Abstract: While the term environmental justice has different nuances of meaning for activists, academics, and politicians, most agree that it encompasses the need for a healthy environment for all with the same degree of protection from environmental risks and with equal access to environmental goods. This is in line with sustainability goals to fulfill the needs of the present without compromising the future. Research is currently underway to define and assess how environmental justice will be incorporated into the future of sustainability practices.

Citation: [AUTHOR (2021). “TITLE”] in Anderson et al. (eds.). Encyclopedia of Sustainability, 2nd ed. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.


Any figures or illustrations or illustrations included here are not finalized for publication. Advance publication date as per post date. Copyright Berkshire Publishing Group.

Back to list of Advance Articles

Environmental Justice

Environmental Justice (EJ) relates to the social and academic movement fighting the disproportionate sharing of environmental burdens, which adversely affects certain groups of people (e.g., low-income people, people of color, ethnic minorities, those with disabilities, women, LGBTQ communities, immigrants, and children). Initially evolved out of grassroots movements that combined civil rights struggles with ecological concerns in the United States in late 1970s and early 1980s, the EJ paradigm has significantly broadened its focus on several areas of concern: (toxic) waste disposal, facility siting, water and air pollution, worker health and safety, pesticides, parks and recreation, energy, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, climate-induced migration, inequalities between the Global North and Global South, and different understandings of the relation between human beings and the natural environment (Benford 2005; Pellow 2002; Holifield, Chakraborty, and Walker 2018; Rozzi et al. 2015).

Development of Environmental Justice

Apart from a few exceptions, by those who provocatively claim 1492 as the beginning of environmental inequalities suffered by indigenous peoples during colonialism, most date the origins of EJ back to the late 1970s and early 1980s in the United States. Some authors refer to the Love Canal incident in New York state, where toxic materials were dumped in the 1970s, and date the start of the movement to 1978, while the majority of scholars set the beginning to a 1982 protest against the dumping of polychlorinated biphenyl in a hazardous waste landfill in Warren County, North Carolina. Despite the significance of Love Canal, due to the mobilization against the effect of toxic waste on health, the Warren County case inaugurated environmental justice research.

The first wave of EJ studies focused on providing empirical evidence that environmental injustices were based on race and class. The 1987 Toxic Wastes and Race report by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice (1987) and works by Robert Bullard (1990 and 1993)—the latter known as the father of EJ—documented that race was the most significant variable in determining where waste facilities were located in the United States. For this reason, the literature has termed this first strand of research environmental racism. Since equity is at the core of the agenda, the alternative term environmental equity movement is also used.

The second wave of EJ studies, called critical environmental justice studies (CEJ) (Pellow and Brulle 2005; Pellow 2017), emerged in the early 2000s. It has four pillars (Pellow 2017): (1) greater attention to social categories of difference entangled in the production of environmental injustice (e.g., race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, and species); (2) multiscale (spatial and temporal) methodological and theoretical approaches to EJ issues; (3) the need for transformative approaches to realize EJ; and (4) a focus on the relations between humans and non-human actors indispensable to the current and future generations. CEJ is considered a watershed in the evolutionary scheme of the EJ paradigm, slightly replacing terms like racism and equity with the more inclusive term justice.

EJ is, by definition, a cross-disciplinary issue. Different disciplines contribute to the EJ agenda and advance it, according to their ontologies. These include social and political sciences that focus on issues of inequality, class, and the role of social movements in pushing for change. In economics, questions of income inequality, welfare, and the political economy of EJ have to be answered. In ecology, EJ permeates research on ecosystem services, urban studies, and the welfare of future generations. In philosophy and law, EJ issues are mostly concerned with theories of justice, and whether and how they address distribution, equality recognition, and participation issues.

