Why I believe in intersectional environmentalism
Equity, justice and sustainability advocate Cathy Ngo on taking action for a better future
By Cathy Ngo
As a diversity and inclusion speaker and consultant, I talk a lot about privilege. It’s by no means a sexy topic, but it’s important to self-reflect on our privileges. It is not about taking on guilt but acknowledging and confronting societal and institutional inequities. The more privilege we have, the less climate change becomes obvious.
I acknowledge my many privileges, from tertiary education, a career I love and the ability to safely work from home — and I owe it all to my parents. They arrived in Australia by boat as Vietnamese refugees in the early 80s, and I was born shortly after.
I feel like I’ve won the lottery of life because I didn’t have to experience the trauma of war and near-death experiences. My parents worked double shifts in factories where the conditions were not great, but they were grateful, nonetheless.
Mum eventually took up commercial sewing from home. She worked with Australia’s most prominent designers. It super sounds glamorous until you find out that she was paid between $2 to $5 a piece that would sell for hundreds. She worked 12-hour days to make enough coin. After school, I helped and, in the process, learnt to sew, repair, and alter clothes. We made scrunchies and accessories from any leftover designer fabric. While my hair was on-trend in the 90s, embarrassingly, my other clothes were always several sizes too big.
We planted our own herbs because they seem to die the second you buy them. We used the water we washed our veggies and rice to water the plants outside. If we had an oversupply, we’d pickle the food and give them away to family and friends. All this was what my grandparents and the generations before taught my parents.
It wasn’t a scarcity mindset but a way of life. What we take should be given back, and the cycle continues.
Earlier this year I experienced my first Easter hat parade as a parent. My son had requested a one adorned with those yellow fluffy chicks that appear in all supermarkets as if by magic.
I never had an Easter Hat Parade, and I see it gets competitive. It’s almost like the Met Gala of Easter Hats. My Facebook feed featured my friends and their elaborate kid’s creations. Meanwhile, my head is deep inside the bin, fishing out soggy cardboard and anything half-decent.
My point being that in the age of social media and keeping up with the gram, it’s seductive to have the best Easter hat, the latest Jordan kicks, or ‘parenting’ the healthiest fiddle leaf plant.
“Everything we need is already here”, I explained to my son.
Watching him turn the Cornflakes box into a robot with toilet roll legs and arms into an egg carton caterpillar was a joy to witness. It brought back memories of little me in school, where there was a strong focus on reuse and recycling, which is the point to this story. As parents, but also as members of any community, we have the opportunity to lead by example and to be curious about the way we do things as a society.
The impact of climate change is not equal
Long-term climate change is causing our surroundings to warm up and increase the likelihood of extreme weather. However, it’s not just Australia. Many parts of the world have been affected for decades.
For instance, the southern area of Vietnam will be underwater by 2050. It’s a huge economic centre for the country and home to over 20 million people. The thought doesn’t sit well with me, given it’s where my family are from.
Women and children are most impacted
When talking about protecting the environment and making societal changes, we should be aware of the concept of intersectionality. Those who suffer the most will pay the price in the climate crisis.
Industrialised countries like ours are the most responsible for the climate crisis, but the most vulnerable communities bear the brunt. When a natural disaster occurs, women and children suffer the most. For example, about 75 per cent of the fatalities were women in the horrific 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Not many think about where our waste goes after council collection. It is now illegal to export unprocessed waste materials overseas — a law that was only effective on 1 July 2022!
Export destinations vary but almost always to poorer nations such as Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. It is often women and children who work as waste pickers.
Where do you stand? It takes more than a Keep Cup
With climate change constantly on the agenda, the lack of inaction is worrying. I think it’s safe to say we all care about our future and the climate.
Our immediate first step is to bring our Keep Cups to our local cafe, purchasing sustainably made items or switching to a plant-based diet. It’s a good step; however, some of these actions can make sustainability more expensive. We can see the rising cost of produce where lettuce is between $6-12 a pop. If you are experiencing hardship, that piece of spinach isn’t going on your plate.
So, what can we do? There is no immediate fix for a complex topic. But we must first acknowledge that taking action isn’t all about the things we buy — it’s the interactions of our daily lives and considering diverse perspectives when learning about environmental issues and initiatives.
It recognises the disparities in our changing climate and how it impacts our communities differently.
We can use our privilege and platform to create space for underrepresented communities to have a voice and seat at the table. Consider whose perspectives are missing and add these to make a richer conversation.
Grassroot organisations are mostly run by a diverse community; however, it looks painfully homogenous when you get to the top of the chain. We can make better choices by advocating for more diversity and inclusion on boards and leadership positions, the suppliers we engage and who we vote for. We must support policies and movements that actively fight to abolish systems that place our most vulnerable citizens in uninhabitable environments.
Advocating for change without considering environmental justice and equity will never work. We must work together to ensure a brighter future for our planet, one that includes ALL of us.
* Cathy Ngo has been a passionate advocate for equity, justice and sustainability since she was little, penning letters to human rights organisations and the proud president of the school environment club. Fast forward to today, she founded Keynoteworthy, a social enterprise with a mission to solve the problems that event organisers have in finding and booking speakers that reflect the diversity of gender, sexualities, abilities, ethnicity and ultimately, perspectives and ideas that event-goers and sponsors are increasingly looking for. A sought-after speaker herself and thought leader, Cathy is regularly featured across media and unapologetically shares her perspectives on how we can all take action for a better future.