Environmental Justice: Bridging Social Justice and Environmentalism

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Archbishop Desmond Tutu notes that in spiritual communities and our society we can no longer afford to divide ourselves into social justice or environmental advocates since the world’s poor and vulnerable will bear the brunt of hunger, homelessness, and displacement caused by severe climate and environmental events. As Pope Francis recently pointed out, “we are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to underprivileged, and at the same time protecting nature” (Laudato Si, 139).

Environmental Justice seeks the well being of all humankind on a thriving Earth. As pastor and scholar Carol Johnson describes in the Biblical and Theological Foundations of Eco-Justice, it involves justice in human relationships as well as protecting the integrity of God’s creation. As Johnson points out, “we will not have one without the other; we will either flourish together or suffer together.” While Outdoor Equity ensures that all people, especially underserved families and communities, can access and experience opportunities to enjoy the wonder and beauty of God’s creation, environmental justice seeks to ensure that the environment is safe and healthy for all.

Environmental Justice Issues

“Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth. This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. One thing we know: our God is also your God. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.” Chief Seattle

Environmental justice is movement and national network of grassroots groups fighting the disproportionate impact of environmental decisions, land-use policies, and regulatory processes on low-and moderate-income people and people of color. No person or neighborhood should be burdened by harmful environmental conditions and all people should be treated fairly and have the opportunity for full, meaningful participation in the decisions affecting the health, safety, and identity of their community. Environmental justice thus seeks the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, ethnicity, origin, or income with respect to the environment. The most common environmental justice issues are:  

  • Pollution—Not only of air and water, but also noise pollution that has a disproportionate effect on communities due to race, ethnicity or income. This may include under enforcement of environmental regulations, lesser penalties for violations in these communities or overconcentration of industrial uses in certain areas.
  • Locally Unwanted Land Uses— Many of these land uses, such as hazardous waste incinerators, waste storage and disposal facilities, solid waste landfills, sewage treatment facilities, power plants, and refineries, involve increased exposure or risk of exposure to pollutants. Other locally unwanted land uses such as landfills, recycling facilities, and warehouses may degrade the physical environment of a neighborhood, pose safety concerns and contribute to the decline of the community’s sense of place.
  • Omissions of Certain Facilities and Spaces–the lack of certain land uses, facilities, and infrastructure may also be an environmental justice issue. Underprovided community resources include a lack of parks and open space, public transit options, up-to-date utility services (including safe water distribution systems, sewer, and stormwater drainage), healthy streams and rivers, community centers and recreational facilities, and well-maintained streets and sidewalks.
  • Lack of affordable housing— Some characterize the undersupply of affordable housing for low-and moderate-income people as an environmental justice issue.
  • Brownfields–The presence of contaminated or potentially contaminated, underproductive properties are known as brownfields. Brownfields commonly occur in disadvantaged communities and may require substantial resources for remediation, assuming remediation is even possible.
  • Urban Sprawl--Some characterize urban sprawl, with its siphoning of the tax base, financial resources, and jobs away from cities and into the suburbs as well as its segregating effects as being an environmental justice issue.
  • Jobs–Some see the lack of good-paying, safe, and healthy jobs in and near low-income neighborhoods as an environmental justice issue.
  • Outdoor Equity–the lack of opportunity, access and resources by disadvantaged communities to get out and enjoy nature.

Earth Keepers is committed to working with spiritual leaders, local communities and partner organizations to address environmental justice issues.