Environmental Justice: Everything You Need to Know
Quick Key Facts
- Environmental justice movements work to end or stop disproportionate amounts of environmentally negative practices in vulnerable communities.
- Types of environmental injustice aren’t limited to a few specific types of activities but instead can look like many different things that share several key themes.
- One of the first environmental justice lawsuits was an eight-year-long case related to a landfill being developed in a Black community in Texas.
- Protests against a planned toxic landfill in Warren County, North Carolina, are cited as the first well-known activities in support of environmental justice in the U.S.
- Land grabs are among the most common types of environmental conflicts, according to an international inventory of environmental injustices.
- Although the first federal executive order on environmental justice was in the 1990s, it reportedly had little impact on agency actions.
- President Joe Biden signed an executive order in April seeking to address environmental injustices in low-income and racial minority communities.
- Roughly a dozen states have at least one office of environmental justice, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
What Is Environmental Justice?
Environmental justice is a facet of broader social justice movements. It considers how individual communities can be overburdened with a disproportionate amount of environmentally negative facilities or activities in their area compared to other, less vulnerable communities. Achieving environmental justice looks like “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Various concepts further help define which communities are being impacted. The terms environmental racism and classism, for example, specifically address environmental injustices that disproportionately affect someone because of their skin color or lower-income status, respectively.
What Are Some Examples of Environmental Injustice?
Environmental injustice doesn’t look like just one thing across communities. It can be a single, significant source of pollution — like plastic pollution — or it can be a series of sources whose harmful effects accumulate over time.
That is the case for the Louisiana community living in what is known as “Cancer Alley,” who are suing their local government for approving multiple polluting petrochemical facilities in two Black districts.
It can also look like poor neighborhoods being forced to live with poor air quality from adjacent industrial activities, like Black residents of Washington, DC. An article from DCist, a local news outlet, describes the findings of a recent research paper that shows how neighborhoods with mostly Black residents haven’t seen the same rise in air quality that others have recorded.
In those neighborhoods, according to the article, “there are more than four times as many pollution-related premature deaths compared to wealthy neighborhoods.”
It can also look like communities in the same city having unequal access to lush parks and clean waterways. In Chicago, a predominantly Latino neighborhood called Little Village has struggled with a similar problem for years, enjoying the least amount of green space per capita in the city while being forced to live with diesel trucks traveling back and forth from a retail distribution site. The organization behind the Goldman Environmental Prize highlighted one resident leading the fight to make change and called Little Village a “textbook case study for environmental justice.”
Again, environmental justice isn’t one narrow type of problem. Nevertheless, several key themes emerge from what is typically considered an environmental justice problem. Negative public health outcomes, local ecosystem impacts, discrimination or lack of consideration for the needs or wants of protected classes of people are among the broad tenets.
Two separate events in the 1990s saw activists working to identify what environmental justice looked like (the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, DC) and what activism practices should be (the Working Group Meeting on Globalization and Trade in Jemez, New Mexico), according to a blog post by Detroiters Working For Environmental Justice.
The Washington, DC summit resulted in a 17-point summary of what environmental justice and injustice looks like, including “the right to ethical, balanced and responsible uses of land and renewable resources in the interest of a sustainable planet for humans and other living things,” as well as a demand for “the cessation of the production of all toxins, hazardous wastes, and radioactive materials, and that all past and current producers be held strictly accountable to the people for detoxification and the containment at the point of production.”
In New Mexico, activists underscored the need for inclusive organizing that ensures that “relevant voices of people directly affected are heard.”
“Ways must be provided for spokespersons to represent and be responsible to the affected constituencies,” according to the resulting document, the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing. “It is important for organizations to clarify their roles, and who they represent, and to assure accountability within our structure.”
What Are Key Moments in American Environmental Justice History?
According to Inside Climate News, the environmental justice movement in the U.S. should first be traced back to the Black sanitation workers strike in Memphis, Tennessee in the late 1960s after two workers were crushed by a truck while working. (That environmental-labor movement was what brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis, where he was assassinated at the motel where he was staying.)
“Robert Walker and Echol Cole’s deaths sparked the environmental justice and Civil Rights Movement when over a thousand Black sanitation workers went on strike for better pay and working conditions,” wrote a Tennessee state representative in an essay for the nonprofit newsroom MLK50: Justice Through Journalism.
The first environmental justice lawsuit, however, wouldn’t be filed until the late 1970s, explains an article in The New York Times. A Texas lawyer named Linda McKeever Bullard filed a class-action lawsuit to stop a landfill from being developed in a Black community in Houston, asking her husband, a sociology professor, to help determine the location of other city landfills.
According to that article, her husband — Robert Bullard, often referred to as the father of environmental justice — and his students discovered that the majority of landfills and incinerators were all located in Black areas, disproportionate to the percentage of Houstonians who were Black. But despite their research showing the inordinate amount of pollution exposure for the Black community, the landfill was still developed after an eight-year court case.
Although “the case was lost… by attempting for the first time to challenge the siting of a waste facility under civil rights law, it became a milestone in the environmental justice movement,” according to Inside Climate News.
