Concept of environmental justice



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2.2.1 The Cult of Wilderness20

Chronologically, the first current is the defence of immaculate nature, the love of old-growth forests and wild rivers, the ‘cult of wilderness’ represented already a hundred years ago by John Muir and the Sierra Club in the United States. Some 50 years ago, Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic appealed not only to the beauty of the environment but also to the science of ecology. The ‘cult of wilderness’ does not attack economic growth as such, it concedes defeat in most of the industrial world, but it fights a ‘rearguard action’ (Leopold’s phrase) in order to preserve the remnants of pristine natural space outside the market.21 It arises from the love of beautiful landscapes and from deeply held values, not from material interests. Conservation biology, as it has developed since the 1960s, provides scientific support for this first current of environmentalism. Among its achievements are the Biodiversity Convention in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the remarkable Endangered Species Act in the USA, whose rhetoric appeals to utilitarian values but which sets a clear priority for preservation over market use. We need not answer or even ask here how the step from descriptive biology to normative conservation is taken, or in other words, whether it would not be consistent for biologists to let evolution run its course towards a sixth great extinction of biodiversity. In any case, conservation biologists have concepts and theories of biodiversity (hot spots, keystone species) which show that the loss of biodiversity proceeds by leaps and bonds. Indicators of human pressure on the environment such as HANPP (human appropriation of net primary production of biomass- show that less and less biomass is available for species other than humans and those associated with humans. If not scientific reasons, there are other motives to preserve nature, aesthetic and religious, even utilitarian (future edible species, future medicines). Moreover, some argue that other species have a right to exist: we have no right to annihilate them. This current of environmentalism sometimes appeals to religion as so often happens in the political culture of the United States. It may appeal to pantheism or to oriental religions less anthropocentric than Christianity and Judaism. Over the last 30 years the ‘cult of wilderness’ has been represented at the activist level by the ‘deep ecology’ movement which favours a ‘biocentric’ attitude to Nature in opposition to an anthropocentric ‘shallow’ attitude. Deep ecologists dislike agriculture, whether traditional or modern, because agriculture has historically grown at the expense of wildlife. The main policy proposal coming out of this first current of environmentalism consists in keeping nature reserves, called ‘national parks’ or something similar, free from human interference.



2.2.2 The Gospel of Eco-Efficiency22

The currents of environmentalism are indeed intermingled, but the first current, the ‘cult of wilderness’, has long been challenged by a second current, worried about the effects of economic growth not only on pristine areas but also on the industrial, agricultural and urban economy, a current here baptized as the ‘gospel of eco-efficiency’, which focuses on the environmental and health impacts of industrial activities and urbanization, and also of modern agriculture. This second current of the environmental movement is concerned about the whole economy. It often defends economic growth, though not at any cost. It believes in ‘sustainable development’, in ‘ecological modernization’, in the ‘wise use’ of resources. It is concerned with the impacts of the production of commodities, and with the sustainable management of natural resources, and not so much with the loss of natural amenities or the loss of the intrinsic values of nature. Representatives of this second current scarcely use the word ‘nature’; rather, they use ‘natural resources’ or even ‘natural capital’ or ‘environmental services’.

Ecology thus becomes a managerial science mopping up the ecological degradation after industrialization. Chemical engineers are especially active in this current. Biotechnologists tried to jump into it with promises of engineered seeds which will dispense with pesticides and will perhaps synthetize atmospheric nitrogen, though they have encountered public alarm at genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

2.2.3 Environmental Justice and the Environmentalism of the Poor23

Both the aforesaid first and second currents of environmentalism are nowadays challenged by a third current, variously called the environmentalism of the poor, popular environmentalism and the environmental justice movement. It has also been appropriately called livelihood ecology, even liberation ecology. This third current of environmentalism points out that economic growth unfortunately means increased environmental impacts, and it emphasizes geographical displacement of sources and sinks. Thus the industrial countries are dependent on imports from the south for a growing part of their growing requirements of raw materials or consumption goods, so that the oil and gas frontier, the aluminum frontier, the copper frontier, the eucalyptus and palm oil frontiers, the shrimp frontier the gold frontier, the transgenic soybeans frontier…are advancing into new territories.

The main thrust of this third current is not a sacred reverence for Nature but a material interest in the environment as a source and a requirement for livelihood; not so much a concern with the rights of other species and of future generations of humans as a concern for today’s poor humans. It has not the same ethical (and aesthetic) foundations of the cult of wilderness. Its ethics derive from a demand for contemporary social justice among humans.

