Opinion: Student research indicates that marginalized groups care more about environmental justice

environmental justice
Photo courtesy of Eva Hambach
This article was written by Mackenzie Bennett, applied anthropology student at Boise State.

With the growing issue of climate change, the general public is becoming more familiar with the concept of environmental justice. Social media allows us to document and engage with environmental issues that pose a serious threat to the health and well-being of people everywhere. Making these issues visible is important, especially for marginalized groups. This leads us to a key component of true environmental justice: intersectionality.

Intersectionality is the complex way that multiple effects of discrimination overlap in the experiences of marginalized groups. 

I am an undergraduate researcher interested in learning about science communication. With funding from the Boise Cascade Environmental Research Fellowship, I had the opportunity to conduct research on how to effectively talk to the public about major environmental issues like climate change. Dr. Shelly Volsche, Dr. Stephanie Capaldo and I conducted a survey on how the way we talk affects climate change engagement.

environmental justice
[Signage at a climate action rally.]
Photo courtesy of Eva Hambach

We noticed something interesting: queer participants were much more likely to actively engage with environmental issues (e.g. searching for information, contacting representatives, etc.) than non-queer participants. To learn more about this, I reached out to Dr. Som-Castellaño from Boise State’s sociology department and Dr. Shelly Volsche from the anthropology department. 

What is environmental justice? According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” Notice how important identity is in this definition. Identity is directly connected to how we each experience the environment.

This is why we must view environmental problems intersectionally, recognizing the impact of all our overlapping identities. One way we do this is through One Health. 

“One Health is a lens through which we can view the world. It is about the interconnectedness of humans, other species and our environment,” Volsche said. 

Volsche explained that while One Health was originally promoted by the CDC to examine how our environment influences our physical health, it has been expanded to our mental and social health. This leads to a similar perspective: One Justice, which applies these ideas to environmental justice. The environment and humanity (with all of their intricacies) influence each other. 

So, we understand that our identities are tied to our experiences with the environment and environmental justice. It’s logical to think that different demographics would have different levels of engagement with environmental issues. But why is the queer community, in particular, more likely to get involved than non-queer participants? 

“I think queer participants may have reported higher engagement because in many ways, members of queer communities are already advocates,” Volsche said “They must advocate for themselves every day. Many individuals in these communities are also already thinking through the One Health model, even if they do not realize it. Alternatively, heteronormative individuals may not have spent as much time researching and questioning the norms they follow.”

Dr. Volsche makes an interesting point. Queer individuals are already forced to advocate for themselves because of the discrimination they face every day, so they are generally more engaged with other types of advocacy. Non-queer individuals may feel less of this pressure. Queer people (and many other marginalized groups) readily see the interactions between the environment and their lives because they are forced to. 

In addition, Dr. Som-Castellaño pointed out that people in marginalized groups tend to be more affected by environmental issues, further forcing them to pay attention and take action. 

“For instance, some recent research finds that LGBTQ+ communities experience disparate impacts of disasters. They link this to factors such as ‘bias in federal disaster response programs, and lack of recognition of LGBTQ+ families.” Som-Castellaño said.

“Building on this, while popular culture often assumes that those who are most involved in environmental activism are the privileged, research demonstrates that it is those who are most likely to be impacted by negative environmental outcomes, including some of the problematic consequences of climate change, who are also most likely to be actively involved in environmental activism.”

Because of the discrimination and disproportionate impacts of environmental issues they face, marginalized groups, including the queer community, tend to be more involved in environmental advocacy out of necessity. 

We understand the importance of intersectional environmental justice and why marginalized groups like the queer community may be more engaged in environmental advocacy. This leads us to our takeaway from this study: what can we do to incorporate intersectionality into environmental communication? 

“In terms of considering intersectionality, I think this is essential – we must consider the ways in which it is not a single factor that influences how people experience the environment, broadly defined, as well as environmental activism, but the intersection of various forms of marginalization (or privilege),” Som-Castellaño said. “Research demonstrates that gender, race, class, sexuality, geography and more can shape a person and/or community’s experience with environmental change.” 

This is a keystone of true environmental justice. To effectively deal with environmental issues, we need to recognize the complex overlapping identities that change our individual experiences with our environment. Finding a solution that supports only one group is not finding a solution at all.

“Honestly, I think intersecting identities exist everywhere, so of course, they occur in environmental justice and communication spaces. Evolutionary-minded scientists think about traits in terms of population variation; this aligns with the idea of ‘spectrums’ we so often hear about in queer communities,” Volsche said. 

“Again, when at one’s core they find it necessary to view themselves in this way, it becomes easier to view the rest of the world in this way. This then leads to responding to new information, acting on behalf of the ’voiceless’ (literally in the case of the environment and other species), and generally engaging in uncomfortable conversations other people do not have to do as often.”

Environmental issues are social issues. To solve the environmental issues, we need to consider the social side of the problem. This means giving marginalized groups representation, a voice in decision-making and aid in advocacy. Recognizing and listening to those who are disproportionately affected by environmental crises will bring us closer to true environmental justice.  

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