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Friday, November 7, 2008

Environmental justice

Environmental justice (EJ) is the confluence of social and environmental movements, which deals with the inequitable environmental burden born by groups such as racial minorities, women, or residents of developing nations. It is a holistic effort to analyze and overcome the power structures that have traditionally thwarted environmental reforms. Environmental justice proponents generally view the environment as encompassing "where we live, work, and play" (sometimes "pray" and "learn" are also included); the movement seeks to redress inequitable distributions of environmental burdens (pollution, industrial facilities, crime, etc.) and access to environmental goods (nutritious food, clean air & water, parks, recreation, health care, education, transportation, safe jobs, etc.) in a variety of situations. Self-determination and participation in decision-making are key components of environmental justice. According to a compilation of thoughts by several notable EJ organizations, root causes of environmental injustices include "institutionalized racism; the commodification of land, water, energy and air; unresponsive, unaccountable government policies and regulation; and lack of resources and power in affected communities".

In the early 1980s, environmental justice emerged as a concept in the United States. It is difficult to pinpoint a particular date or event that launched the Environmental Justice Movement, as the movement grew organically out of dozens, even hundreds, of local struggles and events and out of a variety of other social movements.


Participants of the Central and Eastern European Workshop on Environmental Justice (Budapest, December 2003) defined environmental justice (and injustice) in the following way:

"Environmental Justice:
A condition of environmental justice exists when environmental risks and hazards and investments and benefits are equally distributed with a lack of discrimination, whether direct or indirect, at any jurisdictional level; and when access to environmental investments, benefits, and natural resources are equally distributed; and when access to information, participation in decision making, and access to justice in environment-related matters are enjoyed by all."

"Environmental Injustice:
An environmental injustice exists when members of disadvantaged, ethnic, minority or other groups suffer disproportionately at the local, regional (sub-national), or national levels from environmental risks or hazards, and/or suffer disproportionately from violations of fundamental human rights as a result of environmental factors, and/or denied access to environmental investments, benefits, and/or natural resources, and/or are denied access to information; and/or participation in decision making; and/or access to justice in environment-related matters."


Robert Bullard and Hazel Johnson have been called the father and mother of the Environmental Justice movement, respectively.

While there is no official history of Environmental Justice, it has been suggested that the idea of Environmental Justice was created in 1982, during the struggle over the Warren County PCB Landfill. The landfill was to be located in a predominantly African American community. Residents of Warren County, North Carolina requested the assistance of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice to nonviolently protest this act by the state. This prompted Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ) to conduct a study examining what was believed to be "the intentional placement of hazardous waste sites, landfills, incinerators, and polluting industries" in communities with largely minority and poor populations. In the release of the 1987 report (entitled "Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States"), Rev. Benjamin Chavis, Executive Director of CRJ, coined the term "environmental racism" to refer to "intentionally selecting communities of color for wastes disposal sites and polluting industrial facilities." The United Church of Christ CRJ has continued to fight for environmental justice, and in 2007 released a new report entitled "Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty," which shows the continued environmental hazards that minorities face.

Organizing on a large scale occurred for the first time in 1991 with The First National People of Color Environmental Justice Summit held in Washington, DC. The Second National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit (also called Summit II) was also held in Washington DC, from October 23-26, 2002. Materials produced at the summit included a timeline for Environmental Justice milestones.

Principles of Environmental Justice

The following principles were adopted by delegates of the First National People of Color Environmental Justice Summit in 1991. These principles were developed to serve as a "guide for organizing, networking, and relating to government and nongovernmental organizations."

1) 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.

2) Environmental Justice demands that public policy be based on mutual respect and justice for all peoples, free from any form of discrimination or bias.

3) Environmental Justice mandates 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.

4) Environmental Justice calls for universal protection from nuclear testing, extraction, production and disposal of toxic/hazardous wastes and poisons and nuclear testing that threaten the fundamental right to clean air, land, water, and food.

5) Environmental Justice affirms the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all peoples.

6) Environmental Justice demands 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.

7) Environmental Justice demands the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making, including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation.

8) Environmental Justice affirms the right of all workers to a safe and healthy work environment without being forced to choose between an unsafe livelihood and unemployment. It also affirms the right of those who work at home to be free from environmental hazards.

9) Environmental Justice protects the right of victims of environmental injustice to receive full compensation and reparations for damages as well as quality health care.

