Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Lesson Five

Environmental Justice

Keith Douglass Warner OFM and David DeCosse

Environmental justice is the social justice expression of environmental ethics. The environmental justice movement emerged to challenge the unfair distribution of toxic, hazardous and dangerous waste facilities, which were disproportionately located in low income communities of color. This movement is a distinct expression of environmentalism, for it works to improve the protection of human communities and is generally less attentive to wild nature. It is environmental protection where people live, work and play. Over the two past decades it has expanded its scope from community-oriented anti-toxics activism to address global scale inequalities in economic development and environmental degradation.

The idea of environmental justice draws heavily from civil rights, public health, abor and community organizing efforts, and the environmental justice movement reflects this. As a result, this movement devotes itself to the unfair distribution of environmental risks and resources, and promotes efforts to prevent pollution from impacting low income communities. It complements traditional environmentalism's efforts to protect nature by making the poor and marginalized the object of special concern. Its power lies in its appeal to a fundamental ethic of fairness. Members of this movement argue that it is unjust for politically marginalized, low income communities of color to suffer such a heavy burden of polluting activities. More recently this framework has been adapted to evaluate the extraction and distribution of resources (clean air, food and water).

Origins of the idea and movement

The first steps toward environmental justice were taken by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, the very week he was assassinated. He had come to Memphis to assist Black sanitation workers striking for equity in pay and working conditions. During subsequent years, advocates in poor communities (both urban and rural) began noticing patterns. In partnership with academic researchers, these groups demonstrated how negative environmental impacts disproportionately impact low income people and communities of color.

The term "environmental justice" was first articulated by a report of the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice, Toxic Wastes and Race. The environmental justice movement built upon the work of previous U.S. social movements for justice (civil rights, labor rights, and community organizing efforts). African American churches who had been active in civil rights advocacy were early and important religious contributors to this "new" environmentalism. An alternative vision of environmental protection emerged from the collaboration between community groups and scholars. Together they described the common patterns of environmental harm suffered by inner city African Americans, Native Americans on reservations, and rural Mexican Americans (especially farm workers and their rural communities). These groups viewed the problems of hazardous industries and industrial waste as yet another manifestation of discrimination and racism. The severe public health problems impacted neighborhoods already suffering from economic marginalization, crime, and poor schools. Thus, environmental problems are seen as one dimension of many forms of racial injustice visited upon some low income communities of color. The environmental justice movement arose to criticize what they perceived to be unjust public policies, but also to critique conventional environmental organizations, which then employed few persons of color and reflected middle and upper class concerns. The leaders asserted the need for an alternative approach to environmental leadership, and they took the problem of toxic racism or environmental injustice and reframed it positively: environmental justice.

Environmental justice concerns are always embedded in a broader vision for justice in society. They are not distinct from efforts to enhance economic justice and political power for marginalized communities. Environmental justice carries a critique (whether explicit or implicit) of any environmentalism that is disconnected from the needs of poor and vulnerable people. A chief distinguishing feature of environmental justice is that it never considers environmental issues separate from social justice efforts.

Community groups and citizen science

The movement for environmental justice has been strongest when community-based organizations have partnered with university researchers. Local groups have more complete knowledge of neighborhood environmental issues, but academics have contributed by bringing their scientific, analytical, and legal expertise to bear on local problems. In collaboration these different kinds of groups bring their own information and can advance more powerful arguments about discriminatory environmental actions and the need for a more equitable approach. Many times these groups encounter scientific claims by private industry and supportive public officials.

Community-based environmental justice efforts have recruited public health scientists, toxicologists and statisticians to assist with the gathering of data in support of their claims of harm. Public health is the study and practice of protecting and managing the health of human communities. It pays special attention to the social context and consequences of illness, and proposes means of preventing community health problems. Public health studies and experts have played key roles in the environmental justice movement. Government agencies generally do not gather sufficient data to ensure that public health is being protected, so many environmental justice groups gather their own data and write their own reports, which can often contradict official government assurances of safety. Citizen science is the practice of scientific research by non-experts on behalf of communities, and it has contributed a great deal to this movement.

Drawing from the civil rights movement, the environmental justice movement has articulated environmental human rights, or the right to a clean environment. This ethical position asserts that everyone has the right to clean air, water, food and housing. This movement asserts that these are not privileges but rather rights for everyone, and that public officials have a special responsibility to protect these rights, especially in the lives of the poor and vulnerable. Community groups and the environmental justice movement take action when public officials fail to act justly. Environmental justice groups have argued that the solution to environmental injustices must involve more democratic forms of governance that increase citizen participation in land and resource use decisions.

Ethical reasoning in the environmental justice movement

Many of the civil rights churches contributed their resources to this movement, understanding environmental justice as one expression of their social engagement. Recently theologians have developed the term eco-justice to reflect a universal religious aspiration for right relationship between humans and the earth, with special concern expressed specifically for vulnerable people and the earth's creatures at risk of greed and destructive human activities. When faith communities use the terms environmental justice or eco-justice, they often draw from the Biblical perspective on social justice. This is a broader approach than merely legal rights or economic human rights. The Hebrew Scriptures envision justice as right relationship between all created things, human, animal or element. From a theological perspective, justice is a quality of relationship, not only an outcome of a legislative or legal process.

The environmental justice movement argues that public participation in land use and environmental resource decisions is necessary to fulfill the democratic ideals of our country. This reflects the strong grassroots orientation of many environmental justice groups. Leaders argue that improved public deliberative processes are necessary to make environmentally just environmental decisions. Ultimately, the solution to any environmentally hazardous activity lies not only in an equitable distribution of harms, but also in redesigning industrial production processes so that pollution is prevented, not merely the escape of pollutants, but the very concept of industrial waste.

Environmental justice is a profoundly anthropocentric ethic, meaning that human beings are the central moral concern. Endangered species and the health of ecosystems are not dismissed as inconsequential, but human welfare and social equity are presented as central concerns. Thus, concern for environmental justice has the potential to appeal to a broader human audience, those interested in human well-being. Many environmental justice groups argue that every individual and community has a right to clean air and water; this movement proposes a clean environment as a human right. More recently, groups working for sustainable development have argued that human beings have a right to sustainable development. As the world grows increasingly concerned with global climate disruption, some groups are advancing ethical arguments for reducing greenhouse gas emissions based on the principles of environmental justice.


1. How does the ethical orientation of the environmental justice movement help make it distinct from conventional environmentalism?
2. Do you think that having a clean environment is a human right?
3. Do you believe that increasing public participation in environmental decisions leads to more environmentally just outcomes?

For more reading

Cole, Luke W. and Sheila R. Foster. 2001. From the Ground Up; Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement. New York: New York University Press.

Keith Warner, OFM, is the Assistant Director for Education, Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Santa Clara University and David DeCosse is the Director of Campus Ethics Programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

May 1, 2009