The environmental justice movement in the United States is an organized social movement against local instances of ‘environmental racism’. It has strong links to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. One could say that, even more than the cult of wilderness, this movement for environmental justice is a product of the American mind so obsessed with racism and anti-racism. ‘Grass-roots projects in inner cities and industrial areas around the country have drawn attention to urban air pollution, lead paint, transfer stations for municipal garbage and hazardous waste, and other environmental dangers that cluster in poor and minority neighborhoods’. So far, environmental justice as an organized movement has been almost confined to its country of origin, while popular environmentalism or livelihood ecology or the environmentalism of the poor are names given to the myriad of movements in the Third World that struggle against environmental impacts that threaten poor people who are in many countries a majority of the population. These include movements of peasants whose crops or pasture land have been destroyed by mines or quarries, movements of artisanal fishermen against modern high-tech trawlers or other forms of industrial fishing that destroy their livelihood even as they deplete the fish stocks, and movements against mines or factories by communities damaged by air pollution or living downstream. This third current receives academic support from agroecology, ethnoecology, political ecology and to some extent, from urban ecology and ecological economics. It has also been supported by some environmental sociologists.

The convergence between the rural third World notion of the environmentalism of the poor, and the urban notion of environmental justice as used in the USA, was suggested by Guha and Martinez-Alier.24 Prof. Martinez-Alier compared the environmental justice movement in the USA and the more diffuse environmentalism of the poor worldwide, in order to show that they can be understood as one single current. He points out that in the USA, a book on the environmental justice movement could well carry the title or subtitle ‘The environmentalism of the poor and the minorities’, because this movement fights for minority groups and against environmental racism in the USA, but the notion of “the Environmentalism of the Poor” is concerned with the majority of humankind, those who occupy relatively little environmental space, who have managed sustainable agroforestal and agricultural systems, who make prudent use of carbon sinks and reservoirs, whose livelihoods are threatened by mines, oil wells, dams, deforestation and tree plantations to feed the increasing throughput of energy and materials of the economy within or outside their own countries.

According to Prof. Martinez-Alier what minorities and majorities are depends on context. The USA has a growing population which represents less than 5 per cent of the world’s population. Of the population of the USA, ‘minorities’ comprise about one-third. In the world at large, the majority of countries, which together are the majority of humankind, have populations which in the US context would be classified as belonging to minorities. The Chipko movement, or the Chico Mendes struggle in the 1970s and 1980s, were environmental justice conflicts, but it is not necessary or useful to interpret them in terms of environmental racism. The environmental justice movement is potentially of great importance, provided it learns to speak not only for the minorities inside the USA but also for the majorities outside the USA (which locally are not always defined racially) and provided it gets involved in issues such as biopiracy and biosafety, or climate change, beyond local instances of pollution. The civil rights heritage of the environmental justice movement of the USA is also useful worldwide because of its contributions to non-violent Gandhian forms of struggle.



2.2.4 Environmental Justice – Criticisms and Responses

It has been stated in our foregoing discussion that the environmental movements have been concerned with purely ecological issues including wilderness preservation, endangered species, overpopulation, recycling and energy consumption. The environmental justice movement is seen by some as an attempt to shift the focus of the environmental movement away from these issues toward more anthropocentric concerns such as racism, classism, and sexism since these forms of oppression lead to unequal burdens of environmental pollution being felt by people of color, women and low-income people. However, it should be noted that the Principles of Environmental Justice adopted at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991 suggest that environmental justice is not solely concerned with anthropocentric issues since several principles stress the ecological interconnectedness of all species, including human.



3. Relationship between Mainstream Environmental Movement (Sustainability Movement) and Environmental Justice Movement (Social Justice Movement in Environment)

Prof. Andrew Dobson in his pioneering work entitled Environment and Justice (1998) has studied the aforesaid relationship between the two environmental movements and presents six conclusions /theses 25 which may be summarized as under :



First Thesis : First Thesis concludes that ‘sustainability’ and ‘justice’ may be related in three fundamental ways :

  1. The environment as something to be distributed

  2. Justice as functional for sustainability (poverty eradication is pre-condition for sustainability, Brundtland Report 1987)

  3. Justice to the environment (here ‘environment’ is a ‘recipient’ rather as an ‘ingredient’ in doing justice.)

Second Thesis : Second thesis concludes that neither environmental sustainability nor social justice has determinate meanings, and this opens the way to legitimizing the pursuit of either of them, in terms of the other, in a number of ways, by tweaking or by making fine adjustments strategy.

