When I told my favorite history professor that I was considering a major in Environmental Studies, she stifled a laugh. “Really? I thought that was for the backpacking hippie white kids.” She specializes in 20th century America, and at the time, I was in her class on the Modern Black Freedom Struggle. We’d talked a lot already about my interest in making the world a better place, whatever that means — and while she cares about climate change as much as the next person, I think she was having trouble imagining me “wasting time” saving the whales when I could be dismantling the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
But here’s the thing: it was her class that made me realize how bound up environmental issues are with race, gender, and economic justice.
Last spring, Friday afternoons were kinda heavy for me:
1:30 PM — Gender, Health, and the Environment.
2:50 PM — The Modern Black Freedom Struggle.
4:00 — Lament the state of the universe.
Rinse and repeat.
One Friday, though, it hit me that all these seemingly distinct problems are not so separate after all.
In Gender/Health, we covered the geography of asthma: who gets it, where, and why. We talked about demographic distribution near industrial pollutant sources. We talked about infrastructural gaps that weaken communities by depriving them of resources. We talked about Laura Pulido’s “Rethinking Environmental Racism.” We talked about intervention strategies. Then I rushed off to history in a steady downpour.
Midway through class, my professor got us talking about redlining, the widespread loan discrimination that landed many black Americans in rundown neighborhoods.
At that moment, something clicked: the geography of the US didn’t come from nowhere. The fact that certain communities are deemed at-risk and are often the first to be affected by fossil-fuel extraction or toxic waste disposal isn’t random.
The environment as we experience it has been constructed over centuries by social and economic forces that categorically devalue whole swaths of human life…the same forces driving us to deplete finite resources despite predicted disaster, despite visible impact now.
In that moment, I knew: justice without sustainability is reckless, but sustainability without justice is virtually impossible.