Dimensions of Environmental Justice

Environmental Justice encompasses three different dimensions of justice: distribution, recognition, and participation (Schlosberg 2007). Communities facing environmental injustices (a) bear a disproportionate share of environmental hazards (distribution), and/or (b) are not acknowledged as political actors but rather as expendable communities (recognition), and/or (c) are excluded by the decision-making process involving environmental issues (participation). Thus, EJ has both procedural and substantive components that are inter-related (Shrader-Frechette 2004). Procedural justice largely contributes to substantive EJ as it recognizes all groups affected by hazards as legitimate actors of the decision-making process and provides the opportunity for everyone to participate in environmental decision-making, thereby defending their substantive environmental rights (Bell 2004).

Environmental Justice in the Global South

Although there is a constant rationale—the fighting of environmental inequalities—for EJ issues, there are different nuances between the EJ struggles in the Global North and the Global South. On the one hand, the struggles between different groups in the same society or country (intra-national inequalities) affected unequally by environmental hazards remain valid in the Global South. Still, they gain a more intense note, for three reasons. First, EJ is even more intertwined with social justice in the Global South due to more acute structural inequalities. The weaker rule of law and democracy, and fast-paced industrialization and urbanization without simultaneous institutional development enhanced the gap between privileged and unprivileged groups and so environmental inequalities. Second, in many southern countries, EJ emerged as a resistance to authoritarian regimes that were in power in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Thus, EJ networks emerged in tandem with other social networks, creating a multiple and heterogeneous movement (Carruthers 2008). Third, environmental inequalities faced by indigenous communities are a key EJ issue in the south, especially in Latin America (Carruthers 2008).

On the other hand, EJ struggles also refer to the relative position of southern countries in the global economy (inter-national inequalities). The dynamics of globalization push southern economies to bear increasing environmental costs. They are major exporters of low-value commodities—agro-food commodities, mining products, and fossil fuels—for which competitiveness on the global market depends on large use of pesticides and fertilizers or lax environmental regulation on chemical waste or environmental damages from oil spills. As economies of the Global North reduce their production of goods with high environmental impact but still purchase them from the Global South, the EJ agenda involves questioning the structure of the global economy (Carmin et al. 2011).

Environmental Justice and Sustainability: A Socio-Environmental Focus

Since the concept of sustainable development—which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs—emerged in the works of the Brundtland Commission in 1987 and the report “Our Common Future,” it raised implications for the EJ agenda. Sustainability implies confining development to ecological limits. The EJ movement responded by stating that only equal concern for equity, justice, governance, and the environment can achieve sustainability since social injustices are among the causes of unsustainable development (Agyeman and Evans 2004).

Part of the literature gives even more emphasis to the social in sustainability by pushing for just transitions. Thus, the idea of a transition to a sustainable future without considering the needs of poorer or underprivileged communities is unfair because it leaves the most vulnerable behind. Therefore, transitions to an ecologically embedded future should include interventions on employment policy; social dialogue, social protection, rights at work, and employment are indispensable building blocks of sustainable development (International Labour Organization 2015).

The idea of just transitions raises an important debate on the compatibility of social fairness and ecological protection. Can we tend to the needs of all human beings while protecting the natural world, or are those rival goals? A concrete example comes from the discussion of energy transitions: Should we keep coal mines open where they are the main source of employment for local communities, despite their impact on health and global climate system? The debate is pushed forward by the Agenda 2030, signed by the United Nations members in 2015, and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), seventeen targets on different policy issues that clarify that sustainability requires bridging justice, environmental, and poverty issues. At its heart lies the difficult question of whether it is possible to solve potential conflicts between the basic needs of human beings and those of the rest of the natural world without deeper scrutiny of our current modes of living, including those of production and consumption.

Frontiers of Environmental Justice

Due to its multiscale, multidisciplinary, and multi-issue nature, EJ is becoming an increasingly used paradigm by researchers, enabling an integrated and transdisciplinary approach to different environmental issues, e.g., energy justice, climate justice, mobility justice, food justice, gender justice, and reproductive justice. Without dismissing the importance of the others, we will focus on four strands of research that have recently emerged related to the EJ agenda.

