By: Chloë Arneson, News Writer
On May 11, 2022, SFU350 hosted a virtual book tour to promote Leah Thomas’ new book, The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet.
Thomas is the founder of Intersectional Environmentalist, an organisation that seeks to highlight the often overlooked overlap of racism and climate change. Thomas, a writer based in California, describes herself as an eco-communicator.
Her book highlights the racism and privilege present in mainstream environmentalism and the interconnected systems that harm both minorities and the planet. Thomas discusses how aspects such as age, race, ability, spirituality, and sexuality often compound and influence how one experiences the world around them.
Thomas first coined the term “intersectional environmentalism” when she created a pledge that reached over 1 million people. Her website explains “social and environmental justice are intertwined and environmental advocacy that disregards this connection is harmful and incomplete. Thomas coined the term intersectional environmentalist based on Kimberlé Crenshaw’s framework of “intersectionality.”
“I decided to take a stand because there was a real disconnect in the mainstream environmental movement, where only some people were given a microphone,” said Thomas. She noted a majority of the activism she saw was centered around the future of white children. “There wasn’t also a focus on the urgency of the present for people of colour.”
Black Americans are 75% more likely to live in areas with facilities that expose them to toxic waste. In Canada, Indigenous peoples are also exposed to hazardous waste at disproportionate rates. “People of colour globally are facing the brunt of the environmental crisis,” said Thomas.
She described how the Black Lives Matter movement impacted her as she was studying environmental science. “I felt a sense of guilt being so far away in California, and beautiful Orange County, meanwhile back home there was suffering,” she said. Thomas is originally from Florissant, Missouri, close to where protests broke out in 2014 over the police shooting of Michael Brown.
“I felt really cynical because I was learning about these significant pieces of environmental legislation, but as one of the few students of colour in my classroom, realising that these same laws were not being equally enforced for all people in the United States and across the world.”
Thomas expressed the need for institutions to include environmental justice as part of their curriculae. “I knew that people of colour, even if they weren’t reflected in the textbooks I had, I knew that my culture practices sustainability in our own way,” she said. “I want all the world’s people to see themselves reflected in environmental education and movements.”