Environmental justice is a way of looking at environmental issues through the lens of social inequality, and it seeks to ensure that everyone has access to clean air, water, and land.
It also looks at how different social groups are impacted differently by environmental policies, practices, and decisions.
For example, low-income and minority communities often bear the brunt of environmental harms such as pollution, lack of access to safe drinking water, and disproportionate exposure to toxic chemicals.
In other words, environmental justice is a special social category demanded by the ecological trend in sociology, which takes it beyond the scope of consideration of social tasks proper to the level of matching these tasks with environmental problems.
Definition of Environmental Justice
Environmental justice refers to 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” (US EPA, 2019).
The concept is informed by the principle that all communities should receive equal access to resources, regardless of race or socio-economic status.
It also seeks to ensure that those most impacted by environmental harms are given a voice in decisions regarding the environment.
The objective of environmental justice is to eliminate environmental injustice and halt further environmental destruction in order to ensure current and future generations can live with dignity and attain a high quality of life (Okonkwo, 2021).
The moral duty of the present generation is to preserve for future generations the opportunity to satisfy their own needs.
Environmental justice applies both to non-renewable resources, the reserves of which are limited on the planet, and the quality of the environment, which affects human health (Mohai et al., 2009).
In simple words, environmental justice is an ecological perspective on social justice, and aims for global environmental protection that ensures that all people have the right to enjoy a clean and healthy environment.
10 Examples of Environmental Justice
- Access to clean air: Environment justice demands that every person should have access to clean air, yet sadly in many neighborhoods, the pollution created by power plants and other sources of emissions has resulted in an abysmal quality. These are usually low-income or minority communities that are hit hardest by this inequality.
- Access to safe drinking water: Clean drinking water is indispensable for people’s physical and mental well-being. However, in some countries and communities, it can be hard to come by due to industrial pollution or environmental harm. With restricted access to clean drinking water, these communities are exposed to dangerous toxins that may have serious long-term impacts on their health and prosperity.
- Pollution hot spots: Certain communities are disproportionately impacted by air and water pollution, resulting in higher rates of disease and health problems. It is particularly true for communities of color, which are often located near industrial facilities and other sources of pollution.
- Toxic waste disposal: Environmental justice strives to guarantee that everyone has access to sanitary and safe land. Unfortunately, communities of color and financially disadvantaged areas are especially fragile when it comes to the consequences of disposing of toxic waste, which can result in long-term medical troubles.
- Climate change: Environmental justice is also concerned with the disproportionate impacts of climate change, which affects certain communities more than others. Low-lying coastal areas and Indigenous communities are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, like sea level rise.
- Environmental health hazards: We can also consider it a matter of justice to protect communities from environmental health hazards, like lead poisoning and asbestos exposure. Low-income and minority communities are often exposed to a higher risk of these hazards due to inadequate regulation, leading to poorer health outcomes.
- Unsafe working conditions: The goal of environmental justice is to ensure everyone, especially those in the labor force, is working in safe spaces. However, it’s a sad truth that people employed in hazardous industries expose themselves to life-threatening substances without proper shielding and defense.
- Access to outdoor recreation: Everyone should have the right to enjoy the outdoors, whether it be for leisure or reflection. Unfortunately, in many communities around the globe, access to parks and green spaces is not readily available – which can lead to poorer physical and mental health outcomes among those who lack outdoor recreational opportunities.
- Access to affordable housing: A justice-oriented approach to environmental change also seeks to ensure that all people have access to affordable housing. Still, high housing costs can lead to overcrowding and other unhealthy living conditions in many areas.
- Equitable development: Environmental justice is built upon the foundation of equitable development, striving toward a future where all neighborhoods see positive results from economic expansion without suffering its adverse effects, such as air pollution or displacement.
Сase Studies of Environmental Justice
1. The Fight for Environmental Justice in Warren County, North Carolina
In 1982, the authorities in North Carolina made a callous decision to dump hazardous waste within an African-American neighborhood of Warren County.
The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 may have regulated this disposal process, but it did not take into account public input on where these PCBs should be discarded (Wheeler, 2013).