Third Thesis : Third thesis concludes that the concerns of the environmental movement and movements for social justice are fundamentally different as far as the ‘natural’ environment is concerned, although they may sometimes coincide.

Fourth Thesis : Fourth thesis concludes that the question of whether sustainability and justice are compatible objective can only be resolved empirically, and the range and depth of empirical research required to resolve this question has not been done. Relationship is a complex one and it is therefore unwise to make determinate claims about them. Any statement regarding the relationship between them needs to be prefaced by an explanation of what type of social justice and what kind of environmental sustainability is under considerations. Empirical work, on relationship, is thin on the ground and such work would provide more solid intellectual foundation to sustainable development. We do not know enough to be able to say whether justice is or is not, a necessary and/or a sufficient condition for environmental sustainability.

It may be a necessary condition, but only under certain circumstances yet to be systemically explored, and it is Prof. Dobson’s feeling that it is unlikely to be a sufficient condition since sustainability questions are about more than justice. In this context, Prof. Brain Barry’s prediction that ‘whatever redistribution among contemporaries is required by justice will also be observe the constraints that the interests of future generations be protected’ will be true if the goods redistributed are ‘spent’ on sustainable practice.



Fifth Thesis : Fifth thesis concludes that no theory of justice can henceforth be regarded as complete if it does not take into account the possibility of extending the community of justice beyond the realm of present generation human beings.

  • Idea of environmental sustainability acquires its greatest resonance is the context of future generations.

  • The environmental movement has also brought the non-human natural world into the political frame.

In the light of aforesaid conclusions Prof. Andrew Dobson suggests that in sum, theories of justice should henceforth entertain an in-principle triangular conception of the community of justice, with present generation humans, future generation humans and non human natural world at each of the vertices of a triangle.26

Sixth Thesis : Sixth thesis concludes that liberal theories of justice are broadly compatible with the most common conception of environmental sustainability.

4. Historical Perspective of the Environmental Justice Movements

Under this head we have made an effort to briefly present history of the evolution and growth of the concept of environmental justice and related environmental movements in USA27 and India28. Just three decades ago, the concept of environment justice had not registered on the radar screens of environmental, civil rights or social justice groups.

According to Robert D. Bullard, who is also considered as father of environmental justice movement in USA, in USA a landmark garbage dispute took place in Houston, when African American homeowners in 1979 began a bitter fight to keep a sanitary landfill out of their suburban middle-income neighborhood.29 Residents formed the Northeast Community Action Group or NECAG. NECAG and their attorney, Linda McKeever Bullard, filed a class action lawsuit to block the facility from being built. The 1979 lawsuit, Bean v. southwestern Waste management, Inc., was the first of its kind to challenge the siting of a waste facility under civil rights law.

It has been suggested that the idea of Environmental Justice was birthed during the struggle beginning in 1982 around the American Warren County PCB Landfill.The landmark Houston case occurred three years before the environmental justice movement was catapulated into the national limelight in the rural and mostly African American Warren County, North Carolina. The environmental jutice movement has come a long way since its humble beginning in Warren County, North Carolina where a PCB landfill ignited protests and over 500 arrests. The Warren County protests provided the impetus for an U.S. General Accounting office study, Sitting of Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities. That study revealed that three out of four of the off-site, commercial hazardous waste landfills in Region 4 (which comprises eight states in the south) happen to be located in predominantly African-American communities, although African-Americans made up only 20% of the region’s population. More important, the protesters put “environmental racism” on the map. Fifteen years later, the state of North Carolina is required to spend over $25 million to cleanup and detoxify the Warren County PCB landfill.

The Warren Country protests also led the Commission for Racial Justice to produce the first national study namely Toxic Waste and Race, to correlate waste facility sites and demographic characteristics. Race was found to be the most potent variable in predicting where these facilities were located – more powerful than poverty, land values, and home ownership. In 1990, Dumping in Dixie : Race, Class, and Environmental Quality chronicled the convergence of two social movements – social justice and environmental movements – into the environmental justice movement. This book highlighted African Americans environmental activism in the South, the same region that gave birth to the modern civil rights movement. What started out as local and often isolated community-based struggles against toxics and facility sitting blossomed into a multi-issue, multi-ethnic, and multi-regional movement.

