Environmentalism, Sustainability, And Social Justice
I think that fourth grade was the first time I thought of myself as an environmentalist. I’m not sure if I used that specific word, but the thought was there. I loved the outdoors, science, and was curious about the world around me. So, I became vegetarian, which I still am today, and decided to run for my middle school’s Environmental Board the following year. I didn’t win that year, but the following year I made it into the group and I was a part of it through my senior year of high school when I was the co-leader.
For most of this time I was fighting for environmentalism. Environmentalism: advocacy of the preservation, restoration, or improvement of the natural environment. I knew that humans were actively harming the world around us and I wanted to be a part of a network that specifically was fighting for the other species of the planet. But, as I entered high school, I began hearing a new term come about that drew me in more than environmentalism. This word was sustainability. Sustainability: the integration of environmental health, social equity, and economic vitality in order to create thriving, healthy, diverse and resilient communities for this generation and generations to come. The practice of sustainability recognizes how these issues are interconnected and requires a systems approach and an acknowledgement of complexity.
Image source: Build Magazine, What is Sustainability?, 2009
I was drawn to sustainability as a concept because of its attention to the future. I thought that we were making too many decisions that would benefit us here and now, but be detrimental to both humans and other organisms around us in the future. Throughout high school I saw sustainability through this first venn diagram model, but it wasn’t until I got to college that I learned the second, ring model was actually how we should think of sustainability. The way that this model works is that the smaller rings are reliant upon the larger rings. Put simply, this means that without a healthy, functioning environment, we cannot have a human society and, without that society, we could never have an economy (as there would be nobody to make money). Sustainability puts the environment first, but then prioritizes human well-being next.
Most recently, I’ve been thinking about where I stand in all of this: the future, the diagrams, and the perceptions. Who is the “we” that I have referenced throughout this? Why do I associate myself with this group? Do I associate all humans with this group? If so, is that fair? With these questions I came to the realization that my own sustainability centers around humans. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely don’t mean that humans are the “best” or most worthy species, nor do I mean that we should exploit and harm other species around us, nor do I think we are entitled to anything on this planet. The last point I stand firmly by: as a part of a system we cannot only take without completing the cycle of giving back. However, as a human being myself, I can most easily relate to other people and would choose to give up another organism in the environment for a human’s life any day. I don’t think that everyone should have the same view/standards, but knowing my own values, I have been shifting my view and method to both working towards a resilient future for both the environment and people around me.
Image sources: E. Wikandor/Azote, Re.Think, A Resilient Future in 2050, 2019
From this, a term often thrown around is social justice. Social Justice: Social justice is the equal access to wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. Social justice falls into every ring of sustainability because every decision we make has intended and unintended consequences. The phrase “equal access to privileges” stuck with me because privilege is an advantage given to a certain person/group, not often used in the same phrase as the word “equal.” I’m somebody with a lot of privilege. As a white person, I am not discriminated against based on my race, I see versions of future paths for myself in many media outlets, I am not forced to think about how others perceive me on a daily basis, I can live in whichever neighborhood I want, the list continues. I have the privilege of being a college student, of getting a higher education at a private college. I have the privilege of living in a community with safe air quality, and not being forced out by environmental impacts. I have the privilege of being able-bodied and passing through spaces that were built for me. Again, the list goes on.
By studying my own privileges I can more clearly see how all of these concepts: environmentalism, sustainability, and social justice are related and interconnected. Again, because we live in a systems environment, one solution may cause more problems in another area. Right now I don’t know where I fall in any of these. But I am certain that there are concepts I have not thought about yet, things I am missing, and ways I will change as I learn more. So, I’m being critical about any solutions I propose or stand behind and thinking about how my privileges affect what I see in these solutions/what goes unnoticed. I’m researching and asking questions but I also know that I have the privilege of being able to research forever without acting and my life would be relatively unchanged so I’m trying to act as well by sending letters to my senators, donating to organizations that align with my values, getting my friends involved in climate action events, and monitoring my own waste, both physical and of greenhouse gases etc. I implore you to think about and act on these things as well. How does what you are doing affect the systems around you? How does your privilege affect the solutions you believe will help our planet and the people and organisms living on it? What is one step that you are going to take this week to actively take a step to fight for what you believe to be a more just future?