As soon as the landfill construction began, local citizens immediately fought back against it. This protest was notably bolstered with important organizations like the United Church of Christ and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference joining in to amplify its power – a voice that could be heard from every corner of society.
Hundreds of protestors courageously took action against the toxins polluting their community’s water supply, igniting one of the earliest worldwide environmental justice movements on record.
This demonstration has made a lasting impression, sparking a global campaign to preserve our planet and everything living within it.
2. Standing Rock Sioux Tribe vs. Dakota Access Pipeline
In 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota launched a campaign to oppose the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would have disrupted their sacred land and water supply (McIntyre, 2021).
This project should have transported an alarming 19 million gallons of hazardous fracked oil daily from North Dakota to Illinois, marring indigenous land and sacred sites, endangering wildlife habitats, and even threatening the Missouri River itself.
The campaign attracted thousands of supporters from all walks of life, from Indigenous leaders to members of the environmental justice community.
The protests ultimately successfully stopped the construction of this pipeline and brought attention to environmental justice issues.
3. Flint Water Crisis
In 2014, the residents of Flint, Michigan, were tragically confronted with a health disaster resulting from the contamination of their drinking water supply by lead and other toxins (Cooper & Aronson, 2020).
The source of this contamination was the city’s ill-advised decision to switch its water supply from a safer, treated lake source to an untreated river indexing hazardous levels of industrial runoff and sewage.
Disregarded by the state government, Flint – a city predominantly comprised of African-Americans – was deprived of resources and acknowledgment in comparison to other cities within Michigan.
This case has sparked a much broader discussion concerning how governments can better safeguard their citizens and put environmental justice first.
Importance of Environmental Justice
Environmental justice is integral to the sustainability of our planet, ensuring that everyone can enjoy clean air, water, and land. It insists on providing all people with an equitable environment free from bias or prejudice.
Here are five reasons why environmental justice is important:
- It highlights the importance of community involvement: Environmental justice recognizes the importance of giving a voice to those most affected by environmental issues. In many cases, it is traditionally marginalized or disenfranchised communities that are the first to experience environmental pollution and its negative consequences.
- It promotes health equity: A justice-oriented approach to the environment seeks to guarantee that every person and community, regardless of class or economic rank, has access to breathing air without contamination, purified water resources, and uncontaminated land.y reinforcing the condition of these areas in regard to environmental standards, it can help bring down health risks by decreasing illnesses as well as diseases.
- It acknowledges that everyone has a responsibility to protect the environment: Environmental justice ensures that all people, corporations, and nations are held responsible for their decisions and act to safeguard the planet.Every single one of us is obligated to protect our natural environment, with a justice-oriented approach holding us accountable.
- It works towards sustainable solutions: Environmental justice is committed to finding solutions that work for both people and the environment. These solutions should be sustainable, meaning that they are economically viable, equitable, and respectful to the environment.
- It defines the need for distributive justice: Environmental justice works to ensure that the costs of environmental degradation are not just placed on those who are most vulnerable and least able to pay. Instead, it strives to find solutions that are fair to everyone, regardless of their economic or social backgrounds.
Environmental justice is understood as ensuring equal access of all individuals to a favorable environment. It is a broad concept encompassing many dimensions, such as health, social justice, and rights.
This is an important issue that must be addressed to ensure that all people have the right to a healthy, safe, and clean environment.
For example, by creating sustainable solutions to environmental issues and ensuring that those with the greatest responsibility for environmental damage are held accountable, we can work towards a future that guarantees justice for all.
Cooper, C. J. (2022). Poisoned water: How the citizens of Flint, Michigan, fought for their lives and warned the nation. Bloomsbury USA.
McIntyre, I. (2021). Environmental blockades: Obstructive direct action and the history of the environmental movement. Routledge.
Mohai, P., Pellow, D., & Roberts, J. T. (2009). Environmental justice. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 34(1), 405–430. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-environ-082508-094348
Okonkwo, E. C. (2021). Environmental justice and oil pollution laws. Routledge.
US EPA. (2019, February 6). Environmental justice. US EPA. https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice Wheeler, S. M. (2013). Planning for sustainability: Creating livable, equitable and ecological communities. Routledge.