The disproportionate impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on people of color and low-income people worldwide, in terms of both the loss of life and livelihood, has now made it more difficult to live in denial about the socio-economic inequities that have been ignored and tolerated for far too long.
The fact is, lower-income communities are the hardest hit by any pandemic, natural disaster or economic downturn, as they lack the resources required to easily withstand and recover from catastrophe. Furthermore, a longstanding history of systemic racism and discrimination has resulted in black and ethnic minority people being over-represented in the poorer socio-economic groups.
Unfortunately, those who are already marginalized and vulnerable are often too busy just trying to survive to have the time and energy to put forth the effort into changing the system that is causing their suffering.
However, if all of those who do have the time, energy and motivation join forces, they can create a social movement that can produce positive change through the use of their collective power.
What is a Social Movement?
A social movement, as defined by Encyclopedia Britannica, is a “loosely organized but sustained campaign in support of a social goal”. A movement is created when a group of people with a shared purpose work together to create change.
Social movements require strong leaders, solid partnerships, and powerful grassroots support. To achieve a shared political goal or plan for the future, social movements engage in a variety of strategies such as:
- Research – to understand the cause of the problem and possible solutions
- Networking – to connect with like-minded people with the same vision
- Advocacy – to stand up for those with less power
- Protests – to influence government policy
- Media – to influence public opinion
- Legal Action – to create laws and have them enforced
Some examples of successful social movements include the American abolitionist movement that ended slavery, and the women’s suffrage movement which granted American women the right to vote. The socio-legal progress made by these movements is proof that a determined minority of people working together can change the world.
The Intersection of Social and Environmental Justice
Social justice focuses on the fair and equitable distribution of resources, opportunities, and privileges within a society. While there are a variety of definitions for the term, the basic values of social justice include:
- Equal rights
- Equal opportunity
- Equal treatment
When the idea of social justice first arose in the early 19th century, the focus was primarily on economic justice to remedy the exploitation of human labor. Since then, the concept of social justice has expanded to include other spheres of social life such as the environment, race, gender, and sexual orientation.
One of the most overlooked spheres of social justice is environmental justice, which focuses on the equitable distribution of environmental benefits and burdens regardless of race, color, national origin, or income.
Environmental justice is essential to improving and maintaining a clean and healthy environment, especially for the economically underprivileged and marginalized groups who have traditionally been forced to live, work and attend school closest to the sources of pollution.
While most people are familiar with the environmentalist movement, it is often perceived as the realm of privileged white people, far removed from the immediate priorities of the economically disadvantaged. However, the detrimental effects of pollution or any disaster, whether natural or human-made, fall disproportionately on low-income people and communities of color.
The COVID-19 pandemic could be viewed as a type of environmental disaster. It has had the same impact in terms of loss of life, health and livelihood. The threats related to climate change will also have disproportionately negative consequences to the same groups of people who continue to suffer the most throughout the pandemic. COVID-19 has brought us to the intersection where social justice and environmental justice meet.
For a brief overview of the environment justice movement, watch this short video.