Environmental Justice

How often have you heard a child say angrily, "It's not fair!". Maybe the concept of fairness, or justice, has been innate in us since we were little. Perhaps, when we are little, we are just such a bundle of selfishness that every little slight seems "unjust"?

Environmental Justice Environmental Justice

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    So, how do we define justice? And, even more pertinently today, what is environmental justice?

    In this article, we will explore environmental justice within the broader concept of social justice. We will also examine the theory, principles, and some examples of environmental justice and what issues it raises.

    Environmental and social justice

    Social justice is a core concept of many political philosophies. Social justice means a commitment to equal rights and opportunities and the fair distribution of resources to ensure everyone in society has their needs met, can thrive as an individual, and can fully participate in social and political life.

    So, what is environmental justice? According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

    Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, colour, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.1

    Theory on environmental justice

    Environmental justice theorists believe that to achieve environmental justice, we must extend the principle of protecting nature (which is at the core of environmentalism) to protect human communities. The environmental justice movement not only considers the impact of environmental policies on minority ethnic and disadvantaged communities but also prioritises including them in the policymaking.

    Environmentalism is a social and political movement that includes concerns for, and actions to protect, the environment.

    Environmental justice principles

    In 1991, the First National People of Colour Environmental Leadership Summit met to end the destruction of their lands and communities. The summit included more than 1,000 representatives from most U.S. states and several Latin American Counties. The summit remains an important event in the history of the environmental movement, and it resulted in the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice2, and the Principles of Working Together.3

    The principles re-defined the meaning of 'environment', altering its definition from 'the wilderness and far away natural landscapes' to 'the places where people live'. The shift in meaning brought about new environmental regulations, which had implications for housing, transportation, pollution, and workers' safety. The principles also set standards for future grassroots environmental organisations as they specified how the movement would be led, how it would fundraise and what equity means in practice.

    The first principle reads:

    Environmental Justice affirms the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, and the right to be free from ecological destruction.”

    And, the third principle in the Principles of Working Together, states:

    The Principles of Working Together recognize that we need each other, and we are stronger with each other. This Principle requires participation at every level without barriers, and that the power of the movement is shared at every level.

    Environmental Justice, Tamara Toles-O'Laughlin was at the First National People of Colour Environmental Leadership Summit and is Executive Director of the Maryland Environmental Health, StudySmarter

    Fig. 1 Tamara Toles-O'Laughlin at the first National People of Colour Environmental Leadership Summit

    Environmental justice issues

    Historically, the environmental burdens resulting from using and misusing the land and its resources were distributed unequally, with the poor, marginalised and minority ethnic communities shouldering much of the load. This led to the birth of the environmental justice movement, a movement borne out of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Initially, the environmental justice movement started by addressing issues of environmental racism in high-income countries of the Global North.

    The terms Global North and Global South are used to differentiate between two regions of the world, divided by geography and economic power. The Global North are Western, high-income countries, most of which are north of the equator. The Global South defines low-income countries, many of which are south of the equator and are former colonies of various Global North countries.

    As Environmental justice groups in the Global North highlighted issues of environmental racism, they pushed to introduce regulations to address these inequalities. This increased the cost of getting rid of waste materials and recyclable waste in the Global North. In response, countries in the Global North began exporting their waste to countries in the Global South at a lower cost. This move shifted the environmental justice issue onto a global scale.

    Together with international environmental distribution and the burden faced by the Global South, the environmental justice movement has expanded to include gender and socioeconomic inequality issues. The environmental justice movement also sides with the Climate Justice Movement in their common aim to bring justice to the impact of environmental and climate change legislation and regulations.

    The Climate Justice movement promotes the fair distribution of the burden of, and the responsibilities to deal with, climate change and the environmental events it causes.

    The United Nations Population Fund4 states that following environmentally dramatic events such as Hurricane Eta, women and girls are most affected due to loss of essential health services and increased vulnerability to gender-based violence.

    US Executive order 12898, in 1994, was passed to ensure that no federal agency environmental policy would disproportionally affect minority-ethnic, low-income communities.

