Environmental Justice 101

Why Do Environmental Justice, Climate Justice, and Environmental Privilege Matter?

Environmental justice is both a discourse and a social movement with a long history of activism in the United States and throughout the world. At the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991, delegates critiqued “over 500 years of colonization and oppression, resulting in the poisoning of our communities and land and the genocide of our peoples” (Alston, 2010, p. 16). Environmental justice advocates work to expose and eliminate the disproportionate risks of pollution and other forms of environmental degradation on low-income communities and People of Color. They seek to interrupt these injustices by understanding the environment as part of our everyday lives to “include people and the places where people live, work, play, and bury the dead” (Pezzullo, 2007, p. 103).

In step with environmental justice, climate justice resists the unequal burdens of global climate disruption’s effects on many of the same communities most vulnerable to environmental injustice (de Onís, 2012). These disproportionate impacts on communities that have contributed least to carbon extraction and emissions can be considered “the cruel irony” of climate change (Cox & Pezzullo, 2015, p. 249). Climate justice advocates work to expose the linkages between everyday and extraordinary climate emergencies and domination, conquest, and expansionism.

One way to rethink these injustices is via the related concept of environmental privilege. This problem “results from the exercise of economic, political, and cultural power that some groups enjoy, which enables them exclusive access to coveted environmental amenities such as forests, parks, mountains, rivers, coastal property, open lands, and elite neighborhoods. Environmental privilege is embodied in the fact that some groups can access spaces and resources, which are protected from the kinds of ecological harm that other groups are forced to contend with every day. These advantages include organic and pesticide-free foods neighborhoods with healthier air quality, and energy and other products siphoned from the living environments of other peoples…..If environmental racism and injustice are abundant and we can readily observe them around the world, then surely the same can be said for environmental privilege. We cannot have one without the other; they are two sides of the same coin” (Park & Pellow, 2011, p. 4). Considering environmental and climate justice with environmental privilege encourages a focus on how people of color, indigenous, and low-income communities shoulder entwined burdens, while others benefit from their exploitation. This reality requires collaborations that struggle to disrupt oppressive and violent practices to (re)imagine and enact more livable, just, and sustainable environments and relationships on our shared planet.

(Derived primarily from Dr. Catalina de Onís’ dissertation: Energy Remix: Decolonial Discourses of Decarbonization. Indiana University, May 2017.)