Environmentalism and Human Rights are NOT Separable

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The term “environmentalist” comes with its share of stereotypes. Even I, a self-proclaimed environmentalist, associate it with a crunchy-granola-white-liberalism. Like all stereotypes though, this is obviously untrue for many of us. Environmentalists come in all shapes and sizes and from wildly different circumstances, and yet there remains this perception both within and outside of environmentalist circles that fighting for the environment is its own battle severed from any other form of activism and social justice.

Amongst many environmentalists, we see a sense of this “superior fight” in which we believe our environmental cause is more important than fighting for smaller social equalities, and amongst other activists, we find environmentalists looked down on as choosing plants over our fellow human beings.

Herein lies one of my biggest qualms with environmentalism: this hierarchical division between the environment and the people is a fallacy. Environmentalism and human rights are not separable.

To begin, this concept that humans are not part of nature is laughable—not only have we shaped our environment to a greater extent than any other being or force of nature, but we’re also at the mercy of our environment just as any other plant or animal is. We are inextricable from our natural environment, so environmental rights are human rights on the most basic level.

Second, fighting for the environment is inherently fighting for its inhabitants. To combat climate change is to combat the melting or burning or flooding of animal and plant habitats, but it’s also to combat the flooding of coastal homes of impoverished populations that will not be able to relocate; it’s also to combat droughts that wipe out the primary income and food source of rural farming communities. The destruction that we bring on the environment turns and wreaks its havoc on the most marginalized and vulnerable populations, so to fight for the restoration of mother nature is to fight for basic human rights.

Within our community of environmental activists, we see frequent compartmentalization rather than intersectionality.

Nonetheless, tons of environmentalists have also deemed their cause superior to that of social justice activists and seem to have forgotten that it’s not enough to show up for the survival of the trees and the polar bears. Within our community of environmental activists, we see frequent compartmentalization rather than intersectionality. Instead of viewing our fight as one in the same as those fighting for the people, we forget about humanity altogether. This should not be the case—if we are willing to show up and speak out for the whales, for the bees, for the forests and for the rains, we better also be willing to show up for people without homes, without food, without water, and without freedom.

So how can we actively take steps in our own lives to ensure we are constantly supporting the environment and our people alike? For those of us who are capable, literally showing up for a wider variety of protests, marches, speeches, or rallies is an easy start. As citizens with voting power, we can exercise that power by voting for candidates with intersectional values rather than those with one-track mindsets.

But even in our everyday lives, we can fight for our causes simply through purchasing power—we don’t always have to choose between sustainability and human lives. A great place to start is to do your research on brands that not only put sustainability first, but also have ethical working conditions. This applies to every industry of consumer goods from food to clothes to cosmetics, but for now, let’s focus on fashion.

Some of the most popular fast fashion brands have recently come out with “eco” or “green” lines, but continue to cut corners in the labor department in order to keep costs down. These options, though arguably better because they might use a few recycled materials, are still exploiting human beings. The good news is that we’re seeing more and more companies pop up that highlight the environment and ethics. Some popular clothing brands that stand out in this realm are Reformationand Everlane. For more ethical and sustainable shoes, Veja is a great option, and for workout clothes, you may want to try Girlfriend Collective.

Now just to be clear, we absolutely have to acknowledge that many brands and products that are made sustainably and ethically will inherently be more expensive. If a company is paying its workers fairer, higher wages and is using high quality, non-polluting materials, they have to recover their costs somehow, meaning their prices will increase and will quickly become inaccessible to huge portions of the population. There are, however, ways to continue to support sustainability and human rights even if we’re unable to afford a pair of $130 jeans.

The most accessible option (and my go-to choice for all shopping) is thrifting! Buying used clothing, furniture or really any material objects is one of the most sustainable ways to consume because you’re giving new life to already existing products rather than contributing to the manufacturing of new ones. Used clothing is also way cheaper than buying new.

Ethically, many thrift stores are also committed to important social causes. Popular stores like Goodwill or The Salvation Army provide employment, training, and community programs to marginalized populations that face difficulty obtaining jobs. There are also countless local, smaller scale charitable thrift stores in every city (one of my Philly favorites is Philly AIDS Thrift).

When it comes down to it, environmental justice is really about how we can take little steps towards keeping both our planet and our people in mind not only as activists, but as everyday citizens and consumers—mobilize with both in mind, vote with both in mind, buy with both in mind.

We cannot call ourselves environmentalists without regarding the justice of human beings, nor can we call ourselves activists for social change without regarding the natural environment that links us all together.

Top Banner photographed and created by @anikamurasaki