How climate activist Leah Thomas stays hopeful

11 mins
13 Sep 2022
How climate activist Leah Thomas stays hopeful

Her new book The Intersectional Environmentalist is a rallying call to action for amplifying voices rarely heard in the struggle for climate justice

image Cher Martinez

words Eve Walker

Intersectional environmentalism (IE) recognises the ways in which the destruction of the planet correlates with the exploitation of the world’s most vulnerable people. As activist and author Leah Thomas succinctly puts it, “many of the same communities that are most impacted by social injustice are also impacted by the climate crisis”. Mainstream conversations around climate change previously would have you believe that ‘climate change is the great equaliser’ – but is it?

Thomas, also known as Green Girl Leah on TikTok and elsewhere, brought IE into the mainstream convo in 2020 during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. In the time since, she’s been vocal on how climate impacts everything from the lives of people of colour, to fashion and technology we use. Now, she’s just released the book The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet, that shares the stories of activists around the world, and explains the crucial climate theories and movements. Amplifying the voices of other inspiring and, in her words, “badass” people, the book is an accessible and consolidated textbook on climate justice.

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The activist has long purported that environmentalists must stand in solidarity with the BLM and broader civil rights movements, as well as the Black, Indigenous, and POC communities impacted by social and environmental injustice. Some stark facts and statistics around the racial disparity of climate change highlight just a modicum of what Thomas touches on – Black people are 52% more likely to live in areas where urban heat was a concern, for example. There is a long history of environmental racism and climate colonialism, from those affected by extreme flooding or impacted local economies. These fights are one in the same, and Leah lays it out in an urgent rallying cry for a better future.

Woo speaks with Leah about the state of climate justice today, how she navigates being an activist with anxiety and the incredible people she collaborated with in her new book.

What does intersectional environmentalism mean to you?

Leah Thomas: During the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, it was really hard for me as an environmental science student to see so many environmental organisers not speaking up for what was happening for racial justice. I decided, as a black woman, that I cannot participate in environmental spaces that don't also see me as a priority and my community in so many other marginalised communities all over the world. It just didn't make sense to me, it didn't sit right in my soul.

It really felt exploitative, and I was frustrated, so I posted an infographic on Instagram that said “Environmentalists for black lives matter” over and over again. I didn't think that anyone would really see it, but it went viral, and here I am.

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What first inspired you to write the book?

Leah Thomas: When this was all happening in 2020, I was furloughed from my job. All of a sudden there were so many people who were suddenly following me on social media and asking questions about climate justice – including prominent environmental organisations like Extinction Rebellion and Friday's for Future, who have a history of not being intersectional.

I didn't want to be a person who said, “this field of study has been around for a long time, why don’t people understand?” Though at times, I really felt that way. I just saw it as an opportunity to make a really accessible introductory textbook, so people's environmental journeys could be rooted in diversity, equity and inclusion. Hopefully also it would help people to learn at an earlier age.

I felt like environmental education needed a makeover, because it's not just about white men. There's so many badass women and people of colour and people from the LGBTQ+ community that are doing amazing things, so that's why I wrote it. I wish there was someone when I was the only black Environmental Science student in my programme that came to me in my first year of university and said “You're in the right place - and here's why”.

Which works would you say have influenced you the most?

Leah Thomas: I learned so much, and am still learning, by talking to climate activists around the globe. The original book was very focused on the US because it was a personal narrative, so I added editions from activists in other countries for the European edition of the book. Climate activism looks so different in the UK, it’s hard to wrap my head around it.

There's a really incredible climate activist who contributed to the book named Yasmin Lajoie, who unfortunately passed away shortly before the book was written. It still shakes me to this moment – especially because they were so excited about the book’s release. Their passing shows how a lot of people in the climate community are struggling with eco anxiety and their mental health, so that's something that really needs to be prioritised in activist communities. I just feel so grateful that we got to connect and have that joyful moment together.

How do you take care of your mental health as an activist?

Leah Thomas: There’s a pressure at times, which is admittedly changing in activist circles. You often feel like you have to be at every protest, you have to exhaust yourself, and martyr yourself for the cause. Even when I was in school, I remember almost flunking out because I was just so consumed in activism, and I wasn't really taking care of myself or nourishing myself.

Lately, that's something that I just don't, and won't, compromise on. For me lately, I look for any way that I can move my body. Whether it's a long walk, yoga, or my new found love for reformer pilates.

What was the importance of collaboration when writing the intersection or environmentalist?

