Environmentalism VS Sustainability

Environmentalism VS Sustainability: When One does not Equal the Other

Environmentalism often goes unquestioned in its promise of a sustainable future, so the title of ‘Environmentalism VS Sustainability’ may seem confused.

These two terms are regularly used interchangeably, with ‘sustainability’ carrying strong connotations of environmental action. But, though caring for our planet and its ecosystems is a significant part of ‘sustainability’, its true definition covers far more.

While sustainability has been given many definitions over the decades, perhaps the most commonly cited is adapted from Gro Harlem Brundtland who, in 1987, explained sustainability as the capacity to meet the needs of present society without compromising the same capacity for future generations.

Brundtland’s definition was used by the United Nations in the writing of their Sustainable Development Goals, which include 17 interconnected commitments towards improved social, economic AND environmental wellbeing.

Restricting our ideas of sustainability to purely environmentalist values excludes these pillars of social and economic development. Therefore, the environmentalist movement, when considered in isolation, perpetuates a variety of social and economic inequalities and allows the needs of broad swathes of society to go unmet.

In cases where so many needs and experiences are not considered, environmentalism fails to live up to expectations of its sustainability.

In this post, I’ll be exploring some of these issues, in the hope of explaining why we need to be critical when considering environmentalism vs sustainability – from the language we use to the discussions we have and actions we take.

A Note on Intersectionality


Throughout this post, I will mention issues of intersectionality, so allow me to explain what this mean.

Intersectionality is essentially the layering of oppression or privilege by identifiable social divisions.

For example, to be black in a white-dominated world is to experience oppression, as is to be a woman in a patriarchal society. To be a black woman combines these forms of oppression and the restriction of opportunity they entail.

Similarly, to be white, male and of high socio-economic status means enjoying layered foundations of privilege.

These issues intersect not only in effect, but also in cause. For example, racist discrimination often makes it more difficult to move upwards in social class.

Here I must acknowledge my own privilege. While some may devalue my voice as a woman, the facts remain that I am white, British, educated and able to access the time and resources to share my opinions without fearing for my personal safety.

While I passionately hope to use this privilege responsibly, I know that I cannot speak for the lived experience or needs of those more vulnerable than myself.

In this post, I have focused on race, class and gender as intersectional social divisions within the environmentalist movement. This is not an exhaustive list and far more could be said relating to, for example, sexuality, trans rights, indigeneity etc.

Though it has not been possible for me to delve into all of these within one post, but the point remains that all Earth’s citizens have diverse knowledge and struggles which must be accommodated both now and in the future if true sustainability is to be achieved.

The Colonial Racism of Environmentalism


The environmentalist movement has been built on a long history of colonial racism.

Yup, I know its hard to take, but it needs to be addressed.

Some of the earliest names arising as famed environmentalists date back to the early 1900s. Names such as Madison Grant, Thomas Muir, Henry Osborn and even Theodore Roosevelt.

While their commitment to environmentalism may be admired, it ought to be critiqued. Grant has become infamous for the white supremacist books he wrote, which were heavily praised by Osborn and Roosevelt.

These men came together in inventing National Parks, which are often viewed as areas of peace and tranquillity, free from environmental destruction and symbolic of sustainability.

However, their motivation was not so benevolent with its focus on preserving only life which they held aristocratic respect for, while openly disregarding less visible species despite their important contribution to the health of our planet and its biodiversity.

The wildlife they deemed ‘noble’ and ‘lordly‘ enough to be protected generally included the animals they took pride in hunting individually, while the plantlife they endoresed was that which allowed them a scenic getaway from their (very taxing I’m sure) everyday lives.

While preserving and promoting a distorted environmentalism that matched their world view, these powerful white men reassured visitors that native communities had been driven from the land, killed or civilised into useless innocence’ (John Muir).

Indeed, both Yellowstone national park and Yosemite national park were created through the forced displacement of indigenous communities.

The ideology that ‘wilderness’ can only be protected by strict separation from human life continued for over a century. The 1970s saw a boom in such conservation methods, and only in 2007 did the UN publish their Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

This declaration aims to reinstate the role and relationship of native populations in their stewardship of land. Often premised on cultural and spiritual rituals, as well as familiarity with resources, indigenous stewardship is gradually being recognised for its potential contribution to self-sustaining, regenerative land management. 

Positive examples include the return of indigenous stewardship to the coast of Senegal, which has brought multiple species back from the brink of extinction, and the decrease in deforestation following Guatemala’s redistribution of land rights to native communities.

