By Henry Wilkerson ’23 (he/him)

Photo by Bjorn Photography

Every week, the world faces more consequences of climate change. In California, wildfires continue growing in size and frequency, burning everything in their wake. As the sea level rises, research shows that the number of homes with substantial flooding risk will increase to 16.2 million by 2050. We know that there are problems: climate clocks, news outlets, and scientists all tell us explicitly and give us shorter and shorter timelines. Yet, we must acknowledge the deeper causes of these issues in order to solve them. 

These ecological problems are symptoms of a system that prioritizes profit at the expense of sustainability and, through systems of oppression, subjects poor communities and communities of color to most of the consequences. Despite the spread of wildfires, California and the United States continue to rely on underpaid prison laborers to extinguish the flames instead of addressing the exploitive land management causing the fires. The consequences for rising sea levels are crystal clear, yet most multinational companies refuse to fundamentally alter their non-eco-friendly business models because they continue to turn a profit. Effective environmentalism cannot happen in a system that allows those who make money to endanger Americans by exacerbating our current ecological problems. Therefore, we must dismantle this extractive capitalist system if we want to save our planet, protect ourselves, and destroy the other oppressive systems that plague our communities. 

This idea of justice-focused environmentalism is not original to me or Davidson, but it is a philosophy rooted in decades of grassroots activism and collaboration between people of color, who saw the intersectionality between extractive capitalism and institutionalized racism. They fought for environmental justice, intersectional activism that focuses on abolishing environmental harms by dismantling the extractive capitalism and systemic racism that made those harms possible. We want to add to the decades of collaborative environmental justice activism with our free, student-run Cultivate-Justice conference on October 24th. The specific principles of environmental justice at the core of our upcoming conference are those written by the delegates of the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held in 1991. In their 17 Principles of Environmental Justice, these activists tell us we must focus our energy on dismantling extractive capitalist systems by forming strong communities to do the grassroots work needed. 

The conference itself will have two keynote speakers, along with three morning and three afternoon workshops. Our first keynote speaker, Shyla Raghav, will give her lecture on climate action post-2020. Shyla is Conservation International’s leading expert on climate change and one of the few young women of color leading the U.S. movement. She has worked for the World Bank, UN Development Programme, and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and she played an integral role in negotiating the Paris Climate accords. She focuses on securing and maximizing nature’s potential as a solution to climate change. Our second keynote speaker, Dr. Ryan Emanuel, will give his lecture on “Water in the Lumbee World: Indigenous Rights, Environmental Justice, and the Reshaping of Home.” Dr. Emanuel is an Environmental Sciences Professor at North Carolina State University and an enrolled member of the Lumbee tribe. He focuses on broadening Native American participation in higher education along with elevating Native American perspectives in academic research and public policy, along with his scholarship in environmental science. 

The workshops are led by local environmental justice groups, leaders who deal with the consequences of extractive capitalism and environmental racism, and experts on how to build an environmentally just society. The speakers and workshop leaders we have gathered will teach us more about the scope and extent of environmental racism and extractive capitalism, help us imagine what an environmentally just future looks like, and plug us into the state and local activist groups who have fought for environmental justice for decades. If you want more details on the workshops, please read about them on the Davidson’s Sustainability Office Instagram page

We cannot create the lasting environmental change we need by just focusing on carbon footprints or using metal straws. We need to focus on environmental justice to dismantle the systems that allow these environmental consequences to worsen. We can use this conference to learn from those who have dedicated their lives and careers to environmental justice and join them in the push for a sustainable, equitable future.