Leah Thomas: So essential! There are so many ancestors and elders and other folks who are out there. There are people who aren't using social media for example - and that's not any indicator of someone's skill, merit or contributions to activism. I just realised that this is a moment of privilege. I can deny that if I want to and get defensive, but it’s the truth. A lot of people I know deserve to be published and have their voices out there too. I wanted as many people as possible to see themselves reflected in the book – a lot of the book is written for young black girls who are very similar to me.

Do you have any advice for BIPOC people who are feeling left out of climate activism?

Leah Thomas: Find safe spaces, instead of proving your worth to unsafe spaces, of which there are plenty. If you're navigating through spaces that don't prioritise diversity and equity, make sure you have those separate spaces where you don't have to fight for your existence. The truth of the matter is, there’s so many communities out there – even if they’re niche, even if they're small, even if they're online.

Find those nourishing spaces. You deserve to exist in your entirety in activist circles without having to defend your identity. That's basically what happened to me. When I started talking about intersectional environmentalism, I realised I’m not alone.

Looking forward, what are some pivotal moments in the calendar and the current climate related policy around the world that you'd want people to focus their attention and action on?

Leah Thomas: The concept of climate reparations – which in essence means providing financial support for people who have been severely impacted by environmental hazards or the climate crisis. Even right now, as we look at the flooding in Pakistan – places that are largely not responsible for the climate crisis are being hit the hardest. Who bears the financial responsibility to ensure that the most impacted but least contributing folks are able to get to safety? I would say that the most polluting countries and their governments have some degree of duty here. There needs to be a global conversation about climate reparations, and the displacement and movement of people that's going to happen as a result of the climate crisis.

Was there a specific moment for you where you were focused on sustainability, and then felt like there wasn't that connection between environmentalism and social justice that really invigorated your work?

Leah Thomas: I started my blog, green girl Leah, about sustainable living. I kept seeing wealthy people from social media who had these perfectly curated homes. Glass Tupperware, zero waste pantries… it was just always perfectly beige and minimal. I started to wonder why we have to buy our way into sustainability. How has it been positioned as a luxury lifestyle? It’s so odd to me. My family and I went thrift shopping out of necessity, and it was embarrassing back in the day. Thank god, it's cool now. I think that's put me on to intersectional environmentalism.

Another really big wake up call was when I was in the lab creating maps for a research project in my final year of school, looking at the placement of toxic waste sites or the density or presence of trees and parks, and how that correlated with income and race. I kept finding for almost every single data set that I had, that lower income folks and communities of colour are always impacted by these injustices at higher rates. I wanted to make this information accessible so people can know what's going on and put the pressure on politicians to create change.

Where do you see examples of intersectional environmentalism playing out positively around the world?

Leah Thomas: There’s an overwhelming awareness about what environmental justice is. This is very US policy focused, but we have the first office of environmental justice within our administration, which is very new. There is a new black head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Millions in funding is specifically going to environmental justice, which would have been unheard of in the past. Activists of colour are leaving larger organisations to start their own spaces. A lot of allies are wanting to change the ways that climate organising is happening in the UK to make sure that they're reckoning with privilege.

On 2 October, I'll be hosting the first ever black ecofeminist summit in London, to create a joyous space to learn and connect. We're partnering with the Black Feminist Bookshop and have got some great people like Mikaela Loach attending, as well of most of the contributors in the book that are black women.

There's a lot of negative examples, too, but I'm glad we focus on the positive.

How do you stay positive or hopeful amid a climate emergency and hope for something better?

Leah Thomas: I start local, and I stay local. That doesn't mean that I'm not paying attention to global issues, but I just understand the fatigue that it can provide. Millennials are pessimistic about the state of the world and the climate crisis, but Gen Z are taking it one step further. More of them are fatalistic.

I think now is the time more than ever to focus on climate optimism. To really start sharing the stories of incredible diverse folks around the world who are creating climate solutions, and sharing good news. We created a podcast called The Joy Report, because we want to keep reminding people that joy and hope create more momentum than doom and gloom never could. Negativity just makes you burn quickly and brightly, but I think joy and optimism is a warm glow that lasts forever.

What other work or projects are you doing right now?

Leah Thomas: Aside from the summit I spoke about earlier, I also have decided my next book is going to be a deep dive into ecofeminism. I actually don't know why I didn't realise that I'm an ecofeminist, because I talk a lot about intersectional environmentalism, and it's kind of the same thing. Someone created a Wikipedia page for me, which was so cute. It says, Leah Thomas (ecofeminist). So I thought to myself, you know what? I need to lean into that!

The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet by Leah Thomas is out now with Souvenir Press

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