While these examples suggest gradual progress is occurring, it cannot be denied that colonisation displaced thousands of indigenous peoples from their land, lifestyle and livelihood.

Local knowledge and experience has, throughout history, been devalued by powerful nations which have interrupted traditional harmony with coercive and destructive focus on industrial productivity.

This ignorant greed was founded on white supremacy and the direct oppression of human beings.

Through obsession with capitalist production, many conservation efforts have not even succeeded in protecting the land they forcefully claimed as their own.

Displacing indigenous communities from their livelihoods has led to many cases of increased illegal extraction, causing crime and violence to ravish local areas.

Corrupt government officials, poachers, miners and commercial tourism operators all stand to gain from supposedly protected land when it has been emptied of its traditional protectors.

States have failed to uphold their commitments, and often turn to their ‘protected’ land for new development opportunities, citing economic growth as viable justification. One example of this is the oil drilling occurring in Yasuri National Park, Ecuador.

Meanwhile, the consequences of environmental degradation are impacting BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of colour) populations more quickly and severely than their white counterparts.

Climate related disasters such as drought, flooding, forest fires and extreme temperatures hit poorer nations first and these nations are generally far less prepared and far less to blame.

In ‘developed’ countries too, BIPOC communities are unequally affected by environmental issues.

As pollution has intensified, these communities are more likely to be subject to toxicities which cause major health problems, with air pollution estimated to cause over 9 million premature deaths each year.

This alarming figure was given before the Coronavirus pandemic, which has only exacerbated the issue.

Meanwhile, racist governments have prioritised industry and economic growth over the protection of their own citizens.

The American EPA have, under Trump’s governance, refused to tighten standards around reduced air pollution. Wealthy nations throughout the UK, Europe and the USA continue to export hazardous waste to vulnerable countries while demanding mass produced imports often created in exploitative and unsafe conditions by non-white labourers.

Despite the unique understanding and experience of environmental issues and colonial history by BIPOC communities, the environmentalist movement remains distinctly racialised in its prioritisation of white voices and white leadership.

Environmental studies taught in white-dominated universities have been heavily criticised for failing to acknowledge the historic oppression, struggles and contributions of ethnic minority groups. This makes it difficult for BIPOC students to relate to or feel welcome in critical fields of environmental science and policy making.

In recent months, with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, many states, corporations and brands have put forward their commitment to standing in solidarity with BIPOC citizens.

However well-meaning these commitments may be, they lose any significance when they fail to consider historic and current oppression.

For example, industries including agriculture and fashion have been built on the exploitation of BIPOC labourers. 

Despite increased demand for ethical practice in these industries, such as through fair wage production and factory auditing, issues of exploitation are ongoing.

Ideas of sustainable industry tend to focus on providing greener solutions and attempting to improve transparency, but they are compromised when they fail to allow the experiences and perspectives of BIPOC individuals to enter their higher levels.

This is made evident by statements from employees of reputedly sustainable brands such as Everlane and Reformation, criticising their organisational culture for its racialised harassment and dismissal.

The struggle of BIPOC communities in having their voice represented is endemic within the environmentalist movement, with a 2014 study finding that 89% of leadership roles in environmental organisations were filled by white people.

This means that the needs and experiences of BIPOC communities are not sufficiently regarded by the mainstream environmental movement, and so it cannot lay claim to true sustainability.

The events of this year seem to have sparked some recognition of racial-environmental intersection, and BIPOC environmentalists are making themselves heard.

We can hope that things will change, but it is our collective duty to listen, acknowledge and respect.

The Classism of Environmentalism

A further dimension of inequality within environmentalism is its classism.

A recent report found that 52% of globally accumulated carbon emissions are produced by the wealthiest 10% of the population. 

Although emissions have risen across the world, the same report finds that this has rarely been in effort to increase the socio-economic wellbeing of those who need it. Rather, it has been through greed and demand for luxuries of the wealthy such as air travel and over consumption.

Meanwhile, as previously mentioned, the worst effects of environmental degradation are often experienced by those most vulnerable; in poverty stricken nations and, even in ‘developed’ countries, those living in lower income areas.

These are the areas exposed to air pollution, water pollution and other toxicities which can lead to generational health consequences such as asthma, cancer and other diseases.

This has gained particular relevancy in recent months, as the COVID-19 pandemic has had unequal effects on the poorest members of our society, whose damaged health leaves them more likely to be hospitalised or killed by the illness.

Yet, despite their vulnerability, the environmental movement does not always consider the needs of those with lower economic status.

