I started on my journey concerned about wildlife. It was not that I did not care about societal injustices or did nothing about them, but I felt I was most qualified to do something about the natural environment. It turns out that as I have progressed along this path I have had to come to terms with being unqualified in any sense, except one. I am part of nature, I am part of the human race. In this sense, I am as qualified as anyone else. I have come to realise that this is all I need to act.
Over time, I have come to feel the pressing urgency of social justice and its inextricable connection with the climate and biodiversity crises. The causes of social injustice and the other crises are the same – the idea that some life is disposable, some life is purely in service to others – people and nature as “resources” or “utilities.”
Injustices in Our Supply Chain
So the hopeful news is that in healing one, we can heal all. It is, however, no small matter to change mindsets in this way and it is incredibly painful to realise that, however unintentionally, we have allowed this to happen. At the very core of the problem is disconnection. It becomes easy to be complicit in injustice when we are unaware. When we do not see the suffering and exploitation, the deforestation and pollution, we can consume (and discard) products of these activities without feeling. It is much harder to do this when you have a direct connection with the tree that made your house, with the person who harvested the cacao in your chocolate or with the animals who were displaced for the plantation to grow the palm oil in your toothpaste.
So a first step is to get connected. The start of this process is to understand the journey that everything that you consume has taken. I highly recommend The Story of Stuff Project as a great place to start. They also have a fantastic YouTube channel. There is also the Rotten series on Netflix, which is frankly difficult but essential viewing (possibly not one for the kids or the highly eco-anxious though – it is rated 15).
Fortunately, we can do something about this. For those who are able to afford to, choosing palm-oil free, organic, fairtrade, local, seasonal, ethical products is the way to go. However, for many the struggle to cover grocery bills even with the cheapest products is very real. We stumble on another injustice. Surely everyone should be able to feed, wash and clothe themselves in a way that completely nourishes them and honours the sources of those gifts?
What we can all do is to speak up – to tell our shops and suppliers that we want our purchases to be ethical and to ensure that everyone has access to groceries and clothes that they can feel good about. The most obvious way to do this is in the way we vote. However local projects such as community food gardens and food waste initiatives are also providing excellent opportunities to make a meaningful difference to people’s lives.
Here are just a few of the ways that injustices appear in our supply chains:
- Children mining metals such as cobalt, copper, gold and tin which are used in the manufacture of electronics such as smartphone and electric vehicle batteries by companies like Apple, Samsung and Sony
- Deforestation, child labour, slavery and exploitation in the production of chocolate
- Fast fashion is associated with a multitude of sins from diverting vital water from thirsty populations to the violent treatment of workers, not to mention the environmental damage
- Some fishing also turns up a host of abuses, from forced labour to overfishing, denying local populations access to a vital food and a source of income
Bearing the cost of historic and present day injustices
Growing numbers of people are being affected by the way we have been treating people and planet. Pollution disproportionately affects poorer communities – not just globally but also on within our own cities and towns. The way that we have organised our societies means that people with lower incomes generally live in the areas with fewer green spaces, more air pollution, sewage, refuse sites and so on. Since those people are much more likely to be black or people of colour, it is also a racial justice issue. There is a clear correlation between the pollution and physical health problems.
Frequently, we outsource our pollution and waste problems to poorer countries. There are people literally living with burning plastic. Worldwide, the people who have done the least to cause climate change are facing the worst of the effects. People are losing their homes, lives and livelihoods to flooding, wildfires, droughts, storms, sea level rises and excessive heat all driven to higher frequency and higher intensity by the man-made global warming. They are living with food insecurity as the places they have depended on for crops and grazing become barren. Rivers have completely dried up. On this path, more than 1 billion people are expected to become climate refugees by 2050. Already at an average of 1.1 degrees of warming we have had 21.5 million climate refugees since 2010.
The Intersection of Biodiversity and Social Justice
In all likelihood, we underestimate the role that nature can play in keeping our climate stable. That is to say nothing of the critical nature of biodiversity in all our other Earth systems – from water to the soil we grow our crops in. Indigenous peoples represent 5% of our human population and yet the protect 80% of our biodiversity. The people most connected with the land understand how to live in harmony and balance with all of life. Sadly, many have been displaced, subjected to violence and abuse so that the places where they live can be exploited. Sometimes they have been displaced for “conservation” purposes by people thinking that the wildlife would be better protected without people living in nature reserves.
At the same time, access to nature is a social justice issue beyond the lands of indigenous people. During the COVID pandemic, it became abundantly clear that access to green and blue spaces, which is essential for our mental and physical wellbeing, is far easier for more affluent, mobile households. It is not just that black people are four times less likely to have a garden than white people, they are also less likely to live near public green spaces. All the time, access to such spaces is restricted. It is critical in our efforts to protect wildlife and to set up rewilding sites that we are really mindful that we are not creating more enclosures and shutting local people off from the places they depend on to access nature, not least because the science shows that access to green and blue spaces has a key role to play in physical and mental wellbeing.
I have really only touched upon a very brief snapshot of the ways that nature, climate and social justice intersect here. However, you can hopefully see why I have chosen to fundraise and raise awareness of the issues.
We can all help, by listening to people affected by these issues, by making ethical choices in the ways we bank and spend our money and by talking about this with others. If nothing else, let’s treat all lives as sacred.