What is Environmental Justice?

Environmental justice pertains to the worthy and fair treatment of all humanity irrespective of color, income, place of origin, or race in connection to the advancement, adoption, and observance of environmental regulations, laws and policies. In other words, the terminology is based on the broader definitions of the environment and its surroundings with respect to the conditions which a person lives.

Environmental organizations such as EPA have environmental justice as one of their goals so as to protect all people or communities from any sort of environmental harms within their operational areas. The primary aim of environmental justice is therefore to ensure each and every person benefits from equal degree of protection from environmental and health hazards.

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At the same time, it also ensures everyone has the same degree of access to decision-making process to have an environment with healthy living, working and learning conditions. Broadly, environmental justice is all about equal distribution of the benefits and risks of the environment accompanied with participatory decision-making on environmental matters.

Principles of Environmental Justice

Environmental justice is a social movement that originated from the need to ensure healthy environments for all communities regardless of color, income, place of origin, or race. For this reason, 17 principles of environmental justice were drafted and adopted by delegates to the first National People of Color Environment Leadership summit held on October 1991 in Washington DC. Since, these principles have served as the cornerstone for environmental justice. The following are the 17 principles according to the document drafted and adopted in the 1991 summit.

  • Environmental Justice asserts that mother earth is sacred, that everything on earth is connected ecologically and is interdependent, and that every species has a right to freedom from ecological destruction.
  • Environmental Justice requires all public policies to be founded on justice and mutual respect for all people without any bias or discrimination.
  • Environmental justice advocates for the right to use land and renewable resources responsibly, ethically and in a way that is balanced in pursuit of a sustainable planet for humanity and other living organisms.
  • Environmental justice asks for universal protection from indiscriminate nuclear testing, the production and discarding of toxic waste and toxins and testing of nuclear material that threaten the very important right to clear the air, water, land and food.
  • Environmental justice confirms the elementary right to economic, cultural, political and environmental volition of every person.
  • Environmental justice calls for a stop to production of toxic wastes and radioactive substances, and that the past and present producers should be accountable for the people, the detoxification and management of hazardous wastes at the production point.
  • Environmental justice appeals for the right to participation as equal partners at every decision that needs to be made with regards to their environmental surrounding, including assessment of needs from assessments, planning, implementation and enforcement.
  • Environmental justice confirms every workers right to a healthy and safe working environment without having to choose between unemployment and an unsafe source of livelihood. It also confirms that those who work from home have a right to freedom from environmental hazards.
  • Environmental justice protects the rights of those who fall victim to environmental injustice to receive reparations and full compensation for damages they incur and also receive great health care.
  • Environmental justice considers any acts of environmental injustice by the government a violation of international laws; the United Nations Convention on Genocide and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
  • Environmental justice has to recognize a national and legal relationship between the regional natives and the government through agreements, compacts, treaties and covenants that affirm self determination and sovereignty.
  • Environmental justice confirms the urban and rural ecological policies needs to clear and reconstruct urban and rural areas to be in balance with Mother Nature, respecting and recognizing the cultural integrity of communities and providing equal access to all available resources.
  • Environmental justice appeals for enforcement of the principles of informed consent and a stop to testing of experimenting of medical and reproductive procedures and products and vaccines on people of color.
  • Environmental justice argues against the operations that are destructive carried out by multinational corporations.
  • Environmental justice disapproves of occupation, exploitation and repression of land, people and their different cultures and other forms of life by the military.
  • Environmental justice asks for empowerment of current and future generations that addresses social and environmental issues based on current experience and appreciation for the different cultural perspectives.
  • Environmental justice requires that we make our choices both personally and as consumers to consume as little as we can of the earth’s resources and produce as little waste as we can. We have to make the decision to reprioritize and challenge our lifestyles in order to ensure a healthy world for the current and future generations.

Importance of Environmental Justice

  1. It defines human relationship with the environment

The human relationship with the environment revolves around perception and value and the role that these two play in our behavior and lives. One thing that shapes our values is justice. It drives and shapes us into being who we are. Most people recoil against injustice towards other humans and other species of living organisms. Those who are empowered on environmental injustice understand that it protects humanity and other lives by protecting the environment.

Thus, they condemn environmental pollution which can harm communities, individuals and ecosystems. People also value outcomes they see as just. When people realize that environmental justice protects environmental elements and commons that belong to their community, they support it. When people realize this, they protect current and future generations by being empowered through environmental justice initiatives.

  1. It highlights the importance of conservation and fair usage of natural resources

People get to conserve natural resources when they follow environmental justice. Given that communities debate over justice when it comes to distributing available resources like water fairly, it ensures the resources are used wisely. For instance, unfair distribution and usage of natural resources can be dangerous especially in areas where they are scarce.