Messaging and imagery is targeted towards the middle class and those at the top of political and economic hierarchies who are more able to provide their time and resources.

While the powerful are encouraged to donate money to save the polar bears and politicians are lobbied to make shifts towards greener energy, poorer communities continue to face immediate risks including unemployment, criminalisation and displacement.

Living day-by-day, pressured by the need to maintain a low-income lifestyle, poorer communities often cannot risk or afford to join protests

Their voices remain unheard in policy-making, which means that localised environmental issues such as community-devastating air pollution are rarely prioritised by environmentalism.

Disempowered groups are less able to challenge new developments of industry or infrastructure, yet the cheap land they exist on is the perfect target area for air polluting factories and out-of-town dumping grounds.

Seemingly sustainable policy, developed alongside environmentalist movements, often bare little relevance to poorer communities.

An example of this is the increased popularity of offsetting schemes or net energy metering, both of which essentially allow industry the right to continue their polluting activities on the grounds that they are ‘made up for’ elsewhere.

While these initiatives may benefit the environment overall (see my recent post on the trade-offs of sustainable energy), they allow those in power to choose where pollution takes place and who is to suffer from it.

Such solutions often fail to pass benefits down to lower income groups, for example the promotion and subsidising of solar energy can make it more difficult for poorer communities to access affordable housing.

Environmentalist activities such as transitioning to organic produce or sustainably sourced fashion can also exclude the poorer classes of our societies, as their difficulty in scaling means prices remain high.

Even Extinction Rebellion, with their foundational environmentalist purpose, have been called out for their classism as less wealthy citizens are often unable to join or be heard in their protests.

Another important factor in and environmentalism is that of education, as access to quality schooling or University is a common barrier faced by those of lower socio-economic status.

This further impacts the opportunities available to poorer classes to gain political power in policy making, the respect afforded to environmental experts, or even the understanding and language required to engage in productive debate.

These issues of classism within environmentalism are deeply intersected with those of race, as poorer social classes and the low-income areas they inhabit are disproportionately populated by black and ethnic minority citizens.

Extinction Rebellion have been further criticised for their celebration of arrest and its lack of sensitivity towards issues of class and race which have a long history of police brutality and unfair treatment.

Not everyone can afford, feel safe, or take pride in being arrested.

Gender and Environmentalism

Environmentalism is also heavily gendered.

Environmental issues have increasingly been recognised as having disproportionate effects on women.

Gendered violence, including domestic abuse, rape, sexual harassment, forced (and often child) marriage or prostitution and sexual trafficking have all been found to be more prevalent in areas under environmental pressure.

As communities face scarcity and stress, gender-based violence increases in reaction. For example, where resources are plundered or affected by climate-related disaster, more women and girls are forced into marriage, prostitution or unpaid labour in desperate attempts to earn a living. 

Competition for local resources causes conflict where women and girls face increased incidences of rape and harassment which are used as brutal assertions of dominance.

In the distribution of scarce resources, women are already disadvantaged by lack of land and legal rights, leaving them particularly vulnerable to displacement of home and livelihood.

In many areas of the world, women are still responsible for child care and looking after the home, but increasingly have to work to secure additional income in exploitative systems dominated by men.

Contemporary research and development initiatives are beginning to appreciate women’s role in protecting the environment – as they often fill roles directly related to natural resource management, such as those in agriculture, manufacture and duties of care such as gathering wood and water.

Patriarchal history has given women a strong basis for understanding oppression and inequality.

As they are more likely to experience the consequences of resource extraction, food insecurity, biodiversity loss and other environmental issues, women across the world have important insight into environmental needs.

Despite the unique contribution made available by these insights, women’s voices are poorly represented by the environmentalist movement.

Governments have been criticised by activists for failing to recognise the risks posed to women and girls by environmental issues, meanwhile female activists are more at risk of gender-based violence which seeks to silence their voice.

Traditional relationships between women and nature, which often involve nurture and stewardship have been accumulated and suppressed by patriarchally dominant approaches to development which revolve around accumulation and productivity.

This marginalisation is present even in the most powerful nations, for example in the US where several major environmental organisations have been accused by female staff members of allowing sexual harassment and discrimination to go unchecked in the workplace, creating an unwelcoming culture for women in environmentalism.

Similarly, the ongoing gender gap in STEMM professions means that women are less likely to be engaged in environmental science careers, contributing further to their lack of representation in critical policy making.

While these gendered divisions are reportedly closing, change is occurring extremely slowly and environmental governance is still far from the diverse representation needed to incorporate multiple perspectives and potential solutions.