10) Environmental Justice considers governmental acts of environmental injustice a violation of international law, the Universal Declaration On Human Rights, and the United Nations Convention on Genocide.

11) Environmental Justice must recognize a special legal and natural relationship of Native Peoples to the U.S. government through treaties, agreements, compacts, and covenants affirming sovereignty and self-determination.

12) Environmental Justice affirms the need for urban and rural ecological policies to clean up and rebuild our cities and rural areas in balance with nature, honoring the cultural integrity of all our communities, and provided fair access for all to the full range of resources.

13) Environmental Justice calls for the strict enforcement of principles of informed consent, and a halt to the testing of experimental reproductive and medical procedures and vaccinations on people of color.

14) Environmental Justice opposes the destructive operations of multi-national corporations.

15) Environmental Justice opposes military occupation, repression and exploitation of lands, peoples and cultures, and other life forms.

16) Environmental Justice calls for the education of present and future generations which emphasizes social and environmental issues, based on our experience and an appreciation of our diverse cultural perspectives.

17) Environmental Justice requires that we, as individuals, make personal and consumer choices to consume as little of Mother Earth's resources and to produce as little waste as possible; and make the conscious decision to challenge and reprioritize our lifestyles to insure the health of the natural world for present and future generations.

Environmental Justice Action

If public knowledge of environmental racism is awakened, people can have a huge impact on the environmental justice movement. "Public knowledge of environmental data can be used by consumers boycott products or by investors to penalize large polluters." Until this public knowledge is more widespread, however, the battle of environmental justice continues to be waged by a relatively small group of concerned citizens.

Environmental Justice Advocates

There are numerous individuals who have chosen to become advocates for environmental justice. Some of these people may be members of formal EJ groups, such as at their university or in their state, while others may simply be self-starters who are fighting for environmental justice without formally being a part of an EJ organization. United States organizations working for environmental justice include Greenaction, Center for Health Environment and Justice, the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic and the Coalition Against Environmental Racism. In response to public concerns raised by some of these groups, the United States Environmental Protection Agency created the Office of Environmental Justice in 1992.

One well-known advocate of Environmental Justice is Erin Brockovich. The 2000 movie "Erin Brockovich" was based on Ms. Brockovich's work investigating the adverse health effects that exposure to a toxic substance (chromium 6) caused for the people of Hinkley, California. The chromium 6 had leaked into the groundwater from one of Pacific Gas and Electric Company's plants. This had been causing health problems among residents for over 30 years. A lawsuit was filed against the company, and "the giant utility paid the largest toxic tort injury settlement in U.S. history: $333 million in damages to more than 600 Hinkley residents." Ms. Brockovich continues to fight for environmental justice nationally and internationally to this day.


The 1986 Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act was passed in an effort to keep citizens informed of the dangers of chemical emergencies that could be caused by nearby facilities. The act requires business and industry to disclose to the public information about what chemicals are stored, used, and released in the area.

However, problems with environmental racism have continued for years since this act was passed. In 1992, under the presidency of Bill Clinton, the EPA established the Office of Environmental Justice. Clinton also "issued an executive order that every federal agency must address the way in which the environment can harm the health and opportunities of people of color." Yet these actions toward environmental justice did not achieve nearly what was hoped. A few years later, under the presidency of George W. Bush, the Office of Environmental Justice seemed to lose financial support and become, according to Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University in New Orleans, "...this little thing with no money in a corner of the EPA." The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina is an example of how difficult such natural disasters can be for the poor.

Criticisms and Responses

Traditionally, environmental movements have addressed issues such as wilderness preservation, endangered species, overpopulation, recycling, and energy consumption. The environmental justice movement has been criticized as an attempt to shift the focus of the environmental movement away from these issues toward more anthropocentric concerns such as racism, classism, and sexism. Environmental Justice proponents have responded that the Principles of Environmental Justice suggest that environmental justice is not solely concerned with anthropocentric issues, including several principles regarding the ecological interconnectedness of all species, including humans (see Principles of Environmental Justice). Environmental justice has also been challenged as inadequate to the task of prioritizing risks facing low-income and minority communities and even as a potential distraction in the battle against more serious and better-verified sources of health risk. Environmental Justice has also been defended as helping bridge the divide between more traditional environmentalism and other social movements.

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