Em-URGE-ing Voices

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Environmental justice is to reproductive justice as water is to life

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January 9, 2023

Environmental justice is essential in the fight for reproductive rights. Without the planet and the nutrients it provides for us to thrive and grow, how would we survive? How could we live to fight another day towards gender equity and reproductive access? Ecofeminism “argues that the domination of women and the degradation of the environment are consequences of patriarchy and capitalism”. The climate crisis is an attack on our reproductive rights. We cannot live the lives we choose and create the families we want to raise when we become environmental refugees in the ongoing climate crisis. 

While it may alleviate some of the personal responsibility each of us feels, carrying a metal straw in our bags will not save the earth. On an individual level, every one of us should opt to practice mindfulness in what we choose to consume, but our individual practices in sustainability will not save us as a collective. The people who are most responsible have deceived us into thinking that we are the problem, but we should not forget that the real problem is not the everyday individual – it is the extremely wealthy and faceless corporations that continue to pillage our planet and sap it of all its resources out of greed and in the name of white supremacy and class supremacy.

The blatant lack of regard from the elites to care for our planet means that the most marginalized and vulnerable among us will pay the price – the climate crisis will continue to harm BIPOC communities, pregnant people, and young people. The Flint water crisis came into public awareness in 2014, and eight years later, it is still an ongoing health concern for many Flint citizens, a predominantly Black and low-income community. Among the many concerns that come with lead poisoning, a study found that fertility rates of Flint citizens decreased by 12%, and infants at birth were more likely to have complications. When environmental racism meets reproductive harm, generations of communities can be disrupted by the debilitating lack of access to safe and clean water.

We need to center those that are most at-risk to be displaced by the ongoing climate crisis. Our attention needs to go towards communities that are experiencing the harshest and most extreme weather. And as sea levels continue to rise, we should be responsive to island communities and countries below sea level, especially those in Asia. Most recently, Pakistan’s monsoon season showed a record level of rainfall in over three decades, leaving a third of the country underwater. The floods took the lives of over 1,300 people, left millions houseless, and destroyed essential hospitals, schools, and transportation systems. What was once a critical warning from environmental activists has now become a real-time threat as we are watching the impact of the climate crisis unfold before our eyes. These shouts for change have been echoed by environmentalists for many decades, especially the voices of Indigenous activists who have been on the forefront of this fight.

Among the concerns of Indigenous environmentalists in America are the devastating oil spills from various pipelines, most notably the Keystone pipeline which has had numerous leakage incidents over the past few years. Recently, this pipeline has spilled more oil than any other U.S. pipeline in over a decade, dumping over 600,000 gallons of oil into the local ecosystems where neighboring Indigenous reservations are most impacted. These oil spills are not only a threat to the local wildlife and plants that rely on clean water, but it is also a threat to the health and safety of the communities that surround these pipelines, which are most often low-income BIPOC communities. A study conducted on the Gulf oil spill found an increased risk of miscarriage from exposure to oil. Beyond reproductive health, exposure to oil spills can also cause respiratory and liver damage, decreased immunity, and increased risk of cancer.

We cannot talk about the ongoing climate crisis without acknowledging the ways that our collective American society has benefited from the land that has been stolen from Indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples have lived on this land for centuries in harmony with the environment, and within a few short centuries we, who benefit from this bloodshed, have managed to sacrifice the planet and its precious resources to a broken system that only protects the wealthiest among us. The environmental devastations taking place around us speaks both literally and metaphorically to the insidious nature of white supremacy, colonization, capitalism, and the stolen land from and genocide of Indigenous peoples.

Environmental justice begins with reparations to Indigenous peoples. In the past few years, it has been uncovered that there were mass graves of Indigenous children buried on the grounds of former boarding schools in Canada, where Indigenous youth disappeared and never returned home. Here in America, we have alarming rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women, however the carceral state fails to acknowledge and make active efforts to rescue and bring awareness to these missing Indigenous women. The living conditions of Indigenous communities who live in Native reservations have been compared to conditions of the “third world”, with inadequate access to employment opportunities, safe and secure housing, and healthcare. These are just a few of the many injustices facing Indigenous communities. One of the greatest acts of reparation we have yet to make is returning the land stolen from Indigenous communities, as only Indigenous ways of knowing will save what is left of our planet. 

As we grimly march towards an unknown future, we must hold ourselves accountable to the young people who will come after us and inherit this earth. What will be left behind for them? Will there be anything left? We must ask for forgiveness for the unspeakable destruction we have caused this planet, and we must ask for mercy for our descendants. Environmental justice is reproductive justice, but it is also disability justice and racial justice and economic justice and more. It is more than protecting our right to personal bodily autonomy and the choices we make, but ensuring our collective survival so that there will be land and resources for future generations to come.

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