Thoughts on intersectionality

From Wikipedia: “Intersectionality is the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination. An example is black feminism, which argues that the experience of being a black woman cannot be understood in terms of being black, and of being a woman, considered independently, but must include the interactions, which frequently reinforce each other.[1]

One of many critiques I have about the environmental movement as a whole is that it tends to lack intersectionality. Environmental issues do not exist in a vacuum, and I think too often we forget to take a step back and consider the way all social, political, and environmental issues intertwine. I think the ruthless nature of a capitalist economy is to blame not only for environmental damage, but also for the frequently superficial ways in which we go about addressing these concerns.

Adam Ramsay wrote an excellent article on the subject for OpenDemocracy/OurKingdom. I find some of his points difficult to agree with, but it’s worth a read and certainly expanded my perspective. One interesting criticism he has is directed at Malthusians (Remember Malthus?). He argues that alarm over high rates of growth unfairly shifts the blame towards poorer people, who tend to have higher birth rates and that it is ultimately shortsighted and counterproductive to focus on the simple mathematics of a potential Malthusian catastrophe. This is a highly contentious point, but I think it is at least somewhat valid.

I think I can make a connection between my own work in Coal Country with Ramsay’s critiques— one central contradiction in my feelings is that I understand how damaging coal is to the earth, but how can you take away jobs from people who have no other options? It brings to the forefront the philosophical issues related to the concept of a greater good. For me, the idea of a greater good is a serious moral quandary.

There’s a lot to think about here, and I don’t have many answers or even questions— but I think it’s a good thing for all of us to keep in mind going forward. I don’t want to start a revolution, and I don’t want to participate in one— however, I think in a lot of ways Ramsay is right. I’ve wrestled for a while over the question of how do we prioritize “issues” when there are so many problems in our communities, economy, political system, and environment. I think it’s useful to consider the way all of these issues are linked rather than attempting to make value judgments on their relative importance.

One commenter critiqued Ramsay’s article because it directed blame towards the powerful, while ignoring the significant part every single one of us plays in climate change as participants in an industrialized consumer society. I think this commenter makes a great point as well— if we want our cars and our airplanes and our skyscrapers and our iPhones, environmental destruction is the consequence. We can (and in many ways, must) ignore this fact in order to live with ourselves. We can’t go back to the woods and live off the land— or at least we have no intention to.

What I do think is that the most pragmatic solution to the “medium-term” issues we will face in the next century or so will undoubtedly be driven by big business. The way the world works is such that no other type of entity is likely to have the resources to accomplish change on a large scale. The corporate world is already beginning to embrace “green” as a marketing tool; although this type of corporate activism is frequently superficial (i.e.” green roof on your supermarket! we’re saving the planet! give us money!”) , I hope that consumers will increasingly expect and demand it as well as demanding real actions, not just band-aids and platitudes. Those who expect science and engineering to save us from impending climate doom are both right and wrong— there will be no magic bullet, but without serious investment into potential scientific ways to mitigate climate change we are screwed. Many of these solutions will address the symptoms rather than the cause (think levees and seawalls and such) but in many cases it’s too late for anything else.

The best thing I learned from reading Vonnegut was the Serenity Prayer, which also happens to be central to Alcoholics Anonymous. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to tell the difference.” I’ve got the serenity down, but courage and wisdom don’t come so easily. Check back in 10 years or so and maybe I will have decided how to feel.

I want to know what you think, and perhaps we can discuss further in class.