every day, it’s not having a job, living in poor health, living marginalised. In Europe it is Covid-related fears, people’s businesses closing as economies run onto the rocks. And for many people, it’s being subjected to systemic racism everyday, and the real-life effects that come with that. So we shouldn’t be surprised.

Sarah (me): I think that the more privileged climate ‘activists’ among us – many of us – weaponize the plight of poor people and marginalised people in order to further our own existential climate agenda. We say they are the ones that will be hit the hardest and that is why they (and we) should care. But then we don’t actually show any true solidarity and care for those same causes beyond maybe posting a link here or there. 

It is the same way that privileged people here in South Africa weaponized the plight of the poor to justify why the government needed to open the economy instead of staying in hard lockdown. Whilst it is true, poor and working-class people suffered the most from the halt of formal and informal economic activity, why was this suddenly considered by people who had never really cared about the degree of inequality here in South Africa before?

We, as white environmentalists, shout loudly that there is an apocalypse around the corner. When for people of colour in South Africa, the apocalypse has just been a long drawn-out process since 1652. 

I think the only way forward is for the climate justice and environmental movement to be radically inclusive and in solidarity with all other social justice issues which stem from the same root causes as climate change does: colonialism, capitalism, racism, extractivism, and toxic patriarchy.

Many BIPOC (Black Indigenous & People of Colour) environmentalists such as Leah Thomas, are rightly calling for systems of oppression to be dismantled within the environmental movement which for too long has had issues such as racism and sexism within it. Black youth voices in South Africa like Ayakha Melithafa are also calling for greater solidarity between movements. The environmental movement has to be intersectional and mobilise together with causes like Black Lives Matter. That also means that the movement needs to be led by those who have previously been unheard. 

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I decided to share this conversation because it sheds a light on the issues within a climate movement, dominated by privilege (often white, cis-gender, heterosexual, and global north voices.) Something that needs to change if we are going to really get anywhere with addressing the planetary crisis which cannot be addressed as an environmental and climate problem alone. 

As Thomas says: “Can environmentalism be truly effective if it continues to ignore those that are most vulnerable in our ecosystem and society?”

I think that the topic of this conversation needs to be had by all privileged environmentalists and those concerned about climate change on an ongoing basis – and not just amongst ourselves.