Academic journal article Social Justice

Reflections on Environmental Justice: Children as Victims and Actors

Academic journal article Social Justice

Reflections on Environmental Justice: Children as Victims and Actors

Article excerpt

IN RADICAL ECOLOGY, CAROLYN MERCHANT (1992) ARGUES FORCEFULLY THAT THE modern world's dominant norms of production, social relations, and ideology are resulting in an accumulation of ecological stresses on the air, water, soil, and diverse life forms, as well as on the capacity of human societies to maintain and reproduce themselves over time. Although these ecological stresses are a result of globally articulated processes, she notes, they are "experienced differently in the First, Second, and Third Worlds and by people of different races, classes, and sexes" (Ibid.: 10). This is also true, she might have added--but tellingly did not--of people of different ages.

Merchant's important insights--that environmental risks are experienced differently by different groups and, moreover, that they are borne disproportionately by those groups that are already the most socially, politically, and economically vulnerable--are core concepts in the rapidly proliferating literature on "environmental justice." (See, for example, Bryant, 1995; Bullard, 1994; and Hofrichter, 1993b.) The concept has been developed during the last decade by theorists and activists, largely in the United States, to describe what many regard as a qualitatively new sort of grass-roots environmental movement, linking concerns with social justice to concerns about environmental quality. This linkage has important implications for how people perceive environmental problems and for the practical responses they develop to address these problems. Here I wish to argue that the term "environmental justice" has been developed in distinctive ways in the context of U.S. culture and politics, and that this context has significantly affected the nature of environmental justice theory and its usefulness in other contexts.

Since 1992, I have been involved in the development of an international, interdisciplinary "Children and Environment" research program and network, based at the Norwegian Centre for Child Research in Trondheim, Norway. (See Stephens, 1994.) Because of the magnitude and seriousness of environmental risks to children in Eastern Europe and the former USSR, the Centre has been particularly concerned with developing a network of relations with researchers and activists in these regions. When I first encountered the notion of environmental justice, I felt there was great potential here for providing powerful theoretical and practical tools to address the special environmental vulnerability of children and to illuminate distinctive constellations of risks in particular world regions. Significantly, however, references to children of the former USSR are almost entirely absent from the existing environmental justice literature. I suggest that the neglect of these topics can be linked to a particular construction of "community"--one that is in some respects distinctively American and is dominant within the environmental justice movement. This is a view of community that tends to make children invisible, as a special class of victims and especially as actors. It is also a view of community that poses formidable obstacles to international coalition building.

This article begins with a brief discussion of the history of the environmental justice movement and of the reasons why race, ethnicity, class, and occupation (and, to lesser and problematic extents, geopolitical location and gender) are theorized in the literature, while age is ignored as a significant dimension of environmental justice thinking. (My focus here is on children, but this discussion could be productively extended to include the special environmental vulnerabilities of the elderly as well.) I then discuss ways in which perspectives on children as a distinctive environmental "special interest group" offer important possibilities for developing a more inclusive and effective environmental justice movement, both within the United States and internationally.

Environmental Justice Theory: The U. …

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