Black Environmentalists Shaping the Future
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Ph.D. is a Black environmentalist, marine biologist, policy expert, writer, and the founder and CEO of the Ocean Collectiv.| Ryan Lash

7 Black Environmentalists Shaping the Future

Here are seven of the Black innovators making countless contributions to sustainability, science, and technology.

Updated February 16, 2021. Black innovators have made countless discoveries and contributions to the world of science and technology, including sustainability, climate science, and food tech — all industries poised to slow or reverse the devastating effects of climate change. This climate mitigation is more important now than ever before.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) has said that only immediate action can help prevent further escalation of the climate crisis. While the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reports that we are currently on track for 3 degrees warming by the end of the 21st century — twice the “optimum” maximum amount referenced by the Paris Agreement.

Here are seven of the Black leaders who are using their work, research, and experience to not only change the world, but possibly save it.

Dorceta Taylor, Ph.D.

Dorceta Taylor, Ph.D. is an environmental sociologist, historian, writer, and academic. In 1991, she became the first-ever Black woman to receive a doctoral degree from Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and is well-known for her extensive work on environmental justice.

Taylor’s 2018 report The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations focused on gender, racial, and class diversity within NGOs, foundations, and government agencies. While Taylor’s 2014 book Toxic Communities examines the impact of environmental racism on poor and minority neighborhoods.

Taylor also spearheaded the annual New Horizons in Conservation Conference to provide a place for conservation students and professionals from underrepresented backgrounds to meet, learn, and network.

People of color account for just 28 percent of all American STEM workers, and watchdog group Green 2.0 refers to this lack of diversity as the “green ceiling.” Black women, in particular, are conspicuously absent from STEM leadership roles, and New Horizons also aims to assess critical gaps in the diversity of conservation.

Robert Bullard, Ph.D.

The “father of environmental justice,” Robert Bullard, Ph.D. is the current distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy and former dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University (TSU). He has written a total of 18 books on various topics from sustainable development to climate justice.

In 2018, the Global Climate Action Summit named Dr. Bullard one of 22 Climate Trailblazers, and last year UNEP gave him a Champions of the Earth Lifetime Achievement Award. In its profile of Bullard, UNEP highlighted 1979’s Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management, Inc. lawsuit as the true beginning of his career in environmental justice.

His wife, lawyer Linda McKeever Bullard, was representing Houston residents fighting the addition of a municipal landfill site near their homes. In locating evidence to support her restraining order, Bullard discovered that over 80 percent of all the garbage in Houston was being disposed of in or near to the city’s Black communities.

While unsuccessful, this was the first-ever lawsuit to use civil rights law in challenging environmental discrimination. Bullard has remained a leading campaigner against environmental racism throughout his career, focusing primarily on the American South. His book Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality (2000), became a landmark environmental justice text.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Ph.D.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Ph.D. is a marine biologist, policy expert, writer, and the founder and CEO of the Ocean Collectiv — a consulting firm that provides “conservation solutions grounded in social justice.”

She has also served as executive director of the nonprofit organization the Waitt Institute, and Director of Science and Solutions at the Waitt Foundation.

Johnson previously co-founded the Blue Halo Initiative, which operated in partnership with government agencies and local communities in Barbuda, Montserrat, and Curaçao to create sustainable ocean-use plans. This led to the Caribbean’s first-ever successful island-wide ocean zoning effort, protecting over a third of Barbudian coastal waters.

In 2019, Johnson gave a TED talk on parrot fish, coral reefs, and the impact of climate change on ocean environments. In an article for The Washington Post last year, Johnson described the inevitable intersection of racial justice and climate justice and wrote about the urgent need for active and vigilant anti-racism within the environmentalist movement, specifically from white activists.

Warren Washington, Ph.D.

Atmospheric scientist Warren Washington, Ph.D. is the former chair of the National Science Board and currently a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado.

He has produced more than 150 publications and received many awards for his contributions to the field of science — including the National Medal of Science. He has also been awarded honorary doctorates from Oregon State University and Bates College, Maine.

When Washington arrived at NCAR in the 1960s, he became one of the first developers of groundbreaking atmospheric computer models that helped scientists understand climate change.

Washington was the second-ever African-American to receive a doctorate in atmospheric sciences and has served as a role model to countless young researchers entering the field.

Adrienne Hollis, Ph.D.

Adrienne Hollis, Ph.D. is the senior climate justice and health scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UofCS), a U.S.-based science advocacy nonprofit. She is a biomedical doctor and an environmental lawyer, and previously served as the director of federal policy at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a community-based, grassroots, environmental advocacy group.

Hollis works closely with environmental justice communities to identify and address health concerns related to ongoing environmental issues and climate change. She also evaluates the effectiveness of climate and energy policies in targeting the climate crisis, particularly in light of its impact on underserved people in the community.

After more than 20 years in the environmental sector, Hollis is well known for her work on environmental justice, equity, and the impact of climate change on particular communities and demographics.

“People of color have been blatantly excluded from decision making,” Hollis told LIVEKINDLY. “This has resulted in adverse environmental exposures, poor public health outcomes, poor infrastructure, and economic oppression.”

“I choose to use my scientific and my legal skills, such as they are, in ways that will ensure that environmental injustice is addressed,” she added. “Through policy, regulations, community-based participatory research and science.”

Lisa Dyson, Ph.D.

Lisa Dyson, Ph.D. is the co-founder of Kiverdi, a biotechnology company that develops sustainable products using carbon transformation — literally creating materials out of thin air.

Kiverdi currently has 50+ patents granted or pending. In her 2016 TED Talk, Dyson discussed how NASA’s 1960s technology inspired the research, and how carbon can even be turned into food.

She founded a second company, Air Protein — of which she is the CEO — to focus solely on sustainable food production. Flour produced by Air Protein offers a way to create meat without the excessive environmental burden of conventional animal agriculture.

Dyson was the fourth Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in theoretical high energy physics, and in 2018, she received the Women in Natural Sciences Award for her “outstanding” and “visionary” contributions to STEM and the world at large.

Alvyn Severien

Alvyn Severien is the co-founder and CEO of Algama Foods, a French company using sea-harvested microalgae as a sustainable alternative to animal-derived protein.

Algama has launched a spirulina-based drink called Springwave, while The Good Spoon — founded by Algama co-founder Gaetan Gohin  — produces egg-free mayonnaise using its microalgae.

Since its foundation, Algama has become a world leader in microalgae-based food and is supported by investors such as Horizons Ventures, Veginvest, Beyond Impact, and Blue Horizon. According to the company itself, it aims to offer consumers “better choices” by producing sustainable and healthy food.

Algae does not compete with other agricultural crops for resources and even releases oxygen into the atmosphere as it grows. It has a variety of nutritional benefits, and spirulina, in particular, contains up to three times the amount of usable protein as beef per 100 grams. 

Because of its nutritional and sustainable qualities, microalgae shows great potential as an ingredient in sustainable plant-based meat products. And some predict it may be the next big thing in plant-based protein production.