A recent example of this is evident in the UK’s exclusion of women leaders in hosting the upcoming UN Climate Summit. Women, including Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, will only be represented at more junior levels. The absence of women in environmental leadership removes its capacity to consider and challenge gendered experiences and perspectives of ecological issues which could otherwise prove valuable in their solution.

Female activists have regularly been undervalued and dismissed in their environmentalism. Examples include Donald Trump’s reference to Greta Thunberg as “a happy young girl” and the interrupting shout against Canadian Environment Minister, Catherine McKenna, which labelled her “climate barbie“.

Such verbal abuse undermines the important contributions of women in environmentalism. Doing so allows the needs of women to go unmet, causing exclusion in a movement too readily perceived as inherently sustainable.

It should also be acknowledged that this gendering of environmentalism has negative effects on men as well. ‘Green’ behaviour has connotations of femininity due to historic socialisation of women as caring and nurturing while men have been encouraged to engage in traits such as dominance, competitiveness and aggression.

While it could be argued that this adds to the need for women leaders in environmentalism (given that capitalist, resource-intensive society is built on and maintained by these ‘masculine’ traits), it can also suppress the beliefs and behaviours of men who might be made to feel emasculated and ‘unsuccessful’ for engaging in environmental action.

Of course, gendered issues of environmentalism also intersect with those of race and class. The exploitation upon which several of our industries are built on are most often staffed by BIPOC women under the management of wealthier men.

Similarly in activism, though Greta Thunberg receives some verbal abuse, she maintains her influence over a dedicated fan-base.

Meanwhile, her Ugandan counterpart, Vanessa Nakate has been misidentified and cropped from group photos, highlighting the additional oppression she faces due to her race.

Environmentalism VS Sustainability

What these intersecting injustices show is that environmentalism is not always productive in meeting our definition of sustainability as meeting the needs of current and future generations.

While solutions such as developing ‘green’ product lines, offsetting carbon emissions or supporting conservation should (note: SHOULD – see my post on greenwashing for an exploration of when even this isn’t the case!) benefit the environment, if they involve ignoring or exploiting vulnerable communities then they fail to be truly sustainable.

Environmental initiatives alone cannot be accepted as sustainability, because both in history and in the present day, it has contributed to exclusion and oppression, failing to meet the needs of all Earth’s citizens.

When we consider environmental issues as existing in isolation from other social, cultural and economic factors, we fail to engage with underlying and interconnected barriers to full and inclusive sustainability.

Sustainability is not just about being green. It must embrace all colours, genders and classes.

On the other hand, to consider social, cultural and economic issues as separate from environmentalism is also problematic.

Initiatives focused on, for example, paying workers a fair living wage are all very well, but if they continue to rely on resource-intensive, extractivist industries then the planet will only be able to support us for so long. Furthermore, the vulnerable communities supported by such ethical solutions will continue to experience the struggles of environmental destruction before those more privileged, however fairly they may be paid.

Though I have titled this post ‘Environmentalism VS Sustainability’, my intention is not to pit the two against eachother. 

Environmentalism and the care we take of our planet is, of course, extremely important in ensuring that global needs can be met both now and in the future. What I hope to have done here is highlight the importance of differentiating these terms, of seeing sustainability as going beyond environmental measures.

In doing this, we can look critically at the way we hope to achieve sustainability. We can appreciate the perspectives of those who need and deserve representation. We can understand sustainability as requiring a holistic approach which combines environmental consideration with social, cultural and economic issues in support of a truly sustainable world.

This is the meaning of sustainability. It accounts for justice, inclusivity and empowerment as well as for the wellbeing of our ecological home. Environmental connotations of this word have limited its power and allowed important issues to go uncriticised.

Alternative language such as ‘environmental justice’, ‘climate justice’ and ‘intersectional environmentalism’ hope to reclaim this power but are not yet in everyday usage. These are things we need to think about and actions we need to take.

I hope this post has in some way helped to promote that discussion and consideration – Thank you for reading and, as always, I’m open to any questions or feedback!


For more information on environmental justice, the movement fighting for inclusive, intersectional environmentalism, I recommend these three articles and the work of the activists they cite. Your information and opinion should not be formed by me alone, and I strongly encourage you to investigate these resources and their contributors.

Letter by 25 Black Environmental Leaders – Miranda Larbi

Environmental Justice Means Racial Justice – Nina Lakhani and Jonathan Watts

How Environmental Justice Divides the World – Nina Lakhani



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