Political Issues

Systemic Racism Is Destroying Our Planet—Literally

Kells McPhillips

Kells McPhillipsAugust 18, 2020

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Racism touches all aspects of life, particularly in America—and, according to a new study, that means all life, not just humans. In a review paper led by the University of Washington (co-authored by the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Michigan), researchers found indelible proof that climate change and racism are inextricably linked.

By analyzing 170 published studies, researchers focused on the impact social inequalities—specifically, racism and classism—have on biodiversity (the variety of life forms in a certain area), evolutionary shifts, and the ecological health of plants, animals, and human beings in cities across the United States. The findings? Christopher Schell, PhD, an assistant professor of urban ecology at the University of Washington Tacoma, sums them up with swift eloquence.

“Racism is destroying our planet, and how we treat each other is essentially structural violence against our natural world,” said Dr. Schell, citing findings including the fact that there are fewer trees in lower-income areas and racially minoritized neighborhoods. A lack of shade is detrimental to plants and animals, promotes pollution, and aids the survival of pests like rodents and mosquitos that scientists know decrease the quality of human life. Equally troubling, the research showed that those same neighborhoods tend to be closer to industrial waste and/or dumping sites than predominately white, wealthy areas.

“Racism is destroying our planet, and how we treat each other is essentially structural violence against our natural world.” —Christopher Schell, PhD

Dr. Schell hopes that outlining the connections between climate change, racism, and white supremacy will encourage scientists to see that environmental work and anti-racism work are one and the same. “I hope this paper will shine the light and create a paradigm shift in science,” writes Dr. Schell. “That means fundamentally changing how researchers do their science, which questions they ask, and realizing that their usual set of questions might be incomplete.”

As examples of measures that could be used to conduct anti-racist efforts, Dr. Schell recommends scientists take it upon themselves to fight for affordable housing and green spaces that are open and accessible to all people.

“I’m hopeful things are going to happen because I have to be,” says Dr. Schell. “We have the power to be activists in our own ways, in our own sectors, and we have the ability to motivate others to do the same.”

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