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Environmental Justice and Environmentalism of the Poor

Essay by sisim  •  February 11, 2018  •  Research Paper  •  2,587 Words (11 Pages)  •  452 Views

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Topic: Environmental Justice and Environmentalism of the Poor.


Environmental Justice concerns have been a central topic in the recent discussions regarding climate change, having currently reached the global stage after continuous evolvement and decades of continuous momentum. In this essay I analyze the correlation between this evolvement and the concept standing at the very centre of the movement: the environment. I begin by stating the rigid definitions the other environmental currents (the Cult of Wilderness and the Gospel of Eco-efficiency) give the environment and linking them to the equally facile and straightforward ideologies each current supports. I then attempt to dissect the complex and multi-faceted definition of environment presented by the Environmental Justice movement, breaking it down to its very components and analyzing the correlation between every development of the concept and the directions and trends the movement has taken in its own evolution and development – associating every step with actual cases and examples of injustice conflicts. I argue that the continuous evolution and diversification of the concept and the movement act in a positive feedback loop, fueling one another and pushing each-other forward, ultimately making it possible for the fundamental and new issues of environmental justice to be incorporated in the Climate Change discourse.

The environmental discourse has been for several years now a global one. With scientists, biologists, researchers, politicians and even Pope Francis (June of 2015) sounding alarms and urging people to “do something to protect the environment”, and no less than 197 participant countries in the 21st Conference Of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, there is no doubt that environmental movements – and especially Environmental Justice - have evolved and gained momentum over time[b]. It stands to logic, then, that we must give one simple definition to the very centre of the discourse: the environment. And yet that proves to be much more difficult than expected.                                                                              There are three parallel currents of environmentalism: The Cult of Wilderness, the Gospel of Eco-efficiency and the Mantra of Environmental Justice. Each of these see the environment differently and their definition of it creates premise for their specific ideologies. The Cult of Wilderness equalizes the environment to beautiful untouched landscapes: rainforests, winding rivers, mountains and canyons the likes of which we usually see in documentaries or postcards. Beautiful and alive, but ultimately distant and completely detached from people. This is exactly what the movement demands: protecting nature by isolating it from human influence. The Gospel of Eco-efficiency, on the other hand, sees the environment and nature in general as a collection of actual and potential resources for economic growth. Consequently, this movement advocates the development of technologies that ensure optimal use of these resources and minimal damage to the environment.                                                                                                           The third current, that of Environmental Justice, seems to have the most complex and dynamic definition of the word environment. The reason, though, is simple: Environmental Justice is a multi-faceted, pluralist and dynamic movement in itself, having evolved greatly from the initial narrow concept of environmental racism. Over time, as Environmental Justice evolved, so did the concept of environment, gaining new facets and dimensions beyond the physical. Below, we analyze how the word environment has been reconceptualized with every development of the Environmental Justice movement, and how the changes in definition have influenced, in turn, the trends and directions the movement has taken.

The first activist movements against what we now call environmental injustices started due to direct danger to people’s health. In the United States, the early 1980s marked the beginning of protests from poor people, as well as people of color, against their exposure to harmful and toxic waste due to the inequity of environmental policy implementation. In 1982, activists in Warren County, North Carolina, catalyzed a powerful social movement when 414 demonstrators were arrested for protesting the siting of a toxic waste facility in the predominantly black and low-income community. (Trends and Directions in Environmental Justice: From Inequity to Everyday Life, Community, and Just Sustainabilities). Since then an extensive literature in sociology, environmental policy, and environmental health has examined inequities between groups in exposure to contamination and health risks from waste sites, incinerators, refineries, transportation, and small-area sources (Bullard, 1990; Downey and Hawkins, 2008; Lerner, 2005; Pellow, 2000; Sze, 2007). In other countries, the pattern is the same: communities – and countries - of lower socioeconomic status are in serious disadvantage when it comes to contamination and loss of natural recourses crucial to their livelihood.                                      

Clearly, the struggles were not for preservation of the environment for its own sake (The‘Environmentalism of the Poor’ revisited: Territory and place in disconnected global struggles Isabelle Anguelovski , Joan Martínez Alier). The aforementioned communities protested because they were more aware of how much their life depended on the natural resources surrounding them. This also explains the gender aspect of Environmental Justice. Studies have shown that women take distinctly more active roles of leadership in EJ organizations both in rural and urban areas. Historically, women had more contact with nature as a way of providing food, warmth and shelter for their tribes and even now, in rural areas, they are the ones tasked with gathering water and medicinal plants.  They are ready to defend nature if their participation in decision making is socially allowed (Agarwal, 1992, 2001). This was the first (and physical) definition they gave the environment – the source of their livelihood.

The second dimension [c]added to the definition was political. It started spontaneously as a direct and natural progression of the initial movements. While, at first, people raised their voice in protest against unjust urban and environmental planning, with time they became actively involved in restructuring those same urban plans. The inequity of the political environment in these countries and communities forced the Environmental Justice movement to demand active participation in environmental planning instead of just raising awareness to the discrepancies.



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