A collaboration between Duke University scholars and the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE) has focused on environmental justice questions in rural Alabama. In this essay, the partners describe their research on how sewage and related environmental problems intersect with broader social structural issues, and consider how to address these challenges. The authors also reflect on the process by which scholars and community-based organizations can work together, and what goes into a mutually rewarding partnership.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.