Our Contribution to the Planet

By Amina Hrnjic

Environmentalism is a term most individuals are familiar with. In the introduction of The Intersectional Environmentalist, the author, Leah Thomas, says that she hopes when one thinks of environmentalism, they’ll envision a person who cares deeply about not only the environment, but people too. Intersectionality is the complex, cumulative way in which multiple forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups. This dates back to the Civil Rights Movement, more specifically the women’s liberation movement. It was created for the purpose of making African American women feel heard because the advocacy for women of color was not a focal point of the mainstream feminist movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. African American women aimed to achieve equality in all sectors of life and so this idea of intersectionality came to light. The intersectional theory made space for Black women in the feminist movement and helped make the idea of equality more inclusive of all women, regardless of race, color, religion, or background.

Intersectional environmentalism (IE) argues that social and environmental justice are intertwined. Thomas says, “Intersectional environmentalism argues that the same systems of oppression that oppress people also oppress and degrade the planet” (Thomas 32). This idea of intersectionality can be applied to environmentalism to accomplish the goal of environmental justice. Hazel M. Johnson is seen as the “mother” of environmental justice and was a Black environmental activist from the South Side of Chicago, Illinois. Johnson noticed that there were tremendous hazards in predominantly Black communities, particularly Altgeld Gardens. Thomas explains, ”Just one-third of a square mile contained fifty landfills, hundreds of toxic waste sites, and 250 leaking under-ground storage tanks” (Thomas 39). For her entire career, Johnson fought to prove that the many instances of environmental injustice in Black neighborhoods was not coincidental, but rather intentional. She was one of the activists that helped create the seventeen Principles of Environmental Justice, which was presented to Congress in 1993. This was the first instance of social and environmental justice being introduced together. The 17th and final principle states: “We, as individuals, make personal and consumer choices to consume as little of Earth’s resources and to produce as little waste as possible” (Thomas 43). According to this principle, we must actively choose to make smart choices in regards to the planet to preserve it in the best manner possible.

I was in Bosnia this past summer, and I turned on the faucet only to see 3 drops trickle out. Every year, it seems the water dries out. This past summer, we ran out of water not soon after my family and I arrived. It could have been due to the heat, or possibly the fact that people aren’t particularly wise when it comes to utilizing water. That includes myself, as well. Outside of Bosnia, I don’t pay much attention to leaving the faucet running, or showering for a long period of time. Honestly, I didn’t care much about wasting water because while living in America, I was privileged enough to always have it accessible. I wasn't aware, but the lack of water was due to the Bosnian War that took place between 1992 and 1995. The damages inflicted on the country’s infrastructure pose a threat to its water resources and overall growth and prosperity. “The focus of the study was visible wartime damage, what had been destroyed or taken away, and we have got a figure of 14 billion euros in direct war damages in Sarajevo in the period of 1992-95," Duljko Hasic told Reuters in an interview” (Reuters, “Bosnia: Sarajevo's war damage totalled $18.5 bln - study. 12 Dec 2006). During the war, the sewers and water supply systems began to get clogged by debris, resulting in inadequate water supply throughout Bosnia at that time. However, this is still evident today, as lack of water infrastructure and regulation contribute to the poor water supply in my town and many others throughout the country.

In the specific town I live in, there’s always people working outside on fields and obviously water is needed for crops. I get it, but it can be frustrating when I can’t even wash my hands without having to pour water out of a bucket to do so. Most households draw drinking water directly from the streams of Bosnia’s rivers. However, these rivers have become increasingly polluted and the existing infrastructure is in poor condition. The river in front of my house is beautiful, but I often see trash floating in the water. The crashing current of the stream carries plastic bottles, bags, and waste; this has become all too common. There’s litter everywhere in Srebrenik, the town I live in. After learning there is a very poor recycling system in the country, I’ve realized that taking care of their land isn’t a top priority for most of the population. Seeing this has opened my eyes to how insensitive people can be; they make poor choices which in turn lead to environmental crises.

I reflect back to all of the garbage I saw. If people become more considerate of the planet, their homes could be a cleaner, nicer place. I fully believe people can change their lifestyle to fit the needs of the planet if they really wanted to. As for the water running out in my town, I noticed myself and others around me being more careful about spending water. My brother bugged my dad for weeks for our swimming pool to be filled, but we never filled it. We respected that the water could be used for more important matters, such as showering, cooking,  watering plants, and even washing our hands. I didn’t realize until then that I had taken something so simple as water for granted. Water is a necessity, but clean, accessible water is not a luxury everyone is fortunate enough to have.

I honestly have never heard the term intersectional environmentalism before until just a few weeks ago; however, environmentalism was taught to me briefly in elementary school. I specifically remember picking up litter around the school on Earthday. There’s this big field behind the school that we used for all sorts of activities, such as kickball and soccer. I knew I was aware of my environment, but I doubt I thought too deeply about it.

The author shares this idea by introducing the 16th principle of environmental justice which reads: “Environmental justice calls for the education of present and future generations which emphasizes social and environmental issues, with an appreciation of our diverse cultural perspectives” (Thomas 43). With that being said, schools and educational institutions should educate their students on environmentalism and what can be done to preserve the planet. Allowing students of all cultural backgrounds to participate can encourage those whose voices have been silenced to finally speak up. Looking at where the theory of intersectional environmentalism stemmed from, African Americans have often been left out of the equation when it comes to appreciating their viewpoint. By including individuals of all cultures, we can expand our understanding of environmental justice. It’s evident that we all have a contribution to the planet, whether it be big or small. Some believe their contribution is insignificant; when in reality, any step in the right direction is huge. We can contribute by making smarter choices, educating ourselves, and respecting different cultural perspectives. Making smarter choices can help us reduce waste and save Earth’s resources. Educating ourselves about the idea of intersectional environmentalism will break systems of oppression and create space for those whose voices are dismissed. Respecting diversity and uniqueness will help bring people together; our planet cannot prosper without our help. Only by recognizing this can we make a change in the world and achieve environmental justice.

Works Cited

Bosnia: Sarajevo's war damage totalled $18.5 bln - study - Bosnia and Herzegovina

Thomas, L. (2023b). Intersectional environmentalist: How to dismantle systems of oppression to protect people + planet. SOUVENIR PRESS LTD.

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