The environmental crisis is fundamentally a racist crisis; it is also classist crisis, a sexist crisis, and a crisis of capitalism. Environmental activism is meaningless if it does not grapple with issues of injustice and expose the links between environmental devastation, colonial history, and the exploitative relationships of the North and the South. But does this mean that campaigns focused on our connections to the natural world and the suffering of non-human animals are irrelevant?
Not at all: activists must reclaim these connections as a core political issue, instead of leaving the task of re-learning our place in nature to the National Trust or David Attenborough. We need to ask why saving the whales and fighting racism have come to be seen as separate ways of approaching the environmental crisis, and how we can join them back together.
Judging from my own conversations with other activists, there seems to be gap between environmental groups that focus on reconsidering our relationships with the natural world - which have a tendency to be less justice-based and overtly “political” - and those that focus on exposing the structures that have brought us to our current crisis. Would it not be more effective to consider these approaches as two sides of the same, destructive mindset?
Many of us in the global North see ourselves as outside of nature, a separation that is written into our language. The whole concept of an “environmental movement” is indicative of the fact that it is hard for us to conceive of the crises we face as broad, deep and multi-faceted. Separation is built into the borders we create between the “city” and the “countryside,” and into the way we’re conditioned to see the food on our plates and the objects we own as divorced from the ecosystems that sustain us. The idea that “humans” and “nature” are separate is a child of a colonial mindset that has been forcibly ingrained into every aspect of our lives by economic and political systems built on extraction at any cost.
In order to colonize people, the colonizers had to see land that indigenous people had cultivated for generations in harmony with nature as something with no worth. This ‘new’ land was not ‘pristine;’ indigenous communities had always promoted its biological diversity and beauty. Writer and researcher M. Kat Anderson describes how indigenous people in pre-colonial California used a variety of techniques to nurture the world around them to “allow for sustainable harvest of plants over centuries and possibly thousands of years.”
When indigenous communities were massacred or enslaved to make room for a new, extractive form of agriculture, many of these techniques were eradicated. Their suppression, and the widespread refusal to acknowledge the violent origins of modern societies, goes hand-in-hand with the loss of our perception of the earth as an entity with which we can have a mutually beneficial relationship. Even the most optimistic among us seem to be able to imagine a world in which human beings become “neutral” actors in relation to nature. Not only does this dramatically restrict our horizons; it also leaves a gaping hole in the idea of climate justice.
Many communities still maintain such mutually beneficial relationships and carry within them a deep knowledge and understanding of the natural world. This is perhaps the most valuable form of knowledge that exists. It is also the most undervalued. If we are to create a world based on justice, activists in the global North need to do more than stand in solidarity with indigenous communities; we need to learn from them. Those of us who are living in societies where it is becoming increasingly difficult to see ourselves as connected to nature need to start a process of re-learning how to restore ways of living that have been stolen, suppressed or made to seem outdated, when in fact they are indispensible.
No matter what we do to mitigate the worse effects of climate change, we already have decades of built-up global warming that have yet to play out in the atmosphere. Adapting to a changed planet will be inescapable, and adapting in a way that upholds justice will be a huge challenge. Even if countries like the UK take responsibility for the disproportionate damage they have caused and transform their economic systems to match up with planetary limits, justice requires that we also challenge the way we think about the world around us, in order to avoid reproducing existing hierarchies of knowledge and destructive relationships with nature. We must learn how to live justly and creatively in co-operation with a vastly-altered planet.
Interacting with the natural environment has also been proven to have positive effects on wellbeing, to the point where doctors are starting to point patients towards green gyms and community gardens to benefit their physical and mental health. Studies by Natural England and Mind support this contention, while research from Kings College London confirms that learning in nature is beneficial for children’s confidence, resilience and academic progress - though current education systems don’t give children enough opportunity to reap these benefits. Connecting to nature can improve self-awareness and allow us to discover how we fit into the world constructively. But access to nature is far from equal; this is a much-neglected issue of climate justice.
The amount of access each person has to the natural world is deeply entwined with issues of class and race. In the centuries following the first enclosures of agricultural land, access to the natural environment has been gradually privatized. It’s no accident that poorer areas are more polluted, or that parks used by predominantly working class people are turned into luxury flats, or that children from working class backgrounds have less access to nature. According to Natural England:
“more than one in nine children had not set foot in a park, forest or other natural environment over the previous year. Children from low income and black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) families were particularly affected. Just 56% of under-16s from BAME households visited the natural environment at least once a week, compared to 74% from white households.”
Access to nature is constantly being restricted in new ways. As well as being deeply unjust, this is deeply unhelpful to the fight against environmental destruction; how can a child be expected to envision a world in which people work with nature if they have never had the chance to get to know their own natural environment?
Many community gardening and permaculture projects in the UK are taking steps to tackle these injustices. The community garden is one of the most diverse and politically powerful spaces possible. There may not be any placards, but the act of occupying space and growing food together with people you would never normally meet is a political act, creating spaces and relationships that capitalism does not control.
That being said, permaculture could be far more powerful if it engaged more actively with social and environmental justice. The practices of permaculture are heavily influenced by indigenous practices and techniques that small-scale farmers in the global South have been using for generations. It is important that this heritage is recognised by permaculturists and transition movements, lest they become green oases for the privileged.
To suggest that we can move closer to environmental justice by reconsidering how we relate to nature doesn’t mean that anybody who calls themselves an environmentalist must be vegan and grow their own food. But it is to suggest that we ask ourselves whether our attitudes towards the natural world can sometimes echo the exploitative and fractured mindsets we are actually trying to fight. When we think about a post-capitalist future we must think about one in which we reclaim the knowledge and understanding of nature that has been violently eroded over the past 300 years. Movements for climate and other forms of justice will be far more powerful together than apart.
This shift in mentality will be huge, and it's a big ask in a time of crisis on multiple fronts. But it is precisely the nature of this crisis that necessitates deep shifts in our thinking that go beyond the conventional remit of left-wing politics. No doubt this challenge will take a different shape for every person who undertakes it. We cannot all become ecologists overnight, but we can at least be aware of our own attitudes towards the natural world and how we might want to challenge them. In doing so, we might find that the empathy and curiosity that are generated through our interactions with nature make us both better people and better activists.