Environmental Racism and the UK
Defining environmental racism within the context of the UK and how its impacts stretch beyond the British Isles by Veronica Greer and Anastassia Kolchanov from The Anti-Racism Alliance (Instagram: @antiracismalliance).
The death of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 sparked a much-needed global conversation about systemic racism, complete with protests, reading lists, action plans, and donations. Most of the focus was on the United States, where Floyd lived and was killed (and where police brutality is a topic of continual discussion). However, the global impact of the US protests was undeniable. Many cities around the world held demonstrations in solidarity, some going further than condemning American racism to investigate their relationship with systemic racism. The UK had its share of protests and discussions about the topic, notably bringing about change in the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol  and the renaming of the University of Edinburgh’s David Hume Tower to 40 George Square . Despite these positive changes, the wide-reaching effects of systemic racism affect more than monuments and buildings. One particularly insidious case is environmental racism.
The term environmental racism was coined in 1982 by African American civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis. The term encompasses how non-white people are negatively affected by environmental policy and pollution, including both being directly affected by pollution due to zoning as well as being denied policymaking positions .
A classic case of environmental racism can be seen in Flint, Michigan, USA. In 2014 the city decided to switch their water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River to save money. The combination of Flint River’s corrosive water, ageing water pipes, and the city’s failure to properly treat the municipal water system led to widespread lead exposure. Flint’s majority low-income Black population went without clean drinking water for over four years despite widespread outrage, and the city’s water contains traces of lead to this day due to lack of action . Had the city’s population been more white and economically privileged, the crisis would have been averted (or at least ameliorated faster).
We can also see instances of environmental racism manifesting in the UK, although research on the link between race and environmental inequality is scarce. A 2016 study for the Mayor of London looking at exposure to air pollution found that Black, African, and Caribbean communities are exposed to higher illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide than the percentage of the population they account for . It is important to note that the correlation is difficult to establish, especially within the context of London’s diverse population.
There is, however, a more concrete connection between areas of greater deprivation and higher levels of air pollution. These residents are typically more exposed to illegal levels of air pollutants, in particular nitrogen dioxide . Of course, high levels of air pollution are experienced by urban white British communities. However, white British people are more likely to have resources that can alleviate the stress of urban life, such as having access to green spaces. Meanwhile, BAME Britons are more likely to live in areas with a deficiency of access to green spaces, disproportionately increasing the effect of environmental stressors on physical and mental health .
Unfortunately, there have been few attempts to discuss the implications of environmental inequality in the UK in the last 5 years. The British environmentalist movement had been largely devoid of minority voices until the late 1980s with the creation of the Black Environmentalist Network. The predominantly white middle-class movement has been primarily concerned with wildlife and countryside preservation , not environmental justice. As a result, the environmental agenda is not seen as an issue affecting BAME and/or working-class communities. The consequences can be seen today with the lack of information, research, legislation, and initiatives targeting environmental racism in the UK.
The effects of environmental racism impact the entire planet, but even focusing on the UK’s postcolonial reach reveals a massive footprint, both ecologically and racially [9, 10]. The global nature of neoliberal capitalist business, which depends on extracting resources from around the world, has been particularly damning. Companies such as H&M, Marks & Spencer, and Zara, which source viscose from China, India, and Indonesia, have been definitively linked to pollution of their factories and water sources . UK companies have also been linked to illegal deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Although the UK government has implemented a fine for these companies, it applies to relatively few of them .
Resource mining in Africa has, in general, “generated big profits for foreign companies, with little local benefit."  The UK mining company Vedanta Resources and its subsidiary Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) faced legal pushback from communities near Chingola, Zambia where they severely polluted the water, leading to hospitalisations . Vedanta settled in June 2020 with no admission of wrongdoing, sidestepping any legal precedent that could have been set about “duty of care.”[15, 16] Whether direct or indirect, the effects of global supply chains reveals a larger story of resource extraction in former colonies and the global south, leaving locals with pollution or destruction or both. These cases, while not always clearly linked to race, have roots in colonialism and a history of white supremacy that lead European countries to have power and influence in the rest of the world. Many of these companies, under UK laws, either get a light slap on the wrist (such as a fine) or face no repercussions whatsoever. This lack of responsibility extends to a public image as well, as companies will often ‘greenwash’ themselves to garner support from consumers who don’t want to support companies that are bad for the environment, but such campaigns are just another form of omitting responsibility .