Environmental justice therefore emphasizes on fair distribution and opposes wastage. When the principles of environmental justice are followed, injustices associated with natural resources are forgotten and things like wars and clashes over usage of natural resources are forgotten.

  1. Sustainability can only be well comprehended through environmental justice

Sustainability revolves a lot around the indefinite time renewable resources can be harvested while pollution reduces and humanity can stop being overly dependent on non renewable resources. Justice is about which rights are owed to what or who and assigning the right treatments appropriate to behavior and circumstance.

According to Wolfgang Sachs and Tilman Santarius have noted in their book, Fair Future, everyone should be accountable according to their needs and rights. When we weigh the benefits of environmental justice such as natural resources and burdens such as pollution, responsibility is learned and solutions to attain sustainability are taken. Sure sustainability might be in a distant future but the actions we take in the present through environmental justice initiatives take us a step toward it.

  1. It defines the need for just distribution of resources (distributive justice)

Because it is not wrong for one person to have more resources than others, distributive justice is not about equally sharing resources. Just distribution of resources revolves around how the people involved are involved with one another. Justice applies not when one has more resources that another, but if one person takes resources from another person’s environment. It also applies when one has more resources than they need while another is suffering for lacking any, this is injustice. Environmental justice thus emphasizes on the law of distribution.

  1. It strengthens environmental laws, policies, and regulations

Justice falls under two categories; procedural justice which revolves around how policies are decided on and consequentialist justice which is what comes off those decisions and actions. For procedural justice, the rights of people have to be respected in making decisions. Since it redistributes benefits and burdens, environmental justice supports the policies about the environment. The principles of environmental justice support and strengthen environmental laws through equal distribution of resources and laws regarding pollution.

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Examples of Environmental Justice

The following are examples of environmental justice over the years and cases where environmental justice was applied. According to Ejolt, only about thirty five percent of cases on environmental justice cases reach any sort of conclusion compared to seventeen percent of the global cases. As these numbers suggest, in most cases justice is not exactly served but in some cases, environmental justice is followed.

  1. 1972, Pittston coal

The case by workers against the Pittston coal company is one of the successful environmental cases. It was after the workers strike following Pittson Company terminating health care benefits for retirees, widows and miners who are disabled and the displacement of thousands of people causing an environmental nightmare of epic proportions.

The company’s sludge bi-products flowed from uphill creating sludge dams that were ignored by the company. In February 1972 however, the dams gave way and ended up displacing so many people by turning the ground to marsh. It is for these reasons that legal action was taken against Pittston Coal Company to settle the people. Federal and state resources are still being used in attempt to fix all the land there.

  1. 1989, Exxon Valdez disaster

This is one of the most known environmental disasters and cases where environmental justice applied. An oil tanker, Exxon Valdex, containing thirty eight gallons of crude oil ran aground. This was at a Prince William Bligh reef which is offshore Alaska. It killed marine life for thousands of miles within the ocean and it continued for many years thereafter. Exxon Oil Company paid millions in fines and litigation in addition to taking care of cleaning up.

  1. 1993, Chevron Refining

In 1993, Chevron refining company wanted to expand its operations to Richmond in Carlifornia. There was much opposition due to concerns for the health of the locals and environmental pollution, Chevron ignored these and still went ahead with operations. Citizens however formed a coalition called the county toxics coalition.

The coalitions formed a judicial pact with Chevron refining company that allowed chevron to continue operations as long as they provided a five million dollar grant funding the city’s future environmental programs. The coalition is effective to this day.

  1. 2010, BP

BP is an oil company that is known and operates internationally. In 2010 however, they caused the worst disaster ecologically speaking yet. While BP was pumping oil from the gulf of Mexico at the ocean floor, the rig exploded resulting in a rupture of the highly pressurized pipeline fill of oil.

Millions of gallons of oil spilled and since there was no known way to stop the spillage, there was massive leakage. The well head was eventually capped but the damage was done. Marine life was killed, ecological and even human fatalities were found. Despite the lawsuits, levies and clean up funds, the damages are still suffered up to date.

  1. 2016, Fracking

Anew technology called fracking is highly booming in the United States. It pumps highly pressurized liquids to create fissures on the shale rock from which oil and natural gases can escape. Its advocates had managed to ease the storm around fracking but a recent study by researchers from Duke Universities have stirred it up by presenting facts about the ecological impact of fracking.

Facts show environmental pollution and direct impact on human lives around the areas of mining. Litigations and lawsuits are now gearing up, some successful while some still ongoing.

Image credit: pixabay

Rinkesh

Rinkesh is passionate about clean and green energy. He is running this site since 2009 and writes on various environmental and renewable energy related topics. He lives a green lifestyle and is often looking for ways to improve the environment around him.