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Environmental justice

Environmental Justice

By Bunyan Bryant

The Meaning and Significance of Environmental Justice

The concept of environmental justice has surfaced and taken shape over the last thirty years. The first time environmental justice hit the radar screen was in 1976 at a conference entitled: “Working for Environmental and Economic Justice and Jobs” sponsored by the United Automobile Workers of America (UAW) and several other organizations. This conference was held at the Walter May Reuther Family Education Center located at Black Lake near Onaway, Michigan. Over the years, people of color and low-income groups, through struggle to protect their communities from environmental insults, have brought meaning to the concept of environmental justice. Although Love Canal, New York was not the first or the worst of contaminated sites, the struggle that took place there did raise the nation’s consciousness of health impacts of chemical and industrial waste long-buried in a mostly white neighborhood near Niagara Falls, New York. The Warren County, North Carolina struggle to prevent the burial of PCBs in a landfill in predominantly black area was the first time the connection was made between civil rights and environmental protection. As people struggled in communities across the country for safer and cleaner environments, the (United States) Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was propelled to define environmental justice as follows:

“The fair treatment and meaningful involvement of people of all races, cultures, incomes and educational levels with respect to the development and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Fair treatment means that no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental and commercial operations or policies. Meaningful involvement means that:

  • people have an opportunity to participate in decisions about activities that may affect their environment and/or health;
  • the publics contribution can influence the regulatory agency’s decision;
  • their concerns will be considered in the decision making process; and
  • the decision makers seek out and facilitate the involvement of those potentially affected.”

The EPA definition can be analyzed from the taxonomy of distributive and procedural justice. Distributive justice in practice has not meant a redistribution of pollutants equally to all communities, but the enforcement of the equal protection of the law or pollution preventions strategies so that pollutions will not be distributive to any community. The Agency places considerable emphasis upon procedural justice to make rules and regulations transparent in order for communities to access the decision-making process. We can also see that corrective justice is one of the main thrusts of the Agency where it uses legislation, rules and regulations, or lawsuits to reward, compensate, or punish guilty parties for damages done. Although EPA policy seems to be strongest in support of procedural and corrective justice, it is weakest in support of distributive and social justice. The EPA definition and the taxonomy of definitions, except perhaps for social issues, take a short-term approach to environmental justice.

Policies to address short-term problems are not the solution. To implement such policies is like fighting a rear guard action. Therefore, we must be visionary and be willing to plan for the future or we will blunder into it with all the alphabet soup of social and environmental problems that have been intensified over the years. The following definition of environmental justice is more visionary and broader in scope:

“Environmental justice are those cultural norms and values, rules, regulations, behaviors policies, and decisions that support sustainable development, so that people can interact with confidence that their environment is safe, nurturing, and productive. Environmental justice is served when people can realize their highest potential, without experiencing the “isms”. Environmental justice is supported by decent-paying and safe jobs; quality schools and recreation; decent housing and adequate health care; democratic decision-making and personal empowerment; and communities free of violence, drugs, and poverty. Environmental justice communities are where both cultural and biological diversity are respected and highly revered and where distributive justice prevails.”

This definition makes environmental justice much boarder than the EPA definition. It is not only concerned about short-term policies, but long-term policies that will affect people and the communities they live in. It gives a vision of what an environmentally just community would look like; it reads like a community of the future. To realize this vision of the future will require us to develop cities and systems that mimic nature. In nature there is virtually no waste in that the waste for one life-form becomes the food for another one. Therefore we must build cities and production systems where the waste from one system becomes the raw materials for the other. We must build cities that mimic nature where there will no longer be a need to drill for oil or to mine for coal. Although systems that mimic nature will go a long way to eliminate sickness, death, and environmental degradation, such systems fail to address the issue of equity, justice, and fairness, which are critical to an environmentally just society. Without equity and fairness there can be no justice.

The Future of Environmental Justice

Over the years environmental justice has evolved and gone from resisting and changing discriminatory practices of siting polluting facilities in communities of color and communities of low-income to addressing the impact of global climate change. Lessons to date from the signs of global warming suggest that we must divorce ourselves from the fossil fuel economy. People of color and low-income are disproportionately impacted by the toxins from fossil fuel industries that poison ambient air quality that lead to toxic-induced and aggravated disease and general health disparities. People of color and low-income groups are not only disproportionately impacted by pollutants in the short-term, but will be least able to protect themselves in a warming climate caused by fossil fuel-induced greenhouse gases.

As global warming takes place, resulting in flooding in some areas and droughts in others, structural inequalities will become more visible as millions of people migrate across geo-political boundaries in search of dry land, food, jobs, and shelter causing regional conflicts and even wars. Tropical diseases will move north making more people vulnerable to a variety of illnesses. Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath may be a harbinger of the future, particularly if we continue along this perilous trend of warming the planet. Global climate change may be the largest environmental justice crisis of all. To build an environmentally just society not only calls for a cleaner environment, but it calls for the eradication of structural inequality which contributes to world terrorism and world disequilibrium.


Further Reading

  • Bryant, B. and Callewaert, J. 2003. Why Is Understanding Urban Ecosystems Important to Environmental Justice? In Berkowitz, A.R., Nilon, C.H., and Hollweg, K.S. (Eds.) Understanding Urban Ecosystems. New York: Springer.
  • Bryant, B. 2003. History and Issues of the Environmental Justice Movement. In Visgilio, G. and Whitelaw, D. (Eds.) Our Backyard: A Quest for Environmental Justice. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Middendorf, George and Bruce Grant. 2003. The challenge of environmental justice. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Volume 1, Issue 3, Pages 154-155.

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