The 1991 First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit (also called Summit I) was probably the most important single event in the movement’s history. The Summit broadened the environmental justice movement beyond its early anti-toxics focus to include issues of public health, worker safety, land use, transportation, housing, resource allocation, and community empowerment. The meeting also demonstrated that it is possible to build a multi-racial grassroots movement around environmental and economic justice.

Held in Washington, DC, the four-day Summit was attended by over 650 grassroots and national leaders from around the world. People attended the Summit to share their action strategies, redefine the environmental movement, and develop common plans for addressing environmental problems affecting people of color in the United States and around the world.

On September 27, 1991, Summit delegates adopted 17 “Principles of Environmental Justice”. These principles were developed as a guide for organizing, networking, and relating to government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

In response to growing public concern and mounting scientific evidence, President Clinton on February 11, 1994 (the second day of the national health symposium) issued Executive Order30 12898, “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations”. This order attempts to address environmental injustice within existing federal laws and regulations.

Executive Order 12898 reinforces the 35-year old Civil rights Act of 1964, Title VI, which prohibits discriminatory practices in programs receiving federal funds. The order also focuses the spotlight back on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a twenty-five year old law that set policy goals for the protection, maintenance, and enhancement of the environment. NEPA’s goal is to ensure for all Americans a safe, healthful, productive, and aesthetically and culturally pleasing environment. NEPA requires federal agencies to prepare a detailed statement on the environmental effects of proposed federal actions that significantly effect the quality of human health.

The Second National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit (also called Summit II) occurred October 23-26, 2002 also in Washington.

5. Definition and Principles of the Environmental Justice

The term ‘environmental justice’ consists of the two word ‘environment’ and ‘justice’. Academic scholars and activists of environmental justice have demonstrated that the definition, contents and scope of the term environmental justice ultimately depends on the fact that how one defines the terms ‘environment’ and ‘justice’. In our earlier discussion on justice we have stated that the term ‘justice’ is a protean or versatile concept and therefore there has been various theories of justice. Similarly term ‘environment’ has also been seen in narrow and broader way. In its narrow perspective ‘environment’ has been confined to technical definition which includes natural and man made environment. One the other hand it its broader perspective ‘environment’ has been co-related to social, political and economic factors. This broader concept of environment has also been highlighted by the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), 1987 published as Our Common Future. This Report co-relates socio-economic factors such as poverty, economics and trade etc. with the environment.31 Hereinafter we have attempted to present the various view points relating to definition and principles of the environmental justice.

5.1 Definition of Environmental Justice

In USA there has been two definitions of environmental justice, one given by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) known as official definition and second definition given by activists of environmental justice which is considered as broader or holistic or radical in nature.



EPA’s Definition of Environmental Justice :

It utilized the term “environmental equity” instead of “environmental justice” and singularly focused on the distribution of pollution harm and risk – measurable and quantifiable risk instead of giving proper weight to ‘qualitative factors’ (socio-economic factors considered as beyond the scope of this EPA’s Report of 1992). However, subsequently EPA now has changed this analytical approach and has moved closer to activists’ approach.32

Environmental Justice Activists’ Definition of the Environmental Justice :

To activists, environment justice is a much more holistic concept that include the right to a safe, healthy, productive and sustainable environment for all. In this context, the “environment” is considered to include the ecological, physical, social, political, aesthetic, and economic environments. Environmental Justice thus refers to the conditions in which such a right can be freely exercised, whereby individual and group identities, needs, and dignities are preserved, fulfilled, and respected in a way that provides for self actualization and personal and community empowerment.33

Prof. Sheila Foster has also analysed the controversy relating to the definition of environment justice.34 She says, “though neither uniformly nor precisely defined, environment justice is widely understood to be concerned, at the least, with distributional and procedural equity in environmental and natural resource decisions.35 Prof. Foster also quoted the broader definition advocated by the scholar cum environmental justice activist Rober D. Bullard, who defines the environment justice as under :

“Call for environment justice involve multifaceted claims, ultimately synthesizing aspirations for distributional and procedural equality, political accountability, and social justice into an untidy theoretical framework.36

Participants of Central and Eastern European Workshop on Environmental Justice (Budapest, December 2003) defined environmental justice (and injustice) in the following way37 :


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