In the late 1980s, Britain had very few governmental positions focused on raising awareness and addressing local environmental issues.
Unlike the US at the time, we had no policy discourse or social movement tackling environmental or climate justice — yet it was clear to a growing number of activists that the poorest residents in urban Britain, many of whom were Black and Brown, lived in the most deprived areas in terms of proximity to large polluting roads, poor or unaffordable housing stock, social exclusion, lack of educational and economic opportunity, disinvestment and lack of green and play spaces.
However virtually nothing was done. Issues were actively ignored, often by white environmental activists who were focusing instead on areas such as biodiversity, conservation and climate change (importantly different from ‘climate justice’). Some, including Julian Agyeman, who worked as an environmental policy advisor at the time, felt this only sought to reinforce the exclusivity of white environmental activist agendas over those from other ethnicities.
To address this disparity, a group of activists of colour, including Ingrid Pollard, Judy Ling Wong, Roland de la Mothe, Vijay Krishnarayan, and Swantee Toocaram, founded the Black Environment Network (BEN) in 1988 to increase activism, reframe environmental and sustainability agendas and get more people of colour into environmental jobs.
With the publication of a series of landmark reports in the US, the cry for a “justice” framing of environmental and sustainability issues was growing louder. Eventually, this led to President Bill Clinton’s 1994 executive order, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, which contributed significantly to the development of public awareness in the US of ‘environmental racism’: the intentional and disproportionate loading of bad environmental practices (such as pollution and toxic waste) on communities of colour.
In Britain, things were slow to change. Even Friends of the Earth’s groundbreaking 1999 report, Pollution Injustice: The Geographic Relation Between Household Income and Polluting Factories did not mention race as a factor.
“The social justice perspective must be included in green campaign agendas,” says Julian Agyeman, “because, short of coercive measures, true environmental wellbeing will only exist when there is human wellbeing.”
While the concept of intersectionality has slowly grown over the past few years particularly through vocal activists such as Tori Tsui, the deep rupture between environmental activism and the need for an equity framing has plagued Britain for decades — keeping ‘green’ agenda away from tackling ‘social’ issues such as poverty, equity and justice, whilst also keeping people of colour out of both the environmental movement and environmental jobs.
Thankfully, research has inextricably shown that issues of environmental quality are linked to those of equity and human equality at a global scale. Wherever in the world environmental despoliation and degradation is happening, it is almost always linked to questions of social justice, human rights, racism, equity and people’s quality of life in its widest sense.
From the wet-bulb temperatures being experienced on a more frequent basis in the global south, to excessive heat in formerly redlined US neighbourhoods, to pollution-related deaths such as Ella Kissi-Debrah who lived within 30 metres of London’s South Circular Road, it’s the poorest who are bearing the brunt of environmental and climate shifts, and yet who are more often than not, the least responsible for their cause.
If we look at our position today relative to the 1980s, the situation among activists and policymakers is very different. With Kate Raworth’s equity-focused Doughnut Economics, the justice-focused Greenhouse Development Rights framework by the Stockholm Environment Institute, and the UN Sustainable Development goals which more fully reflect poverty and inequality, racism, Indigenous and women’s rights, we’ve come a long way.
What’s clear, is that we still a long way to go.