Such global imbalances were brought to stark black and white when COVID-19 hit; not only are Black and Minority Ethnic people in the UK and the US more likely to contract and die from the virus but countries in the Global South are also being hit harder due to pollution and lack of infrastructure due to economic hardship (itself affected by neocolonialism) .
Although racism is not technically a defining factor of capitalism, it is very much integral to its development . Capitalism became a world system because of the anti-Black racism that defined the transatlantic slave trade. The creation of a racial hierarchy reinforces ideas of class domination and as well as the economic imperatives of capitalist expansion. At its core, racism is a system of power that is, among others, a long-standing pillar of capitalism.
Knowing that racism is baked into today’s capitalist society means that it plays a role in all areas of life. As explained by Kimberle Crenshaw, racism can intersect with a variety of other social and political identities which can subsequently manifest into other forms of discrimination . Environmental racism illuminates one version of this intersection, with race, class, and socioeconomic mobility playing key roles.
What actions can you take? As people living in countries that benefit from exploitative systems of power, we have access to those in key decision making positions. Education is always a great first step; a list of resources in the form of books, articles, podcasts, and people to follow is below. Contact your MP to ask about their stance on environmental policy in the UK and abroad.
Groups such as Friends of the Earth Scotland are working to change legislation . Research action being taken in your local community—some sources will be listed below. Remember that, while individual action isn’t the end goal, it can still have an impact.
Resources for readers:
Race and climate reading list | Climate Action
Reading list looking at the ways race and climate intersect
How to Unite the Fight for Racial Equity and Environmental Action
Steps you can take to actively fight for racial and climate justice
Environmental Justice Reading List
Environmental justice reading list from the Environmental Law Institute
Environmental Racism: Why Does It Still Exist?
Article diving into the intricacies of environmental justice in the UK
What is environmental racism and how can we fight it?
An in-depth discussion of environmental racism, detailing several examples, as well as ways to get involved.
‘We need to be heard’: the BAME climate activists who won’t be ignored
BAME climate activists discussing BAME people’s central role in climate activism and how the movement is often whitewashed
Climate justice is a black and white issue – so why isn’t the environmentalist movement?
In-depth article on the lack of diversity in the environmentalist movement in the UK
Intersectionality, explained: meet Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term
An article detailing Kimberle Crenshaw’s development of the term “intersectionality” and its subsequent impact
How our colonial past altered the ecobalance of an entire planet
Article discussing how colonialism has impacted the environment
5 black activists you should know
An article highlighting 5 Black environmental justice activists and their work
How environmental racism is fuelling the coronavirus pandemic
Article looking at the ways environmental racism has affected COVID
Also, check out our works cited for more academic papers on environmental racism
Organisations + Platforms to Support
A US-based platform highlighting issues in environmentalism, ranging from fashion to agriculture, through an intersectional lens
Climate in Colour
An education platform for talking about the intersection of social justice and climate science founded by Cambridge PhD student Jocelyn Longdon
Organisation amplifying BAME voices in the UK environmental justice movement
Environmental Leadership Programme (via Uprising)
Charity encouraging young people across Britain to develop and run their social action campaigns
Friends of the Earth
A grassroots environmental campaigning community fighting for climate justice, environmental justice, and social justice in the UK and globally
Organisation combining art, education, and research to create projects driven by the need for social and ecological justice
Voices that Shake!
A project that seeks to develop creative and sustainable responses to social injustice by bringing together young people, artists, and campaigners
Environmental Justice Foundation
UK based organisation dedicated to shining a light on environmental and human rights abuses
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2 (2020, 13 September). Edinburgh University renames David Hume Tower over ‘racist’ views. BBC News.
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The Anti-Racism Alliance is an organisation built by students from the University of Edinburgh who are trying to tackle white privilege in Edinburgh and beyond. This article was edited by Tamara El-Halawani, also a student at the University.