KYLE'S PICK. The Ethics of the Environmental Justice Movement: A Critical Evaluation of Mainstream Environmentalism

Photo by just.luc |

*Originally posted May 30, 2011.

“The people who hug trees don’t usually hug people. That is another environmental problem.” – George Garrison, environmental justice activist

As the term implies, the environmental justice movement (often distinguished from the mainstream environmental movement) concerns itself with the environment in relation to the upkeep of a fair and just society. That means framing environmental issues within broader concepts such as race and class to achieve social justice. 

Environmental justice has its better known historical beginnings within racialized communities. Through its efforts, the environmental justice movement helped legitimize concepts such as environmental racism.  For example, a 1983 study by the US General Accounting Office showed that three quarters of commercial hazardous waste facilities in the south eastern United States were located in African American communities, even though African Americans made up just one-fifth of the population.

The environmental justice movement has advocated for more diverse voices within national environmental organizations. In the early 1990s, the Gulf Coast Tenant Leadership Development Project sent a letter to the “Group of Ten” national organizations criticizing the “whiteness” of their hiring practices and its focus on privileged issues. Since then progress has been made. For example, many national organizations now have their own environmental justice campaigns and many have supported the establishment of the National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summits.

Interestingly, not all environmental justice activists identify as environmentalists. Environmental justice often ties in the notion that a person’s social position or identity often influences their perceptions of environmentalism. Traditionally, the mainstream environmental movement was perceived as focusing primarily on “white” or privileged environmental issues such as deforestation or preserving wildlife. Privileged individuals often get to connect to nature firsthand by participating in leisure activities such as hiking, canoeing, or camping. The idea of the environment as perceived by this group people is one that is separate from human beings – something that is to be respected. In contrast, marginalized communities are more concerned with the environmentalism of challenges that they face firsthand - hazards in their own backyards such as unsafe drinking water and contaminants in the places they work, live, and play. For these people, it is not about tree hugging or donating to WWF. It is about challenging oppressive social structures that concentrate environmental amenities within the privileged classes, while leaving the lower classes with the brunt of environmental problems. 

We shouldn’t just think from a biocentric perspective. In fact, many environmental solutions have an environmental justice component to it. When we promote funding for public transit, we help the poorest communities that most who can’t afford their own vehicles. When we battle climate change, we help prevent extreme weather events such as droughts in some of the world’s poorest regions. Environmental justice teaches us that oppression and notions of race and class have everything to do with the environment. The environmental movement is not just one consensus on ecological action. In fact, when we begin to think from an environmental justice point of view, we recognize that our very identities shape how we perceive the environment and the ways that we protect it.