Counterstory as Intersectional Environmental Activism

Curator's Note

Two years ago, in April 2020, the annual Earth Day was held in a fully digital format for the first time ever because of the lockdown caused by COVID-19. Despite the chaos of an unprecedented health crisis, the event was a success, especially as it demonstrated climate activists’ creativity in finding new venues and attracting new audiences, for example, through collaboration with the online gaming community. The early stages of the pandemic saw some unexpected, but welcome environmental optimism as news stories featured photos of wildlife returning to places no longer crowded by tourists and of the sky over industrial cities temporarily cleared from smoke. However, it soon became clear that such causes for optimism were nothing more but wishful thinking, and that COVID-19 itself was yet another consequence of the global ecosystem destruction. Since its onset, the pandemic has both created new environmental challenges such as the disastrous pollution from discarded face masks and PPE and magnified pre-existing inequalities, many of which are located at the intersection of social and environmental justice.

As Sarah Jaquette Ray writes in Scientific American, “Climate change and its effects—pandemics, pollution, natural disasters—are not universally or uniformly felt: the people and communities suffering most are disproportionately Black, Indigenous and people of color.” At the same time, even though there has been some progress in the past several years, environmental movements remain overwhelmingly white. As a result, existing policies have significant blind spots concerning inner cities and poorer neighborhoods that are disproportionately carrying the burden of pollution and climate change – places that are home to predominantly BIPOC communities. We are seeing the same trend globally: communities that are more economically and socially vulnerable often inhabit areas more prone to the negative effects of climate change: hurricanes and other natural disasters, higher levels of pollution, and increased exposure to heat waves.

In describing the effects of this glaring inequality, scholars and activists alike often turn to metaphors of suffocation. Ray, who criticizes climate anxiety as the longing of the more privileged to keep the comforts of their life before it got threatened by climate change, explains: “The white response to climate change is literally suffocating to people of color. Climate anxiety can operate like white fragility, sucking up all the oxygen in the room and devoting resources toward appeasing the dominant group.” Leah Thomas, the author of The Intersectional Environmentalist: How To Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet, reminds us that the phrase “I can’t breathe” that has become the slogan of the BLM movement has yet another sinister meaning: “There are people living in environments where they literally cannot breathe properly because of air quality (over 14 million people of color in the US live in counties with high air pollution.)” The pandemic has further contributed to the ways in which BIPOC individuals are suffocated by inequality, with disproportionately higher BIPOC hospitalization and death rates due to COVID-19.

In part as a response to the injustice that the pandemic has exacerbated, there seems to be a welcome rise in visibility of environmental advocacy and education efforts by BIPOC activists. To raise awareness, intersectional activists often employ what rhetorician and CRT scholar Aja Y. Martinez calls counterstory: a method of witness and testimony rooted in lived, embodied experience that destabilizes the mainstream narrative by centering marginalized perspectives. In the featured video Samir Nichols, an activist and educator from Camden, NJ, talks about a play that his students have put together based on interviews with local residents and their own experiences growing up as people of color in a polluted neighborhood. The play, Townhall Resolution 50, “depicts the lived experiences of environmental racism in Camden, based on resident stories of living in extreme urban heat, breathing in polluted air, wading through contaminated flood water and gathering concerns about what is to come when climate change accelerates these hardships” (Unmasked). Here and here are two of the many recent TED talks that share speakers’ personal stories of fighting environmental racism. And the newly launched podcast The Joy Report by The Intersectional Environmentalist pledges to feature “stories about positive solutions, environmental justice, and climate optimism to reignite our desire to take action to protect people and the planet.” The podcast creators remind us that the fight for climate justice is “a marathon, not a sprint” and advocate for the spirit of collaboration, active listening, and positive reinforcement on this journey: “Movements fueled by joy are so much more sustainable than those that are propelled by fear, dread, and doom.” There are diverse voices out there serving witness to environmental justice, and there should be more attention to what their counterstories have to tell us.

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