Image by Beth Jnr
Author: Katie Runk
Published: February 21, 2022

        It is not unreasonable to only think of plants, animals, or ecosystems when discussing environmentalism, but one of the most important tenants of sustainability reminds us that environmental rights are inseparably linked to human rights. When the land is taken advantage of, so too are the people of that land. According to the United States Department of Energy, 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.”

        Relevance of this concept to our modern age can be traced back to the colonization of indigenous and aboriginal human societies by the white Western elite who aimed to forcibly exploit the natural resources that the pre-existing civilizations had responsibly managed. Areas that have been abused by this exploitation have been especially concentrated in Africa as well as the pre-Westernized Americas. Capitalism is a concept birthed from the white supremacist West which prioritized profit over all other values, including human wellbeing, and its agenda was immediate profit and infinite economic growth. This system of infinite growth is, of course, a problem on a planet with finite resources.

        Not only is this system destroying the environment, but it creates a power imbalance that is making it nearly impossible for common people to stand up for themselves and their environment. We have to remember that this entire system was placed upon societies across the globe through force and brutal coercion. This is a system developed with the motivation of dominating those who do not have the power to fight back. It is true that the modern world no longer relies so heavily on overt violence, but this is only because it utilizes another tactic that has proven to be far more effective, partially due to the fact that most people do not even realize it exists.

        These people have been robbed of their sovereignty and made dependent on the socio-economic system that benefits only “developed” countries, specifically wealthy white populations. So, because they do not have access to their natural resources and have been disconnected from the skills and cultures that their ancestors utilized in their societies, they have no choice but to participate in their own exploitation. The capitalist culture of encouraging negligent consumption creates a world where vulnerable populations are forced to sacrifice their quality of life to manufacture material goods for the privileged populations whose waste is then exported back to the exploited areas after we are finished with our consumption. The poor are literally drowning in the trash of the wealthy.

        Africa harbors some of the most atrocious cases of environmental injustice in the form of modern slavery. This is especially prevalent in the mining industry, as Africa hosts a high concentration of valuable materials and rare-Earth metals used for the production of most of the world’s products, especially technology. Few precautions are taken by the facilitators of mining programs to monitor the wellbeing and rights of their laborers, and countless miners become victims of toxic fumes, collapsing tunnels, and falls off of dangerously steep sediment hills. These workers, many of which include children, often work for 12 to 15 hours a day, and receive wages less than 2 U.S. dollars, if they receive compensation at all.

        Most members of the modern world have been convinced that slavery is a thing of the past, but Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights defines slavery as “the use of forced or compulsory labor without providing the opportunity to freely choose the means of one’s gainful employment.” In theory, the worker technically does have a choice to walk away and not participate, but the alternative is essentially death. For instance, if the two choices presented to a mother are to work in horrific conditions for insufficient wages or to let her children starve, does she really have a choice? When nature is abused, so too are humans.

        It is estimated that approximately 24.9 million people are trapped in forced labor worldwide, with a majority of them exploited for the purpose of unessential supply chains which produce modern luxuries such as mobile phones, clothes, shoes, and décor. Women and young girls account for 71 percent of those modern slavery victims, a fact which illustrates the patriarchal values of the elite class. It is undisputable that modern slavery is linked to environmental degradation and climate change. As local populations are disconnected from resources depleted by global corporations, those populations have no choice but to participate in the cycle that perpetuates exploitative labor and environmental destruction. There is a catastrophic power imbalance between the wealthy minority and the rest of the world, which makes us almost powerless to fight against the greedy hands of capitalism. The rights, livelihoods, and ecosystems that should be shared by all citizens of the planet are treated as disposable by a profits-based system.

        Many of us in the modern world have been taught that this reality is natural, and that there is no alternative to capitalism, but we must work to dispel that myth and push the truth that things can be different. The world we live in is deeply and disturbingly unjust, and efforts to improve it will always include a combination of environmental and human justice. The people who profit from this injustice often try to force us into apathy and ignorance, creating societies which value convenience and ease, which encourage us to take the easy route and avoid questioning the larger picture, because this is a system in which inequality thrives. We have to value wellbeing of our fellow humans more than we value being able to buy the new iPhone. Our world can be better, only if we learn to care enough to make it better.