Every February, people across Canada and the US celebrate Black History Month. During Black History Month, people in Canada celebrate the many achievements and contributions of Black Canadians and their communities who, throughout history, have done so much to make Canada a culturally diverse, compassionate, and prosperous country. Canada has announced that “Ours to tell” is the Black History Month theme for 2023. This theme represents a chance for free discussion and a dedication to learning more about the history and achievements of Black communities across Canada.
From environmental justice advocates to scientists and social entrepreneurs, here are just a handful of Black environmentalists who have contributed to our global understanding of environmental stewardship.
Black Environmental Activists
A Kenyan environmental, social, and political activist, Wangarĩ Muta Maathai (1940-2011) made history in 2004 as the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her dedication to sustainable development, democracy, and peace. She started the Green Belt Movement, a community-based tree-planting initiative that aims to reduce poverty and encourage conservation, in 1977. More than 51 million trees have been planted, helping build climate resilience and empower communities, especially women and girls. Her environmental work is celebrated every year on Wangari Maathai Day on March 3rd.
Nnimmo Bassey, a Nigerian architect, author, poet, and inspirational pioneer of contemporary climate action in Africa, began his advocacy in the 1990s. To address environmental human rights issues in Nigeria, he co-founded Environmental Rights Action (ERA), a Nigerian advocacy non-profit, in 1993. He served as ERA’s Executive Director for twenty years. Bassey first started advocating for change after oil disputes with Shell Petroleum Development Company turned violent in 1990, killing 80 people and destroying close to 500 homes in the community of Umu Echem. He has since emerged as one of Africa’s foremost defenders of the environment and human rights. Bassey has spoken out against foreign firms doing business in his nation and the destruction of the environment.
Dr. Warren Washington
A meteorology and climate pioneer, Dr. Washington was one of the first to develop atmospheric computer models in the 1960s, which have helped scientists understand climate change. These models now also incorporate the oceans, sea ice, surface water, and vegetation. In 2007, the Parallel Climate Model (PCM) and Community Earth System Model (CESM) earned Dr. Washington and his colleagues the Nobel Peace Prize as part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver (1864–1943) is regarded as one of America’s most outstanding agricultural researchers and educators. His achievements in the field of crop rotation are regarded as ground-breaking in resource conservation, maintaining soil, and increasing farm productivity. Carver may have been one of the pioneering researchers to apply the biomimicry perspective to systems analysis. He noted that nothing in nature goes to waste because what is consumed is returned to the earth in another helpful form. Carver realized that everything is interconnected and nothing exists in isolation and that disregarding this knowledge might have catastrophic results. He advocated considering an action’s total long-term effects rather than merely its short-term advantages.
John Francis decided to devote his life to preserving the environment in 1971 after an oil tanker crash and oil spill in San Francisco Bay. He gave up driving and began walking, gaining the nicknamed “The Planetwalker.” He also vowed to remain silent to hear people he disagreed with better. He started the nonprofit organization Planetwalk and obtained a Ph.D. in environmental studies. While on his cross-country journey, he broke his 17-year silence to support the US Coast Guard Oil Pollution Act. He still goes on walks to advance his mission of inspiring people to work together to safeguard the environment.
Dr. Robert Bullard
Dr. Robert Bullard, regarded as the “father of the environmental justice movement,” has long been one of the most influential figures in the field. Dr. Bullard has campaigned against harmful waste being dumped in predominantly Black neighbourhoods in the southern states of the US since the 1970s. He has written multiple books on various topics, including the prevalence of waste facilities around the country in places with a large African American population, housing, transportation, urban land use, the location of industrial facilities, smart growth, emergency preparedness, and equity. His first book, Dumping in Dixie, highlighted the link between systemic racism and environmental oppression, showing how the descendants of slaves were exposed to higher-than-average levels of pollutants. In 1994, his work led to the signing of the Executive Order on Environmental Justice, which the Biden administration is currently building on.
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