Veronica Herrera continues the “Just Environments” series by examining the ways in which low-income communities that are impacted by toxic contamination mobilize grassroots movements as forms of resistance and vehicles for claims-making. Focusing on neighborhoods in Buenos Aires and Bogotá, Herrera notes that community residents partner with better-resourced actors to frame environmental protections as legal rights, effectively forging new types of environmental citizenship.
The year 2017 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the first national study in the United States to correlate the siting of commercial hazardous waste facilities and communities of color—a revolutionary intervention that introduced the concept and, notably, the term “environmental justice.” In the years since the paradigm shift caused by The United Church of Christ’s report, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, scholarship highlighting the connections between race, class, and environmental burdens have remained both critical and necessary to understanding the links between humanity and the environment.
Here at the Social Science Research Council, between 1989 and 1998, the Global Environmental Change (GEC) program sought to address some of the intersections between poverty and the environment, among other matters. Items covered the GEC’s work, including a 2007/8 retrospective on the prescience of the program. But, the GEC did not tackle environmental justice issues head-on. Building on its work, and on the growing attention to related issues across the social and environmental sciences in the ensuing years, this Items series engages “just environments” at a crucial moment in the United States and around the world.
As a global public increasingly scrutinizes and questions our shared environmental challenges, Items revisits the question of human impacts on the environment and the environmental impacts on humanity. Recent events highlight the challenges that remain: ongoing battles to protect the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation’s water supply from a proposed oil pipeline herald a familiar tale of indigenous populations pitted against big industry. Across the global South, vulnerable populations experience the effects of climate change most directly.
How can we understand the tensions that persist? Given these tensions, is it possible to imagine more just environments and offer strategies for collective solutions? Over the last three decades, a rich body of social science research has theorized, analyzed, and critiqued intersectional inequities through the lens of environmental crises. Using a host of approaches, theories, and methodologies, scholars have examined the roots and consequences of environmental biases. Embedded throughout this work is the notion that more equitable alternatives exist.
The essays in this series build upon that research, reflecting on this potential for change, particularly with respect to contemporary environmental contestations. Together, they offer a diverse set of perspectives that uncover a range of pathways toward more just environments.
Antonio La Viña continues the “Just Environments” series with an analysis of climate justice challenges and opportunities, particularly from the perspective of vulnerable countries, in light of the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. The framing of issues of mitigation and adaptation to climate change in terms of justice—assistance, liability, and accountability—is now part of the global debate. Though the absence of the United States from global climate processes is less than ideal, La Viña suggests that this opening can provide opportunities to address climate justice and for other countries to emerge as global leaders.
Nikhil Anand’s contribution to the “Just Environments” series examines the making of urban inequality, focusing on water infrastructure as a key site for banal yet fundamentally political decision-making that neglects or harms poor citizens. In both Flint and Mumbai, environmental injustice is generated through bureaucratic routines that rarely take into account the humans they affect. Challenging these injustices, Anand argues, requires engaging in the "boring" technopolitics of infrastructure.
Julian Agyeman’s contribution to the “Just Environments” series calls for the planning, design, and maintenance of culturally inclusive spaces, highlighting the ways in which the built environment can facilitate spatial justice. In doing so, he argues for the need to focus on interculturalism—that is, cross-cultural overlap, interaction, and negotiation—as a means of transforming cities into more just and inclusive ones.
Drawing upon a long history of anti-racist, feminist, and decolonial struggles, Malini Ranganathan continues our “Just Environments” series with an essay that suggests freedom can serve as a powerful analytic through which to reimagine environmental justice. Ranganathan makes the case that a comprehensive understanding of freedom must include (though, crucially, is not limited to) the ability to live in a safe and clean environment. Situating environmental harms within a broader emancipatory politics, she brings us closer to redressing multiple, intersectional injustices.
Alexa Dietrich co-launches the “Just Environments” series by reflecting on the environmental challenges faced by transnational communities—in this case, families that live on opposite sides of the US-Mexico border, whose lives are separated by stringent immigration policies. In highlighting the connections between immigration and the environment, Dietrich argues that a more humane approach to legal residency is critical to bolstering local resilience to climate change on both sides of the border.
Isha Ray’s contribution, the first of several essays in our “Just Environments” series, examines gender equality through the lens of access to basic sanitation. Moving beyond what the United Nations and others have proposed, Ray argues that in-home toilets are inadequate because they fail to account for those without homes, or those who are not home all day. Rather, if we are to make sanitation truly accessible, we must explicitly design and construct infrastructure that meets the needs of the most marginalized—including the low-income woman whose dignity and mobility rests on the presence of clean, safe facilities outside of the home.