Searching for Environmental Justice: National Stories, Global Possibilities

By Fritz, Jan Marie | Social Justice, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Searching for Environmental Justice: National Stories, Global Possibilities


Fritz, Jan Marie, Social Justice


ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE 15 INCREASINGLY A TOPIC OF GREAT CONCERN AND/OR academic interest for community activists and scholars in a number of countries. Within the last four years, for instance, international conferences on environmental justice have been held in Australia, the United States, New Zealand, and South Africa, [1] and a research group based in England studied access to environmental justice in seven cities in Africa and Asia (Harding, Anderson, and Jenkins, 1997). [2]

In this article, definitions of environmental justice are discussed and the term is compared to environmental injustice, environmental equity, and environmental racism. The article also reviews, for the first time, selected activities that have been explicitly labeled as environmental justice initiatives by nongovernmental organizations, community-based organizations, and/or governments in four countries -- Canada, Israel, the United States, and South Africa.

Environmental Justice: Definition and Principles

It is probably true that "examples of...social justice environmentalism can be found in every country on the planet, organized from the bottom up, linking community-based concerns to national and international political and economic contexts" (Johnston, 1994: 225). This article, however, discusses only organizations or initiatives that specifically define themselves as having an environmental justice emphasis.

Environmental justice, as the term is used most frequently in the United States, focuses on the environmental problems (in terms of programs, policies, and/or activities) disproportionately faced by those with the least power. In the United States, these groups would be minority and low-income populations. [3] Although the term "environmental justice" is becoming a popular concept, the focus really is environmental injustice. The decision to use the term justice rather than injustice is interesting both legally and socially. "Environmental justice" pushes us to think about a negative situation by using a positive term. Equivalent concepts with the same positive ring are "environmental equity" or "human rights and the environment."

Environmental injustice also has been called environmental racism. Environmental racism (Mohai and Bryant, 1992; Bullard, 1994a, 1994b; Westra and Wenz, 1995; Kraft and Scheberle, 1995) is a strong term chosen by some because they believe that racism frequently or always is the root of a problem. Their concern is perhaps that using "environmental justice" dilutes the central analysis of racism or could even prevent an analyst from mentioning the possibility of racism. Others prefer the term environmental justice because what may have been a racist decision at one time, for instance, may have been perpetuated for reasons other than racism. Because environmental problems often develop over a long period of time and are complicated, these analysts prefer to use the general term environmental justice and, when a specific situation warrants, the term environmental racism.

Robert Bullard (1995: 4-8), Ware Professor of Sociology and Director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, has written extensively about environmental justice. He has noted that: unequal environmental protection undermines three basic types of equity: procedural (rules, regulations, evaluation criteria, and enforcement are applied in a nondiscriminatory way); geographic (proximity to environmental hazards such as landfills, incinerators...), and social (role of sociological factors such as race, ethnicity, class, culture...in environmental decision-making).

Bullard (1995:9-20) has advised governments that they will have to adopt five basic principles of environmental justice if they wish to end unequal environmental protection. The principles are: guarantee the right to environmental protection; eliminate environmental threats before harm occurs; shift the burden of proof from citizens having to show they have been harmed to potential polluters having to prove that their operations will not harm; assure that laws allow "disparate impact and statistical weight" rather than requiring proof of intent to discriminate; and put resources where "environmental and health problems are the greatest. …

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