Deborah Cheng, curator of “Just Environments,” concludes the series with a look back at the diverse set of essays that connect environmental justice to social-structural, political, and cultural inequalities. Cheng reviews the ways in which contributors to the series addressed the nature of environmental (in)justices, touching on a wide range of subjects across various regions. The authors also analyzed how individuals, communities, and social movements strategized and acted to redress injustice, and the ways knowledge and research can be part of both deepening and reversing inequalities at the intersection of environmental change and political and economic forces.
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.
Lindsey Dillon, Christopher Sellers, and the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI) conclude the “Just Environments” series with a sobering look at the Trump administration’s dismantling of environmental agencies. In response to these threats, EDGI has been working to protect federal environmental data, monitor government websites, and analyze the impact of proposed policy changes. Crucially, EDGI calls for “environmental data justice”—a rethinking and remaking of environmental data and governance practices that combines grassroots monitoring with digital technologies.
Jaskiran Dhillon continues the “Just Environments” series with a reflection on the Standing Rock Sioux’s resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline, asking us to consider what this struggle teaches us about the dominant environmental justice movement. Pointing to a longstanding history of settler colonialism, which has heavily relied on environmental destruction and extraction, Dhillon argues that environmental justice must be framed as a struggle for Indigenous sovereignty. She connects Standing Rock to multiple frontlines of resistance around the world, highlighting broader linkages between political strategies advancing decolonization and the environmental justice movement.
This “Just Environments” contribution from Rick Hendriks, Philip Raphals, Karen Bakker, and Gordon Christie focuses on the adverse environmental, socio-legal, and economic impacts of Site C, a large-scale hydropower project in British Columbia. Based on in-depth analysis, the authors suggest that construction of Site C would violate First Nations Treaty rights, result in a loss of biodiversity, and generate greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, Site C is more expensive than other renewable alternatives. They call for the cancellation of the Site C project, raising broader questions about the role of hydropower in a carbon-constrained world.
Manuel Pastor’s contribution to the “Just Environments” series interrogates how social movement organizations, often led by communities of color, pushed for progressive reforms in California. Through a set of sophisticated tactics—including mobilizing new constituents, marshalling research, proposing new policies, and working with political figures—these organizations played critical roles in shaping more equitable and sustainable agendas. Pastor suggests the success and lessons associated with California’s story offer one path out of our current national state of racial, environmental, and economic anxiety.
In this “Just Environments” essay, Ebunoluwa Popoola examines the transfer of environmental lawsuits from Nigerian courts to European ones as a means of circumventing legal obstacles at the national level. Communities in the Niger Delta face multiple barriers when suing multinational oil companies in Nigerian courts, in part because of high costs, delays, and a restrictive interpretation of legal standing. Moving these cases to foreign jurisdictions, where the multinational companies are based, has been one avenue through which environmental justice has been achieved.
Prasenjit Duara makes a strong case for the relevance of the humanities in understanding the human dimensions of environmental and climate change. Multiple aspects of the environmental crisis of the Anthropocene, not least questions of environmental justice in efforts to adapt to and mitigate climate change, can be engaged through humanistic inquiry. With a focus on Asia, Duara argues that questions of identity, representation, religion, ethics, knowledge systems, and more—central concerns of the humanities—are deeply embedded in imagining how to respond to present environmental challenges.
Contrary to the negative stereotypes associated with NIMBYism, Carol Hager’s contribution to the “Just Environments” series demonstrates how NIMBY protests can be beneficial components of participatory politics that result in social, political, and technological innovation. Contrasting case studies from Germany and the United States, Hager examines how, with varying degrees of success, local residents are able to resist unwanted development and environmental threats while imagining more progressive alternatives. In this light, NIMBY protests can be seen as initiating processes of community learning and innovation.
As Puerto Rico faces hurricane-induced devastation, the “Just Environments” series publishes an essay by Alexa Dietrich, Adriana María Garriga-López, and Claudia Sofía Garriga-López situating the current catastrophe within a broader historical context. Viewing it as an unnatural disaster, the authors point to a confluence of postcolonial industrialization, lax environmental regulation, and the privatization of utilities, which have all contributed to the island’s deteriorating infrastructure. Moving forward, they advocate for sustainable economic development and reliable public services as means of strengthening already-existing resilient and adaptive capacities.
David Pellow continues the “Just Environments” series with a critique of prisons as sites of environmental racism and climate change. Facing exposure to contaminated land, water, and toxic substances, prisoners—who are predominantly poor and nonwhite—are subject to increased environmental risks, compounding the vulnerability and marginalization they experience through other social, political, and economic forces. One potential way to highlight these injustices is to collaborate across social movements—for instance, if campaigns directed at environmental and racial justice work together to tackle complex, intersectional issues.