what is environmental justice

What is Environmental Justice (And Why You Should Care)?

Jane Marsh - November 12, 2021

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During the Civil Rights Movement, activists took a holistic approach to evaluating injustice. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for the fair treatment of all individuals, from the education sector to public safety. He additionally supported the Memphis Sanitation Strike, marking the beginning of environmental justice (EJ).

The strike derived from the unfair treatment of African American waste management workers. Employees demanded fair pay and a safer working environment for the first time in history. After the strike, various groups began advocating for better laws, protecting environmental equality.

A Working Definition

EJ extends beyond the protection of the land, it evaluates humanity’s equal connection to and protection against Earth’s ecology. It is the fair treatment of all individuals, regardless of their race or class. EJ also includes infrastructural development, regulations and environmental laws.

The field of justice protects individuals from harmful exposure to toxins and pollution. It also helps congress establish legislation improving sanitation conditions and access to resources. There are various principles of EJ that influence law development and the security of all citizens.

The Principles of EJ

The People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit developed the 17 EJ principles, helping prevent inequality in society. The first one establishes the connection between all species in the global ecosystem and society’s security against ecological degradation. It promotes an ecocentric view, valuing human rights over capital gains.

The second principle revolves around policy development. It requires congress to base all laws on justice and mutual respect for all members of society. Additionally, it prevents the government from engaging in discrimination.

The fourth and sixth principles involve the right to clean water, air, food, land and other resources for all individuals. They call for equal protection against pollution and harmful toxins. The principals hold producers responsible for their waste generation, requiring efficient cleanup processes.

The remaining principles detail how one can prevent harm and protect society from inequitable resource distribution. Throughout history, Americans witnessed the fair and unfair treatment of individuals in relation to the environment. We can evaluate environmental justice by first exploring past injustices.


Justice vs. Injustice

Flint, Michigan, experienced one of the most severe cases of environmental injustice in American history. In 2014, after the General Motor manufacturing facility left Flint, the city began exploring cost reduction methods. They decided to switch their water supply from Detroit to a local river.

The low-income region was placed on the back burner by congress because of its minimal commercial profitability. Marginal concern led to the inefficient testing and treatment of the new water supply. After the transition away from Detroit’s system, Flint residents began experiencing rashes, hair loss and other adverse effects.

Additionally, the town experienced an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, killing 12 individuals and harming 87, until 2015. Researchers found high levels of lead, tripling the elevated levels in children’s blood. They additionally discovered the cancer-developing chemicals total trihalomethanes in the supply.

Residents approached the government on multiple occasions, asking for water testing and a safer supply. Officials failed to respond, poisoning the community for years. After residents hired personal lawyers and environmental professionals, congress took a deeper look at the issue and offered solutions.

After two years, the government developed a secure and equitable water supply. They also revisited the New Green Deal, instilling environmental justice back into the community. In Flint, injustice derived from congress’s neglect of a low-income community, limiting their access to safe resources.

Another notable occurrence of environmental injustice derived from abandoned mines in Picher, Oklahoma. After professionals extract ore for material production, they leave piles of chat on the surface. The piles hold toxic waste, producing adverse human health effects.

Real estate in the abandoned industrial region is cheap because of the lack of safety. Over the years, the toxic material polluted various resources. When children play in sandboxes or the dirt, they expose themselves to harmful elements.

The main element in the chat harming individuals is lead. Nearly 63% of younger community members experienced lead poisoning over the years. The government’s inadequate response to the pollution left individuals without the option to escape the toxins.

One government program offered to purchase homes, funding the removal of community members from harm. Unfortunately, their offers were so low that they were more cost-effective for individuals to remain in the toxic atmosphere. Picher remains ridden with poisonous pollution because of inadequate EJ efforts.

Why Does it Matter?

EJ is essential to the adequate protection of all individuals against harmful pollution. It also prevents environmental racism, which occurred in Flint. People of color are more susceptible to pollution and unsafe resources than white individuals in America.

Clean water is a fundamental human right under the Clean Water Act. All Americans also have the right to adequate food sources and shelter. When the government fails to protect these rights, they create injustice.

You can promote national environmental justice by voting for change. Additionally, individuals can contact local officials when they recognize injustice in underserved communities. Speaking up and voting can enhance the equality of resource accessibility. 


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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.