    Environmental Justice, Low-income workers in Ghana recycling waste from high-income countries in a highly polluted environment, StudySmarterFig. 2 Low-income workers in Ghana recycling waste from high-income countries in a highly polluted environment

    Environmental Racism

    Environmental Racism is one of the original core concepts of the environmental justice movement. It is defined as the institutionalised and unequal distribution of the environmental burden on minority ethnic communities due to the use and misuse of the land and natural resources. In 1982, Afton, North Carolina, was chosen as the site of a toxic waste facility. Under the regulations of the time, the local community had no input in the dumping site selection. Afton was known for being the home of a high percentage of low-income, minority ethnic communities. The communities believed their demographic was a crucial factor in determining the site of the waste facility. In response, the community organised non-violent demonstrations for six weeks. More than 500 protesters we arrested, and the event captured the attention of the mainstream media.

    The Environmental Justice movement now has a global scope, with some of its aims being addressed by the United Nations. The Environmental justice movement, together with other environmental organisations, is attempting to add the “right to a healthy environment” to the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration of Human Rights doesn't yet include the right to a healthy environment. However, In 2022, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to recognise the “human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment."5 This was welcomed as a positive step in institutionalising future responsible environmental policies in relation to human health.

    Environmental justice examples

    Environmental justice takes many forms. Let's explore the three main ones in more detail through some practical examples.

    Distributional justice

    This means the environmental (detrimental) consequences of human activities should be fairly distributed among all of us.

    Tom B.K. Goldtooth's book, Indigenous Nations: Summary of Sovereignty and Its Implications for Environmental Protection,6 shows how Native American land is disproportionally affected by mining and nuclear weapons testing.

    Procedural justice

    Procedural justice (also referred to as political justice), means that all people, regardless of their ethnic or socioeconomic background, should be given the same considerations in political decision-making. As hinted at above, this encompasses the inclusion of all interested representatives.

    Lack of participation and secrecy are to blame whenever we encounter a lack of procedural justice. An example of this was when selecting Afton as the site for the waste disposal facility mentioned above, which excluded local communities.

    Corrective Justice

    Corrective justice implies treating all the perpetrators of environmental “wrongs” equally and providing equal treatment for all the “wronged” parties.

    The National Law Journal reviewed all the enforcement actions by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) between 1985 and 1991. The EPA found that, in areas where the majority of the population was white, the average penalties imposed for environmental law violations were 46% higher than in areas with predominantly minority ethnic communities.7

    Environmental Justice - Key takeaways

    • Social justice is the perspective that everyone in a society is entitled to just social, economic and political opportunities and the safeguarding of their rights.
    • Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people in relation to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.
    • The principles of environmental justice were set at the 1991 First National People of Colour Environmental Leadership Summit.
    • The environmental justice movement addresses issues of racism, gender and socioeconomic inequality and unfair distribution of the impact of environmental regulations and consequences of climate change.
    • The three main types of environmental justice are distributional, procedural, and corrective.

    References

    1. EPA Website Environmental Justice‐Related Terms As Defined Across the PSC Agencies – 05/13/13
    2. Environmental Justice net (ejnet) website, Principles 1991
    3. Environmental Justice net (ejnet) website, Working Together
    4. UNFPA website Hondurans lose critical health services after Hurricane Eta tears through Central America 2020
    5. UN website, Resolutions of the 76th Session, 2022
    6. Tom B.K. Goldtooth, Indigenous Nations: Summary of Sovereignty and Its Implications for Environmental Protection, 1995
    7. Marianne Lavelle & Marcia Coyle, Unequal Protection—The Racial Divide in Environmental Law, National Law Journal, 1992
    8. Fig. 1 Tamara Toles-O'Laughlin at the first National People of Colour Environmental Leadership Summit (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tamara_Toles-O%E2%80%99Laughlin,_Executive_Director_Maryland_Environmental_Health_Network_Board_Vice-Chair_%E2%80%93_Women%E2%80%99s_Voices_for_the_Earth_(32762367517).jpg)by Ann Arbor from the University of Michigan school for environment and sustainability (https://www.flickr.com/people/26835854@N07) licenced by CC-BY-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode) on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Environmental Justice

    What are the key components of environmental justice?

    The key components of environmental justice are fair distribution and inclusivity.

    What are the types of environmental justice? 

    The three main types of environmental justice are distributional, procedural, and corrective.

    What is an example of environmental justice?

    An example of environmental justice is all the regulations that have been passed to improve on the principles of Environmental justice such as the 1994 US Executive order 12898.

    What is environmental justice and why is it important?

    Environmental justice the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people in relation to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. It's important, because it ensures that everyone, equally, can benefit from, and bear the responsibility of, the use of the environment. 

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