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What is environmental justice and why should we care?

By Sustainability Office on April 23, 2014

By Breanna Giovanniello ’16

Environmental activists have recently taken to intertwining the issues of the environment with human rights abuses. The amalgamation of these two movements is more widely known today as environmental justice. The principle of environmental justice asserts that no people, based on their race or economic status, should be forced to bear a disproportionate burden of environmental risks. Innocent bystanders or communities that are not party to the activities generating burdens should not be subject to such burdens (Adeola, 688). Environmental injustices involve a systematic exclusion of minority groups in vital environmental policies and decisions. Environmental justice is the movement that links environmental degradation with social justice in a fight for sustainable human rights.

Ethical issues of justice arise when people, communities, or regions are subjected to greater environmental risk than others in a process that benefits the others. Environmental problems tend to bear down disproportionately upon poor communities because most environmental pollution and degradation is caused by the actions of the wealthy nations plagued with overconsumption habits. These affluent nations or societies, however, tend to have higher environmental quality because their environmental burden is created or exported elsewhere. Minority populations are then forced, through their lack of access to decision-making and policy-making processes, to live with a disproportionate share of environmental “bads.” “The global trends of industrialization, economic expansion, and globalization that rest on the increased exploitation of natural resources have mostly been at the expense of communal groups. Their natural resources and physical labor are being absorbed into national and international webs of economic activity” (Adeola, 688).

Environmental justice began in the United States seeking both political change and societal structure change. It is often referred to as environmental racism due to its origins with human rights violations. It was the discriminatory location of toxic waste facilities, particularly in minority areas, that triggered the formal emergence of the movement back in the early 1980s. Low-income communities and communities of color across the country, including Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americas, concluded that unequal social, economic, and political power relationships made them more vulnerable to health and environmental threats than the society at large. The environmental justice movement began with the focus on waste issues, but dimensions have since expanded.

The right to a safe environment has been advocated as an essential aspect of fundamental human rights. Therefore, a disproportionate environmental burden constitutes a violation of basic human rights. We often hear the expression “NIMBY” (Not In My Back Yard). However, if we claim something is worthy of a NIMBY status, why do we allow this hazard in someone else’s back yard? Hazardous waste and polluting industries that degrade our environment should be worthy of a status not deemed for anyone’s back yard.

“A sustainable society must also be a just society, locally, nationally, and internationally, both within and between generations and species” (Agyeman, 3). Creating a sustainable society involves much more than a few days of carpooling and composting. However to construct a society we deem sustainable, than we must consider our actions outside of our direct interactions. We must be more conscious of where our products come from, where they end up, and whom they may be harming during these processes. As Colgate students we are educated and aware of global issues such as environmental justice so we must be cognizant of how our actions affect others. Because we are so far removed from all the polluting processes, the health of environment and laborers is easy to disregard. However, if we choose to be conscious consumers and dig a little deeper, then we can uncover some disconcerting facts about our consumer society and the environmental injustices it causes. The next time you are thinking about purchasing the newest iPhone, think about where the materials to create it come from and where your current phone will be going. The next time you want to order that shirt you saw online, think about how it was made and by whom. The next time you go grocery shopping, think about how your food was grown and how far it will be traveling to get to your plate. It’s time we start thinking about what we can do to become a sustainable society and help correct our injustices along the way.

Works Cited:

Adeola, Francis O. “Cross-National Environmental Injustice and Human Rights Issues: A Review of Evidence in the Developing World.” The American Behavioral Scientist 43.4 (2000): 686-706. Print.

Agyeman, Julian, Robert D. Bullard, and Bob Evans. Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World. London: Earthscan Publi


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