Opinion

Trends and Directions in Environmental Justice: From Inequity to Everyday Life, Community, and Just Sustainabilities

Food justice, energy justice, climate justice – what do these new movements represent for the future of environmental justice?

SEI Co-Director David Schlosberg and PhD candidate Luke Craven, together with Tufts University Professor Julian Agyeman and student Caitlin Matthews, explore and review the expansion and globalization of environmental justice (EJ) as well as new emerging themes and actions for EJ.

Food justice, energy justice, climate justice – what do these new movements represent for the future of EJ? Authors Julian Agyeman, David Schlosberg, Luke Craven, and Caitlin Matthews discuss this issue and more in their recently published article “Trends and Directions in Environmental Justice: From Inequity to Everyday Life, Community, and Just Sustainabilities” for the Annual Review of Environment and Resources (to see the full article, click here).

Many trace the origin of the concept of EJ to 1982, when 414 demonstrators in North Carolina were arrested for protesting the siting of a toxic waste facility in a predominantly black and low-income community. Although the term “environmental justice” would take some years to develop, the protests drew national attention into the injustices faced by similar communities across the US, and spurred further organizing, writing, and political action. After several decades, the battle continues: Native American communities in the US confront the construction of pipelines and uranium mines, and African-American communities protest lead poisoning and climate injustice as part of Black Lives Matter. Beyond the US, a range of environmental justice, climate justice, food justice, and energy justice movements from the UK to Australia, and from Canada to the South Pacific, frame issues and battles using the same language of injustice. These issues, as the authors explain, showcase how the environmental justice movement is concerned not only with the distributional equity with respect to disproportionate environmental ‘bads’ but also with the lack of respect for, and basic recognition of, various communities and ways of life.

In late 2015, in Paris, there were sighs of relief when the Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change came to an agreement that attempts to address the mitigation of carbon emissions among other targets. The reality in Paris was that conceptions of environmental and climate justice were key motivators to the agreement, and helped to bridge real gaps between rich and poor countries. The agreement reached notes the importance of impacts on the most vulnerable, on indigenous peoples, on small island states, and on future generations, but most importantly, it shows that the concept of environmental justice is immensely relevant to our everyday lives.

The main focus of this new article, however, is on the future directions for environmental justice activism and scholarship – some of the recently emerging themes, actions, and strategies. First is the focus on the practices and materials of everyday life, illustrated by food and energy movements. Second is ongoing work on community and the importance of identity and attachment, informed by urban planning, food and climate concerns. Third is the growing interest in the relationship between human practices and communities and nonhuman nature, again illustrated by food and energy movements. These new areas of work illustrate both recent developments and a set of ways forward for both the theory and practice of EJ.

As for the first, the point is that our everyday material lives have power and are invariably connected to the way that environmental injustice is produced, experienced, reproduced and resisted. Rather than just protest the injustice of existing flows of material and power (which obviously remains crucial), movement groups are also increasingly stepping in to redesign and take control of the flow of things like food, energy, and the basic needs of everyday life. Politically, that means stepping outside of problematic and unjust flows – industrialised food systems that discriminate against poor communities, or a fossil fuel industry that contaminates indigenous peoples and creates the vulnerabilities of climate change. In this, the environmental justice movement continues to problematize, expand, and push for a broader understanding of what counts as ‘environment’, as well as the relationship between it and our everyday practices.

Second, the argument is that environmental justice activism and scholarship are increasingly taking into account the importance of places, and place attachment, to understanding the spatial and cultural dimensions of environmental injustices. This attachment can be seen as a basic human need, and a crucial element of both individual and community well-being; undermining it, then, constitutes an injustice. Environmental justice attends to both the potential loss of existing connections, as when climate change threatens coastal communities, and the promise of the creation of new attachments, for example between urban residents and rural farmers through farmers markets or food hubs.

Finally, the article highlights a third element in the evolution of environmental justice practice and discourse – an increasing attention to the relationship between human and nonhuman sustainability. Agyeman has long advocated the idea of ‘just sustainability’ to get at the intersection of environmental justice and sustainability approaches; the point here is that we can an increase of this linked approach in movement activities as well. Concerns with materiality, place, and environmental justice find themselves increasingly inter-connected to broader concerns about environmental sustainability and the integrity of the nonhuman world. We see this most thoroughly in the growing body of work on climate justice, energy justice, and food justice. Hurricane Katrina, for example, solidified the confluence of the environmental justice framework and the issue of climate change; the event and the EJ community’s responses helped to expand the consideration of the climate-changing environment in the environmental justice movement.

Overall, this new article on the trends and directions in environmental justice illustrates that the idea is not only being employed to analyse existing injustices that, unfortunately, continue to impact the lives of the most vulnerable – as we see in actions from Flint to global climate impacts. Crucially, environmental justice is also increasingly being used to reframe new issues, concerns, and practices that can, hopefully, help to bring attention to the crucial relationship between a functioning environment and the attainment of social justice for all.

(Link to online version of the article: Click here)