One of the most well-known protests at the start of the environmental justice movement was in North Carolina, when residents of a poor, rural and mostly Black county pushed back against the state’s plan to locally site a toxic landfill. The Washington Post writes in this article that the six-week protest saw over 500 people arrested as “women lay in the path of massive dump trucks beside men [and] children often protested with their parents.”
“While they were ultimately unsuccessful in their efforts, the Warren County protests and organizers helped spark a far larger movement that started gaining national attention,” according to an explainer from Detroiters Working For Environmental Justice.
Inside Climate News offers an interactive timeline of key environmental justice historical moments in the U.S., including these three events.
What Are Some Recent Environmental Justice Movements in the U.S.?
While many important moments in environmental justice history occurred during and in the decades following the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., communities across the country continue fighting against disproportionate pollution and environmental harm, from Utah to New York City. Here are a few recent examples.
Massachusetts regulators recently approved the installation of a controversial power substation (which are used to help transmit electricity from where it is generated to where it is needed, like a suburban or urban center) in an East Boston neighborhood. But residents of the community — predominantly composed of working-class people and immigrants, according to an article by WBUR — have long been fighting the plans. The neighborhood already hosts a jet fuel terminal, and the substation will be located next to a playground and on a site that had already been earmarked as a future park.
In Delaware, Delaware News Journal recently reported that multiple environmental and civil rights groups filed a federal civil rights complaint over a lack of community notification during the approval process of an anaerobic digestion and biogas facility that would use discarded poultry parts as a feedstock. After canvassing the community, the organizations found that few had been informed of the plans. Delaware News Journal notes that the community is composed mostly of “low-income, Spanish or Haitian-Creole speakers who work in the poultry processing industry.”
And in January, a nonprofit advocacy group released a report finding that Louisiana’s liquefied natural gas facilities are “underreporting and miscalculating the amount of toxic air emissions from their facilities” as chronic health problems persist in the community, according to a Floodlight summary.
What Are Some Current Global Environmental Justice Movements?
According to the Environmental Justice Atlas, which inventories global environmental justice issues, land grabs are among the most common types of environmental injustice conflicts.
One such land grab has been ongoing in Tanzania, where the country has been violently evicting members of the Indigenous Maasai community for tourism development, among other activities, according to recent reporting by Grist.
Energy project siting is another frequent way that environmental injustice arises internationally, per the Environmental Justice Atlas. The Associated Press reported in April that Indigenous communities in India have been forced to relocate because of the development of hydroelectric dams to generate clean energy. But the build-out has led to rockslides and rerouted water systems critical for growing crops.
How Does The Government Address Environmental Justice?
In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order that directed federal agencies to identify environmental injustices and develop strategies for addressing them. Known as Executive Order 12898, E&E News reports that although it was the first governmental admission of environmental injustice perpetrated against poor people and minorities, what changes occurred were limited.
More recently, President Joe Biden in April signed an executive order creating a new federal office: the Office of Environmental Justice, which is housed within the White House Council on Environmental Quality. The order fulfilled a campaign promise the president made to address environmental injustice in low-income and racial minority communities, according to Politico.
Certain federal agencies, like the Department of Health and Human Services, already had environmental justice offices. The Department of Justice announced the opening of its own Office of Environmental Justice and a new environmental justice enforcement strategy last summer.
“Although violations of our environmental laws can happen anywhere, communities of color, Indigenous communities, and low-income communities often bear the brunt of the harm caused by environmental crime, pollution, and climate change,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland in a press release at the time. “For far too long, these communities have faced barriers to accessing the justice they deserve.”
Some states have also formed offices and new positions in order to address environmental justice more locally. For example, Massachusetts recently hired María Belén Power as its first-ever undersecretary of environmental justice and equity. Belén Power is from Guatemala but lives in Chelsea, a city in the Boston area where environmental justice concerns have been raised for years.
Another state that has made efforts toward addressing environmental injustices is Colorado. In 2021, the state formed an environmental justice task force within its public health and environment department. Thirteen states have at least one environmental justice office, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
How Can I Be an Effective Online Ally for Environmental Justice?
Online, make sure that your feeds include the perspectives of impacted communities. Scroll through the accounts you follow and stop following folks who, intentionally or otherwise, contribute to environmental injustice. That could look like accounts that glorify overconsumption — such as fast fashion promoters — or that don’t take the threats to environmental justice communities seriously. Consider entertainment that brings these issues to light, like the graphic novel series, La Borinqueña, which tackles climate change and environmental justice issues.
And don’t just listen to those voices — amplify them on your own accounts. While providing your own thoughts can be helpful, sharing their direct testimony to environmental injustice is more powerful than any summary you can write up in an Instagram Story caption, given that they’re directly living through the experience. Here’s a full guide on how to be a better online ally for environmental justice.
Offline, continue educating yourself and listening to sources from vulnerable communities for information about how environmental injustice is impacting their lives, as they will be in the best position to know what is hurting them.
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