As we live out our day-to-day lives, it is easy to forget how intertwined our surroundings actually are. While the social and environmental worlds seem completely different from one another, if you look closer you can see that they are more dependent on one another that you may have thought.
Every day, we travel to work, pass through man-made environments, and sit behind desks for a vast chunk of the day surrounded by concrete. Based on our evolution from active lifestyles, which were once necessary for survival, we’ve become more sedentary and maybe even “out of touch” with the nature around us.
In this contemporary world, everything is more connected than ever before. That is to say that what we do, as humans, impacts the world around us and vice-versa. At the same time, humans have behaved as superior to nature for a long-time. Mankind has been exploiting Earth’s natural resources, not thinking of long-term consequences for the environment or marginalized populations when building what we now refer to as the “Industrialized World”.
Especially in Western societies, there is often a separation made between the natural world and the human social world. This has led to the mindset that we’ve had until now, but in many other cultures and nature-based religions, a separation between both does not exist: mankind and nature are one.
It is important to realize that the more we make a separation between these two “worlds”, the further away we get from our awareness on the impacts that we are leaving on our planet, of which will long outlive us. It would be unwise not to realize the interconnectedness between the environment and the people, who make up our society. In the end, if one part of our society suffers, then the consequences will also hurt the society as a whole. This is exactly what we are seeing in the case of climate change.
Political Implications of Environmental Injustices
If you look closely into cases where environmental injustices have taken place, you will find that there are always groups where the impacts and consequences do not breakeven. There will always be a group that tends to be more affected than others in society. Impacts can range from mere inconveniences that can be worked around to life-threatening consequences ranging from the stability of livelihoods to having access to resources needed to survive, which are both considered basic human rights.
It is important to keep in mind that communities are not homogenous, which is to say that even in one community, members can be affected differently based on their income status, gender, sexual orientation and race.
These differences can be factors in having access to the same opportunities or resources and maybe even put some community members inadvertently in harm’s way. This is where social injustice and environmental consequences meet at a crossroads.
Case Study: Direct environmental injustices, Dakota Access Pipeline
Let’s look at the act of illegally dumping chemical waste into the natural environment. The act of disposing toxins into a nearby river stream may not only affect the biodiversity surrounding the river itself, but also livelihoods that rely on the health of the river itself. Those that depend on the river for drinking, cooking, washing and cleaning are asymmetrically threatened and exposed to higher risks of poisoning and adverse health effects.
Whereas, wealthier communities who do not depend on the river for survival may see illegal dumping as a non-issue coming from a position of privilege by having access to purified tap water. Here, the factory is responsible for the action of dumping and the direct consequences not to mention the indirect increase of inequalities and community divisions based on socioeconomic circumstances. Now in the days of social media, a factory or corporation that engages in these types of harmful practices will be held accountable with more and more voices of the oppressed being heard and gaining traction amongst the socially conscious.
A real life example where environmental injustice took place is in the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which remains contested to this day. In the Northern Midwest of the United States, plans for a Dakota Access pipeline were released in 2015 and immediately met with outrage. The 1,172-mile (1,886 km) crude oil pipeline was proposed to cut through the Dakotas and into Illinois, controversially to be built on semi-autonomous and sacred Native American lands. The construction was seen not only as a threat to the river water and those that rely on it for survival, but also for the historic landmarks and cultural grounds of indigenous communities.
The Standing Rock Sioux immediately raised specific concerns about the pipeline’s proximity to the Missouri River and the potential for water contamination and as a result demanded for an environmental impact assessment to be conducted to determine the safety of the project. This request was initially denied, sparking widespread outrage and protests around the country for the creators and backers of this project. Those providing financial support were demanded by protestors to back out of the project to restore dignity and respect for the Standing Sioux as well as other Native Americans who had faced environmental and social atrocities since the nation’s founding.
In spite of the protests that took place in support of the environmental review, the pipeline continued to be built to completion in 2017 albeit with many disruptions from protestors strategically blocking sites and damaging infrastructure to delay the building process. Continuing the project without having regard for the environment also had financial repercussions. Major losses were recorded, 4.4 billion to be exact, from divestments largely in part by the bad PR and public backlash that the pipeline project leaders had accumulated.
Now in 2019, environmental accountability has finally caught up with the pipeline. In 2020, an order was made by a federal DC Court to suspend operations of the pipeline until a full environmental review was completed by the US Army as current operations violated federal environmental law. This is largely considered a victory by the tribe, who will continue to seek justice for their environment and precious resources.
While the lack of environmental concern by the project creators was nothing more than an initial afterthought, the impacts for the Standing Sioux were much heavier. It was an assault not only on sovereignty, but also an attack on nature, which in Native American culture is intertwined with the human social world. Had the project leaders taken the social and environmental impacts into account when analyzing the feasibility for such a project, society as a whole would have benefitted.
Inequalities and Climate Change
Social inequalities are not only facilitated by direct environmental injustices. Indirect environmental impacts like climate change also have severe impacts on marginalized communities and populations. Not all populations have the same capability of adjusting to changing circumstances, which can widen the gap for social inequalities. Some communities lack the needed resilience to keep going when they are threatened by environmental injustices and related issues such as rising tides, droughts, severe storms and air pollution.
This puts other groups in society that are not marginalized in the same ways, in more powerful positions as their chance for survival in the same circumstances is higher due to the resources available to them. This again enables others to take advantage of the situation. In many cases, marginalized communities do not have enough opportunities to let their voices be heard.
This is why movements such as “intersectional environmentalism” are of great importance. Environmental injustices can only be fought if all voices can be heard and different perspectives can be fully acknowledged and understood. To overcome environmental injustices is to overcome social injustices.
It is more important than ever to get back in touch with nature. Once this has been re-established, then we can make decisions which are in touch with an interconnected nature and society. Wrongs done to nature, can also impact the people around us and create or enlarge (already existing) social inequalities. Luckily, the environmentalism movement has been growing in the last decades, and more and more people are aiming to right the wrongs that have been done to our planet. It is up to you to decide which impacts your actions will have on Earth and its inhabitants.
If you have business operations that you would like to change to be more socially and environmentally sustainable, the good news is that it is never too late to consciously own up to your impacts and change for the better.
Set up a call with us here to take the first step. As we live out our day-to-day lives, it is easy to forget how intertwined our surroundings actually are. While the social and environmental worlds seem completely different from one another, if you look closer you can see that they are more dependent than you may have thought.
In this blog, I will look into how, in many cases, injustices develop from a disconnection with nature. Keep reading to see how our choices can perpetuate domino effects on the society around us and how to adapt our thinking to fight injustices and inequalities.Read More