Environmental Justice is a term we often see in the headlines these days whether it’s connected to a groundbreaking lawsuit here in the U.S., or a group of nations struggling to confront the devastating impacts of the climate crisis. Environmental Justice is such a pressing matter in our modern society that even the Biden administration recently announced it’s creating an entirely new office fully dedicated to Environmental Justice issues.
The reality is, while it may seem like a buzzword today, Environmental Justice goes back generations. But what exactly does it mean and who does it affect?
The U.S. The Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement” of all people, indiscriminately, during the development and implementation of environmental laws, regulation and policies. While on paper that seems nice, the reality is, there is nothing “fair” about who carries the biggest burden when it comes to environmental degradation, pollution and climate change. As Dr. Robert Bullard, the much recognized “Father of Environmental Justice” and person we can credit for launching the whole movement in the first place so eloquently puts it, “When you look at the most powerful predictor of where the most industrial pollution is, race is the most potent predictor.” That said, race plays a critical role when it comes to understanding (and unpacking) environmental injustice.
Environmental injustice is a great big umbrella which the term environmental racism falls under. But there are some nuances that are important to understand here. For example, findings from the Sierra Club from a few years ago suggests people who live below the poverty line are more at risk of being exposed to particulate matter released by nearby industry, but African Americans more specifically have a 54 percent higher burden than the overall population. As Elizabeth Yeampierre explains it, “both historical and present-day injustices have left people of color exposed to far greater environmental health hazards than whites.” Think of it this way, environmental injustice is an everybody problem. When environmental injustice and racial injustice converge, it’s environmental racism.
You’ll often hear two terms when talking about environmental injustice and environmental racism. The term frontline communities means the folks who experience the impacts of climate change “first and worst.” On the other hand, according to Dr. Peggy A. Honoré, of LSU Health Sciences, fenceline communities are often nearby or neighbors to industrial facilities that cause long-term pollution.
Real life example: Fenceline Community
The Diamond community of Norco, Louisiana fought Shell USA back in the 1970s. The predominantly Black neighborhood - which was the site of the largest slave revolt in 1811 - sat just 25 feet away from a Shell oil plant. In 2002, it won the fight, forcing the Shell plant to relocate.
The term “waste colonialism” was first coined back in 1989. At that time, African nations raised the alarm about the menacing practice of more developed nations dumping their garbage and waste in less developed countries.
What makes waste colonialism such an injustice is that it allows countries like the US, the UK and other wealthier nations to both dominate and gain access to a country’s homeland (often nations in the Global South) and basically use that land as their personal disposal bin. Just like colonialism, it’s an example of one group of people dominating another in their own homeland.
Real life example: Filth by the boatload
So much of the waste we produce in North America never makes it to our local landfills, but is instead shipped by the boatload overseas. That includes our plastic waste and old textiles.
Countries that receive waste by boat are known as “sinks.”
When it comes to clothing and textiles some end up in secondhand markets like the world’s largest in Accra, Ghana – the Kantamanto Market or dumped in the middle of the Chilean desert. This exported waste has terrible health effects on local communities. This includes displacing people, increasing a local population’s risk of asthma, cholera, malaria and other diseases, damaging the ecosystem. If it wasn’t bad enough, the communities closest to the disposal sites are often blamed for the waste which they never even produced.
To hear more about waste colonialism in Chile check out S2E4 of the People Over Plastic podcast, Ropa Americana.
The food justice movement is closely interconnected with the environmental justice movement and it’s easy to see why. Food insecurity is when there is limited access to nutritious and safe foods. In the U.S. alone, food insecurity affected a staggering 10.5% of all households in 2020. Food insecurity can look like a lot of different things.
Maybe you’ve heard people describe a place as being a “food desert” because there is a lack of places to actually purchase fresh and affordable fruits, vegetables and other nourishing foods. Lack of access to food can also be caused by environmental factors. Climate change is resulting in more floods, fires, storms and droughts which are destroying a lot of crops which then affect food supply chains. Agricultural land can also be ruined by pollution or industrialization. When food is more scarce, prices go up making it even harder for people to afford food. While everyone might feel the pinch of food prices going up, people of color consistently experience food insecurity.
Real life example: Food Insecurity
The human body cannot function without food. Lack of food can be so debilitating that it can cause fatigue, lack of energy or poor moods and difficulty focusing. Those health impacts come with its own huge price tag. By one estimate, lower worker productivity combined with higher costs of public education, greater health care costs, and the cost associated with emergency food distribution, amounts to a whopping $167.5 billion annually in the United States.
And food insecurity tends to hit racialized communities hardest. National food insecurity in the U.S. back in 2012 revealed the percentage of white households with children that were food insecure was 15.5% but the percentages were much higher among African American (29.2%) and Hispanic (32.3%) households.
Racial redlining is a form of discrimination that continues even today. The term “redlining” goes back to an era when the Federal Government would map out all the municipalities across the nation. Those maps were color-coded to make it easy for lenders to know which parts of a municipality were safe when it came to insuring mortgages. Municipalities where African-Americans lived were colored red because they were seen as risky.
The damage from that legacy continues to impact those living in redlined communities and their local environment. Since redlined communities see less resources, investment, and development, this results in poor infrastructure which puts a local population at risk of all sorts of environmental hazards from heat waves, to natural disasters, to flooding and more.
Real life example: Racial Redlining
The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 was supposed to tip the credit lending scales in favor of BIPOC homeowners, yet the Trump Administration laxed standards required to pass the Community Reinvestment exam. In 2018, Reveal investigated Philadelphia’s history of redlining through the lens of a 30-something-year-old. Despite the applicant (a Black woman) having a good credit score and earning $60,000 at the time, she was repeatedly denied a loan and avoided by lenders. Her partner (who was half White and half Japanese) worked at a grocery store. The same lender that ignored the Black woman, granted her non-Black partner a loan for the home they would later buy.
People living in communities that experience food deserts and racial redlining could also be experiencing an ‘urban heat island effect’ which is when a neighborhood, town, city or municipality is hotter than the surrounding area. The US Environmental Protection Agency notes that materials for roads, buildings and “other infrastructure absorbs and re-emits the sun’s heat.” These areas typically have fewer trees and green space which naturally cool the air and provide shade.
Real life example:
Extreme heat has profound impacts on mental and physical health, and compounds social and financial inequities. It's made worse for people of color who live in neighborhoods plagued by the urban heat island effect.
A heat island is a metropolitan area that's much warmer than its surroundings because tree and natural cover is replaced by buildings, construction, asphalt, and concrete which absorb sunlight rather than reflect it.
Data journalist Mona Chalabi captures this disparity in her work that looks at New York residential neighborhoods and their tree cover.