Power, Justice, and the Environment: A Critical Appraisal of the Environmental Justice Movement

By Shepard, Peggy | Environmental Health Perspectives, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Power, Justice, and the Environment: A Critical Appraisal of the Environmental Justice Movement


Shepard, Peggy, Environmental Health Perspectives


Edited by David Naguib Pellow and Robert J. Brulle

Cambridge, MA:MIT Press, 2005. 339 pp. ISBN: 0-262-16233-4, $25

Over the past 18 years, hundreds of books have been published on the environmental justice movement (EJM); however, this is one of the first books to initiate a comprehensive dialogue that critiques strategies, tactics, and discursive frames; examine issues of organizational structure, governance, and resource base; assess goals and outcomes; and pose questions challenging academics and activists to consider where the movement has been and where it may go.

The EJM--which emerged in the late 1980s from struggles within communities of color and low-income communities that have been disproportionately affected by pollution--is characterized by editors Pellow, an activist-scholar who has published widely on EJ, and Brulle, an associate professor of environmental policy, as "a political response to the deterioration of the conditions of everyday life as society reinforces existing social inequities while exceeding the limits to growth. Thus the EJM laid a foundation for environmental and social justice politics in the twenty-first century."

The heart and strength of these essays by academics, EJ practitioners, and advocates is the challenge to engage foundational concepts of the EJM that most serious observers and activists have been loath publicly to address. Yet 15 years since the historic first People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, one reads this assessment and analysis and wonders why it has taken so long to begin this important inquiry.

The editors' opening chapter succinctly summarizes literature on inequality, social justice movements, and environmental degradation, and presents provocative conclusions. Although Pellow and Brulle note that the EJM has affected the direction of environmental policy, research, and activism and that the EJM has had its "clearest victories" leading local community struggles, they question whether the EJM has achieved its goals and conclude that the "outlook is not positive." They issue a challenge, echoed by the authors, to the EJM to "complement its well-honed acumen for opposition to unsustainable projects to a concrete vision and plan of action for construction and protection of sustainable communities"--a challenge that is being met by many EJ organizations.

The collection, targeted to scholars, theorists, practitioners, and activists, has three sections. In the first, "Environmental Quality and Justice: Progress or Retreat?" Bryant and Hockman compare the Civil Rights and EJ movements. Some chapters break the chain of synergy and some authors' conclusions contradict others, but Benford's "Half-Life of the Environmental Justice Frame: Innovation, Diffusion, and Stagnation" complements other authors in this book with his provocative argument that the "EJ frame suffers from stagnation as a result of its diffuse conceptualization, the many issues it seeks to address, the subordination of environmentalism to human justice, and its failure to embrace and articulate revolutionary solutions. …

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