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'A marriage of (in)convenience' – Nick Anim on centring racial justice in environmental movements

This week we are speaking with Nick Anim of Transition Town Brixton about inclusion and diversity in the environmental movement with a focus on the tensions between environmental sustainability and racial justice.


Could you tell us about your background and what inspired your research into inclusion and diversity in the environmental movement.

In 2012 I completed a master's in Environments and Sustainable Development. As part of the course, we studied a Peruvian community heavily affected by environmental degradation and social injustice. The municipality refused to recognise them as documented migrants, so they weren’t entitled to land, housing, water or power. What inspired me about that community is that they were self-managing. I thought, wow! This is a really interesting way of interrogating governance; a bottom-up instead of top-down approach. This is the way to go! So, in 2012-13, I joined Transition and spent some time looking at different environmental movements in the UK who were, in their own ways, also interrogating governance from the bottom-up. However, I felt a bit like an endangered species in these meetings. There weren’t many people like me at all. Almost everyone was white. I decided to devote my doctoral research to finding out why.

Around this time, I also read Andrew Dobson’s book Justice and the Environment, and was struck by his claim that, although environmental sustainability and social justice both deal with issues of scarcity, they have such distinct aspirations, that any marriage of the two is really just a marriage of convenience. I began considering the relationship (or otherwise!) between the two more deeply. It occurred to me that environmental movements, in one form or another, have been going on for so long now, with relatively little impact compared to social justice movements. Take the civil rights movement, for example. By comparison, environmental movements make some noise, achieve marginal progress, but then don’t really change the system as necessary for the preservation of people and planet.

So, with these concerns about the intersection of environmentalism and social justice, diversity and inclusion in mind, my doctoral research, entitled “Green but Mostly White. Why?” asked four questions. Firstly, why is the environmental movement so white? The charge that is often levied against environmentalism and environmental activists is that they tend to be almost exclusively white, middle- or upper-class and therefore have the time, leisure, and financial resources to be able to engage with environmental concerns. So, looking through the prism of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, I thought I’d be able to wrap my research up quickly in relation to class. But no. In Transition Town Brixton, for example, despite the area being very multicultural, many of the activists were white and working-class. It was definitely an issue of race. Race was a barrier to people joining this group.

Secondly, I asked how can we build solidarity across differences to bring various movements and social identity groups together? Because that is, ultimately, what I believe needs to happen. As the saying goes, ‘unity without uniformity.’ How can we come together recognising our differences, whilst also acknowledging we are all bound by, what Martin Luther King called, a “single garment of destiny”? That injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Thirdly, I asked why does inclusion and diversity actually matter to environmental movements? The moral imperative tells us it's just the right thing to do. But why is it the right thing? Theoretically, if we have 3% Black people living in the UK, and research claims you only need 25% of a population on board to alter social conventions, then you don't really need this marginalised group to join you. Finally, I asked what can environmental movements learn from movements of the past, or present, which have been successful in combining environmentalism and social justice?

You wrote a fascinating blog post recently on the tensions between environmental sustainability and social justice. A related point that we've encountered in our research is that some environmentalists see racial justice narratives as potentially distracting from the sense of urgency that must be built up around the climate crisis. Is this a tension you’ve come across in your research?

Yes. In many environmentalists’ eyes, racial justice is indeed seen as a distraction, and I think that is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome if environmentalism is ever to enjoy a fulfilled marriage of convenience, or otherwise, with issues of social justice. Until we see all these issues as fundamentally interconnected, born of and supported by the same system, that won’t happen. Every environmental activist I’ve spoken to has talked sincerely and profoundly about issues of racial injustice and inequality. However, there's always a “but,” which you alluded to in your question about whether environmentalists see concerns around race as distracting from the common threat of climate change; the asteroid headed for us all. But do they really expect many people like me to be concerned about an asteroid coming in ten years’ time, when our daily lives are occupied by struggles with racial injustice and other longstanding inequalities that determine expectations and outcomes in the here and now?

In Brixton, we have young Black boys being regularly harassed by police. There are racial disparities in employment and education. In the UK higher education sector, for instance, out of 21,000 university professors, only 140 are Black; and Covid has laid bare the dire consequences of racial inequalities concerning health outcomes. So, there are already, for many Black and brown people, all these challenges to contend with. Of course, I'm not saying these are universal challenges for every Black and brown person in the UK, but they are, both implicit and explicit threats, in the everyday existence of many. So, don't come and tell me or us about an asteroid coming to kill us all in ten or fifteen years’ time, when some of us have to deal with all these things every day, now. Unless and until environmental activists get this point, there will always be a "but" at the edge of their profound sympathy, and at their profound empathy and concern for issues of racism and social injustice.

Of course, George Floyd’s murder and the protests which followed exposed these injustices, but Black and brown people have known these injustices exist and been dealing with them forever. You'd have to be almost dead not to know. So, when environmentalists talk to Black and brown people about resilience, we are resilience personified; sustainability personified, because we have had to deal with much of this. With George Floyd, we saw lots of Black and white people protesting together. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. People in the streets on their knees putting their fists up saying, “No! We will not stand for this!” But one year later, I go back out on the streets on the anniversary of his murder and what do I see? Less than 1% of the people that protested in 2020. So, it was mostly crocodile tears as far as I'm concerned.

