What does climate change have to do with race? On this episode of Small Doses, host Amanda Seales unpacks the global impact of environmental racism with guest Céline Semaan.
Semaan is the founder and CEO of Slow Factory, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing climate justice and social equity. Their innovative approach challenges traditional narratives about climate change solutions, which as Semaan notes, “was oftentimes co-opted … by affluent white groups and very exclusionary of any people of color.”
Instead, the organization approaches climate change solutions from a practical lens that emphasizes the need for change on a systemic level.
Environmental Racism and Climate Injustice
A major part of Slow Factory’s work is shedding light on environmental racism, or the disproportionate impact that climate change has had on the “global majority” or the Global South, a term used to classify countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Oceania (in lieu of saying “minorities” or “third world countries”). In fact, the majority (85%) of humanity resides in the Global South.
But even with the Global South’s power in numbers, these communities bear the brunt of environmental injustices around the world.
Waste is a large part of the problem. Countries in the Global South have become a dumping ground for waste discarded by Global North countries (including North America and Europe) such as textile, electronic and plastic waste.
This is the definition of “waste colonialism,” Semaan explains. On a broader scale, “green colonialism” occurs when the Global North “achieves a high standard of living by exploiting the health, labor and land of the Global South.”
Our Massive Waste Problem
How did we get here? A growing appetite for purchasing—or consuming—goods in countries like the U.S. plays a major role.
“Who created that system that allowed for things to be created in such a linear way? Nature is cyclical. There is no waste in nature, it doesn’t even exist. This concept of waste is a white construct, if you will,” Semaan says. “The ways in which the white man has designed this whole system of extraction and pollution is out of profit, out of gain for a very small group of people. At the expense of all of us. That’s why we are the global majority.”
Whether we’re discussing the Global South or communities of color in the United States (Flint, Michigan is one example), the racial and economic disparities of climate change are rather conspicuous.
“The folks that are the most affected are frontline communities, and often they are either people in the Global South or people here in the United States that are purposefully discarded and … oppressed communities,” says Semaan. “And it’s not just by chance. It’s designed this way.”
We Need a Systemic Change
But there is hope! It’s not all doom and gloom, Semaan says.
The answer lies in large-scale, systemic change. The potential for real change falls on industries and governments that have the power to make a real impact. “There’s a lot of panic that falls on the shoulders of the citizens that are already trying to make ends meet,” Semaan says. “What we need is systemic change. We need change on a governmental level, on an industry level.”
A large multinational company like McDonald’s, Semaan suggests, has the power to stop incorporating materials or practices in its production process that do more harm than good to the environment.
“The solutions exist,” says Semaan. “What doesn’t exist yet is the will in which we want to implement these solutions because they require a financial investment.”
There’s a lot of panic that falls on the shoulders of the citizens that are already trying to make ends meet.
And as the focus must shift to a system-wide approach, we must also consider the human cost of the conveniences that we as consumers enjoy today.
“There are multiple solutions. Any solution that we’re going to be presenting needs to be looking at human rights,” Semaan affirms. “Climate justice and human rights go hand in hand. They must be discussed in the same way. They are intersecting issues. They are compounding issues.”
Dig deeper. Listen to the full conversation with Céline Semaan here.
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