Greta Thunberg vs. the thousands of people who came before her

The environmental justice movement didn’t start with Greta Thunberg, and it shouldn’t end with her.


Fair Use: Greta Thunberg @gretathunbergsweden on Facebook

The face of the environmental justice movement became Greta Thunberg in September, but it needs to return to the people of color who started the movement.

By Elizabeth Trevathan, St. Paul Academy and Summit School

Greta Thunberg is a Swedish, sixteen-year-old activist that took America by storm with her speech to world leaders at the UN Climate Action Summit on Sept. 23. In her TED talk published on Feb. 13, she talked about how the world’s reaction to climate change confused her when she was younger. Thunberg couldn’t understand how humans are capable of changing the world’s climate yet change it for the worse and remain silent about the issue. She didn’t understand why climate change didn’t get the same amount of attention as world wars do if it was threatening society.

Thunberg described to the audience how she became ill when she was eleven. She became depressed and stopped talking and eating. She was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, OCD, and selective mutism. Selective mutism, as described by the Selective Mutism Center, is an anxiety disorder in children characterized by the inability to speak if the child does not feel comfortable, secure, and relaxed. Thunberg described her selective mutism as only being able to talk when she feels it is necessary. She feels it is necessary to speak about climate change.

People of color started the Environmental Justice Movement. Race is the first factor considered in decisions for the placement of toxic facilities, as described by The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The United States Environmental Protection Agency explained that people of color in urban ghettos, rural ‘poverty pockets,’ and Native-American reservations are exposed to the worst environmental devastation and the least environmental and health protection. People of color started the movement during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s because of the health dangers they were exposed to. These health risks were a result of the inequity of environmental protection in their communities.

What started as protests against the health risks people of color were forced to face, such as the Memphis Sanitation Strike in 1968, quickly lead to protests with an environmental concern, such as the Sit-in Against Warren County in 1982. It was a nonviolent sit-in against a polychlorinated biphenyl landfill in North Carolina, where more than 500 environmentalists and civil rights activists were arrested. The EPA describes the sit-in as the beginning of the Environmental Justice Movement. Organizations and networks were founded to help people of color fight the crisis. Bills were put in place to attempt to stop the issue, but almost sixty years later, people of color still face the same problems. One example of this is the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Greta Thunberg is receiving loads of media coverage, whereas her counterparts aren’t. Other teenage environmental activists include Isra Hirsi, the daughter of Ilhan Omar, Autumn Peltier from an island in Wikwemikong Unceded Territory in Canada, Bruno Rodriguez from Buenos Aires, Helena Gualinga from the Ecuadorian Amazon, and Mari Copeny from Michigan. The majority of the media coverage around Thunberg isn’t about climate change. It’s about people calling her mentally unstable and Trump commenting on her UN speech. Thunberg doesn’t want people to focus on her opinions, but instead on the science. People of color have been trying to get people to study the scientific impacts of pollution since the 1960s.

The face of the environmental justice movement became Greta Thunberg in September, but it needs to return to the people of color who started the movement. The Civil Rights Movement included the inequality of environmental protection. The Environmental Justice Movement now includes biases towards projecting white voices.

This story was originally published on The Rubicon on October 9, 2019.