On that point, do you think the post-Floyd diversity and inclusion drive currently sweeping the environmental sector can realistically bring racial justice concerns on par with environmental concerns?

Of course, they can. We can do anything we really want to as individuals, and as movements, we can do anything. This brings me on to my second or third research question, which is how we can build solidarity across differences? A lot of environmental activists have said to me explicitly or implicitly, “Yes, we're concerned about racism, but we need to focus on the climate crisis.” What that is saying is, “I see you, but I don't see you. I don't recognise you.” It’s failing to recognise that these issues, highlighted every now and then in the papers, are everyday concerns for me and my people. It's all about recognition as a precursor to justice.

I’ll use my interactions with Extinction Rebellion and Transition Networks as an example of how I

think groups could deal with this positively. Many XR activists, as with other groups that I have spoken to, have voiced concerns that tackling racial injustice could distract from their environmental objectives. More recently though, XR has really taken on board the interconnection between justice and environmental concerns. They are now working with specific organisations with historic connections to, let's say, racial capitalism, exploitation of racialised groups for, if we look at the global population, white minorities’ gain. They've been targeting fossil fuel companies like Shell in the Niger Delta; the UK government for funding oil and natural gas exploitation in Mozambique; insurance companies and banks with a track record of racial exploitation. However, if I look at XR, I think it's almost shrunk a little as a movement. Some people have fallen by the wayside because they're disillusioned by this new turn the movement has taken in highlighting issues of racial injustice as well. The second thing XR have done is reach out to Black and brown people concerned about both the environment and issues of racial injustice, people like me, and given us a platform to speak at various protests and other actions. It's about representation as well.

Concerning my case study in the Transition movement, I think George Floyd’s murder was something of an epiphany for many. They’ve since started a new subgroup called Transition Bounce Forward, who I’ve been advising. The aim is to always make sure that questions about justice, diversity and inclusion, all these difficult questions that would previously have been sidestepped or avoided, are right at the fore.

Looking back at the valuable work of people such as Judy Ling Wong, who have been writing and campaigning around ethnic minorities and the environment sector since way before the contemporary BLM era, it feels like we’ve been here before; asked these questions, contested these issues, but there’s still a long way to go. Do you think there is reason now to be optimistic that meaningful, systemic change around these issues is happening or will happen in the UK environment sector?

I’ll defer to a quote by Cornel West to answer that. He says, “I cannot be an optimist, but I am a prisoner of hope.” When we are faced with a difficult situation, we look at the evidence and decide whether we navigate towards optimism or pessimism. Hope says, “I don’t care, I’m going to do it anyway!” That is how I approach it, with hope. When we have collective hope and collective imagination at work, we can make almost anything happen. Nevertheless, you have to recognise and respect that time is your mediator. People expect these changes to come about overnight. They won’t. Judy Ling Wong, for example, has been doing this for years. The Rastafari movement has been doing this for even longer; telling us about the connections between ourselves and the environment. The African philosophy of ubuntu has been emphasising the oneness of humanity for thousands of years. It’s going to take time, because foundationally we’re dealing with something that is deeper than most of us recognise. In my thesis, I discuss the function of the amygdala, its role in the “us” versus “them” framework of social identity. Of course, we can overcome this “us” versus “them” thinking, but it will certainly not happen by denying others’ lived experiences, by saying, “Yes. Oh, racism really is terrible but…” We’re all humans and we need to recognise the humanity in each other. So, we have to be patient. We need to give these matters due respect and consideration. It’s going to take time, research and understanding, because unless we understand something we can’t heal it.

Emma Dabiri, in her book What White People Can Do Next, makes a case for discarding the notion of white allyship in favour of coalition building. Could we have an environmental or climate coalition led by Black and brown people that also addresses racial injustices? Should we be putting our energies into making that possible instead of trying to diversify the current environmental movement?

I agree with Emma Dabiri on the importance of coalition building. You need deep empathy in order to build deep coalitions, deep solidarity. As we marry social justice and environmentalism together, bringing matters of racial justice to the fore, as with XR, we may lose a lot of so-called “white allies.” Environmentalism may lose a lot of crocodile-teared people in the process. Many find the issue [racial justice] too divisive, too messy, because it means dealing with history, with racial capitalism, with how the current system evolved and that’s too much for a lot of people. Nevertheless, there is no social justice without racial justice and, in today’s world, both are fundamental to achieving climate justice. If we fail to recognise their interconnectedness and to come together to interrogate the regime of predatory, extractive, unfettered capitalism at the root of all these injustices, who is the environmental movement really for?


Be sure to follow @NickGreenergy on Twitter to keep up-to-date with Nick and his work!

You can also find out more about the other organisations Nick works with on their twitter feeds and websites...

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