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Environmental (in)justice

Background and definitions

The concept of environmental injustice arose from the fact that some communities or human groups are disproportionately subjected to higher levels of environmental risk than other segments of society. Growing concern over unequal environmental burdens and mounting evidence of both racial and economic injustices led to the emergence of a grassroots civil rights campaign for environmental justice in the 1980s in the United States (Bullard, 1994). The concept was taken up by philosophers in the 1990s, and then sociologists, geographers, economists and politicians took interest. Now an international Environmental Justice Movement is flourishing, having emerged out of various struggles, events and social movements worldwide. Theory and practice of environmental justice necessarily includes distributive conceptions of justice, but also embraces notions of justice based in recognition, participation and capabilities (Schlosberg, 2007).

The United States Environmental Protection Agency – Office of Environmental Justice defined environmental justice as the:

“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. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”

The South African Environmental Justice Networking Forum asserts:

“Environmental justice is about social transformation directed towards meeting basic human needs and enhancing our quality of life – economic quality, health care, housing, human rights, environmental protection, and democracy. In linking environmental and social justice issues the environmental justice approach seeks to challenge the abuse of power which results in poor people having to suffer the effects of environmental damage caused by the greed of others.”


Some individuals, groups and communities are at special risk from environmental threats. This is especially the case for low-income persons, the working class and people of colour and indigenous peoples whose livelihoods and health may be imperilled by resource extraction, waste disposal and pollution in their neighbourhoods and hazards in their workplace. The environmental justice perspective unmasks the ethical and political questions of ‘who gets what, why, and in what amounts’, calling for environmental and public health strategies to ensure the equal protection of all citizens, including indigenous peoples who often live at the extractive ‘commodity frontiers’.

North–South environmental justice

Since the end of World War II, industrialised nations have generated increasing volumes of hazardous waste. Of the total volume of hazardous waste produced worldwide, 90 percent of it originates in industrialised nations. Some of it is being shipped to nations in South America, South and Southeast Asia and Africa. There are two principal reasons for this (Pellow et al., 2001): (1) more stringent environmental regulations are emerging in nations in the North, which provides an incentive for polluters to seek disposal sites beyond national borders; and (2) there is a widespread need for money among Third World nations, rooted in a long history of colonialism and contemporary debt arrangements. This leads government officials in Africa, Asia and South America to accept financial compensation in exchange for permission to dump chemical wastes in their territory despite the provisions of the Basel Treaty against such trade. Observers have described these transactions as ‘efficient’ (Lawrence Summers’ principle) while others prefer the terms ‘toxic colonialism’ and ‘garbage imperialism’.

Closing remarks

Focusing on activism and policy-making, Pellow et al. (2001) emphasise the following key points that must be addressed in understanding and leading environmental justice movements. These authors also point out that these four factors may equally help legislators in their rule making.

• The importance of the history of environmental inequalities and the processes by which they unfold. The fact that the future, rather than history, seems to drive environmental activism and policy-making is a grave mistake and often serves to undermine the very intention of legislation predicated on advancing society, without taking into account longstanding traditions, tensions and institutions.

• The role of social stratification by race and class (and caste), given the fact that the poor and people of colour are generally the most vulnerable to environmental inequalities. However, it must be kept in mind that communities and racial groups are frequently divided, creating intra-racial and intra-community conflicts, often along class lines. This fact is addressed in the subsequent point.

• The role of multiple stakeholders in these conflicts. The role of women leaders is noticeable in many environmental justice conflicts worldwide.

• The ability of those least powerful segments of society to shape the contours of environmental justice struggles. Environmental injustices are thus ‘works in progress’; as resistance is ongoing.


Bullard, R.D. (1994) Unequal protection: environmental justice and communities of color. Random House.

Pellow, D.N., A. Weinberg and A. Schnaiberg (2001) The Environmental Justice Movement: Equitable Allocation of the Costs and Benefits of Environmental Management Outcomes. Social Justice Research, 14 (4) 423-439.

Schlosberg, D. (2007) Defining Environmental Justice: Theories, Movements, and Nature. Oxford University Press.

Useful websites

Energy Justice Network []

Environmental Justice at the US Environmental Protection Agency []

Environmental Justice Fundation []

SWEAT (Students Working for Environmental Action and Transformation, University of North Carolina

This glossary entry is based on a contribution by Tom Bauler 

EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos

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