What is Environmental Justice: An Overview

In 1999 a study by the Institute of Medicine defined “environmental justice as being a concept that addresses the physical and social health issues related to the distribution of environmental benefits and burdens among the populations, particularly in degraded and hazardous physical environments occupied by minority or disadvantaged populations.”
The Environmental Protection Agency defines Environmental Justice as
“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.”
Environmental justice encompasses the pursuit of justice and protection under the law without discriminations based on race, ethnicity, or income level.  Environmental justice focuses on improving the environment in communities, specifically minority and low-income communities, and addressing disproportionate adverse environmental impacts that may exist in those communities.  Basically, no group regardless of race, ethnic background, or socioeconomic status should have to bear an unfair share of negative environmental conditions from the government or private industry.
In order to understand environmental justice, we need to recognize Environmental Racism, or environmental injustice which is defined as the disproportionate impact that pollution and toxins have on people of color, indigenous peoples and poor people.  Numerous studies have shown that communities of color, especially black communities, and low-income communities in the United States host an inordinate number of environmental hazards and bear a disproportionate impact of environmental irresponsibility.  This is the core of environmental injustice, which the movement for environmental justice seeks to eradicate from environmental policy, industry tactics and cultural practices.
Environmental justice is the byproduct of the intersection between the civil rights movement and the environmental movements.  The Environmental Justice movement has emerged as a result of increased awareness of the disproportionately high impacts of environmental pollution on economically and politically disadvantaged communities.  The environmental justice movement stresses community participation in the decision-making process and equal access to relief mechanisms regarding pollution.  It has brought together issues of social, economic, and political marginalization of minorities and low-income communities, and concerns over pollution hazards in neighborhoods and in the workplace.
Over the past two decades the Environmental Justice Movement (EJM) has grown organically out of dozens, even hundreds, of local struggles so much so that pointing to a particular date or event that launched the Environmental Justice Movement is difficult. One could easily argue that environmental justice started with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 when he went to Memphis, Tennessee to help Black striking garbage workers who were demanding equal pay and better working conditions.  Sadly Dr. King was assassinated shortly after he gave a speech supporting the garbage workers, but his wife, Coretta Scott King, picked up the cause and marched with the striking workers shortly after her husband was assassinated and before he was buried.
One could also make the argument that Native Americans have been doing environmental justice work for centuries.  It is however, historically recognized that the environmental justice movement took off in 1982 in Warren County, North Carolina, when residents protested against the siting of another hazardous waste landfill in their county.  Activists from both the civil rights and environmental movements laid down in front of trucks carrying PCB-contaminated soil into the largely African-American Warren County – already inundated with more industry than any of the other counties in North Carolina.  The Warren County demonstrations did not stop the new landfill but the events that transpired in this rural, mostly black, and poor county brought attention on environmental racism and the impact of public policy decisions sighting unwanted facilities.
According to Robert Bullard, the environmental justice framework rests on developing tools and strategies to eliminate unfair, unjust, and inequitable conditions and decisions.  The framework also attempts to uncover the underlying assumptions that may contribute to and produce differential exposure and unequal protection.  It brings to the surface the ethical and political questions of “who gets what, when, why, and how much.” The environmental justice framework adopts a public health model of health promotion, protection and disease prevention (i.e., elimination of the threat before harm occurs) as the preferred strategy; shifts the burden of proof to polluters/dischargers who do harm, who discriminate, or who do not give equal protection to people of color, low-income persons, and other “protected” classes; allows disparate impact and statistical weight to be used to infer discrimination;  redresses disproportionate impact through “targeted” action and resources.  In general, this strategy would target resources where environmental and health problems are greatest.  Sociology is the theoretical framework that ties it all together

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