What is the Meaning of Environmental Justice?January 16, 2013
This semester Research Fellow Morgan Franklin will be writing blogs each week sharing lectures, readings, and discussion from Professor Melissa Harris-Perry’s class “Politics of Environmental Justice.”
Week One: What is the Meaning of Environmental Justice?
This week in class, our first discussion in Professor Harris-Perry’s spring course, The Politics of Environmental Justice, centered around the actual definition of the term “environmental justice.” We were first posed with the questions “What does the word environmentalism mean to you?” and “What exactly constitutes the environment?” While my fourth-grade Earth Science textbook made these seem like easy digestible definitions, the reality of these questions and the implications of how they are answered is much more complex.
Sure, I did the school projects on the environment involving bean sprouts and faucets leaking into Dixie Cups, but has there ever been a time when I was asked to think about the impacts of environmental disparity between varying socioeconomic levels? Environmentalism is a subject that, in schools and everyday life, is presented in a relatively one-dimensional way. Yes, we should recycle and conserve water because it will save the earth, but these initiatives also fit into a larger framework of questions concerning justice. Why save the earth? Should we treat the earth’s resources as market items to efficiently allocate them, or is the tragedy of the commons a too pervasive problem to forgo governmental regulation? Why does the refrain of environmentalism’s rhetoric tend to center around our progeny and not our neighbors who presently suffer from environmental disparity?
…the tiered access to opportunity, resources, and influence that exists within our society seems to seep into our understanding of environmental protections
During the remainder of class we continued to delve deeper into the aims of the course and were introduced to certain principles on which environmental justice activists often base their initiatives. Among these principles are meaningful involvement, insistence on all stages of development, implementation and enforcement of law and policy, and fair treatment. Though we have not yet discussed it in detail, the tiered access to opportunity, resources, and influence that exists within our society seems to seep into our understanding of environmental protections. The focus of activists on equality of treatment and justice for all regardless of background alludes to the marginalization of those in specific communities and the connected lack of value associated with their voices.
As with courses that have the most promise to be at once intellectually stimulating and academically challenging in the best ways, I found myself leaving our first meeting with so many more questions than I had when I walked in. I’ll leave you with the questions that I walked out of class considering:
1. Which tools do activists use in their efforts to mobilize around such broad and shared problems?
2. Do communities that are more significantly impacted by environmental injustice have a greater stake in finding solutions, or do negative externalities of such disparate outcomes lead to greater collective responsibility?
3. What are steps that individuals can take in order to mitigate personal contributions to common problems?
Each week we will engage with questions like these and attempt to provide a more multidimensional analysis of environmental justice.
By: Morgan Franklin, AJC Research Fellow and a student in Professor Harris-Perry’s class.