The first strand regards the anthropocentric perspective of EJ. Traditionally, concern with nature within the context of EJ was limited to the instrumental value for human beings—EJ was much more about human justice. This new strand of research is pushing EJ to provide room for the natural environment as a value in itself: justice towards the natural environment and to non-human species (Pellow 2017). Worldviews of indigenous communities—who define human societies as stewards of nature, not entitled owners of it (Rozzi et al. 2015)—are also important influences. Sustainability, in this view, is no longer only the preservation of ecosystems while tending to human needs but requires re-embedding humans into nature. EJ becomes a broader agenda that needs to consider the rights of other species (Rozzi et al. 2015).

The second strand of research focuses on the pursuit of socially just conservation, understood as the fair distribution of costs and benefits from biodiversity conservation (Martin 2017). Conservation strategies affect local communities disproportionately. Just conservation scholars argue that by including these communities in the decision-making process and respecting their views—even if these are different from the views of other actors—a fairer, non-dominative decision on the conservation strategy is reached, which will benefit current and future generations (Martin 2017).

In the third strand of research, scholars also demand EJ to shift beyond a state-centric approach (Pellow 2017). They argue that although state power is frequently evoked, it is more likely to reinforce rather than correct racism and social inequalities (Pulido 2017). In their view, the state is a site of contestation rather than an ally or a neutral force since the state—if not by action, then by omission—supports discriminatory practices that force environmental inequalities on local communities (Pulido 2017). This strand of research argues for a critical analysis of the role of the state and changes to it so that it can become a pro-EJ actor.

Finally, the significant influence and leadership of Pope Francis have opened up further frontiers of EJ. In his Encyclical Letter Laudato Sì “On Care for Our Common Home” (2015), Pope Francis addresses issues such as pollution, global warming, depletion of natural resources, waste management, and global inequality. At the core of his doctrine is the concept of integral ecology, according to which the current social and environmental crises are faces of the same coin. They need to be tackled simultaneously: “Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded and, at the same time, protecting nature” (Pope Francis 2015).

In the long-term, the EJ paradigm may help academics, activists, and politicians in setting just sustainable outcomes while balancing current and future needs.


Stockholm University

Larissa BASSO

Stockholm University

See also: Environmental Justice; Pope Francis; Agenda 2030; Global South; Love Canal; toxic waste; environmental racism; environmental equity; integral ecology

Further Reading

  • Bell, Derek. (2004). Environmental justice and Rawls’ difference principle. Environmental Ethics, 26(7), 287–306.
  • Benford, Robert D. (2005). The half-life of the environmental justice frame: Innovation, diffusion, and stagnation. In David Naguib Pellow & Robert J. Brulle (Eds.), Power, justice and the environment (pp. 37–54). London, UK and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Bullard, Robert D. (1990). Dumping in Dixie: Race, class, and environmental quality. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  • Bullard, Robert D. (1993). Confronting environmental racism: Voices from the grassroots. Boston, MA: South End Press.
  • Carmin, JoAnn, et al. (Eds.). (2011). Environmental Inequalities beyond borders: Local perspectives on global injustices. London, UK and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Carruthers, David V. (2008). Environmental justice in Latin America: Problems, promise and practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Holifield, Ryan; Chakraborty, Jayajit; & Walker, Gordon. (2018). The Routledge handbook of environmental justice. London, UK: Routledge.
  • International Labour Organization. (2015). Guidelines for a just transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies for all. Retrieved from http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_emp/—emp_ent/documents/publication/wcms_432859.pdf
  • Martin, Adrian. (2017). Just conservation: Biodiversity, wellbeing and sustainability. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
  • Pellow, David Naguib, & Brulle, Robert J. (2005). Power, justice, and the environment: A critical appraisal of the environmental justice movement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
  • Pellow, David Naguib. (2002). Garbage wars: The struggle for environmental justice in Chicago. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Pellow, David Naguib. (2017). What is critical environmental justice? Cambridge, UK: Polity.
  • Pulido, Laura. (2017). Geographies of race and ethnicity II: Environmental racism, racial capitalism and state-sanctioned violence. Progress in Human Geography 2017, 41(04), 524–533.
  • Pope Francis. (2015). Encyclical letter Laudato sì. Retrieved from http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html
  • Rozzi, Ricardo, et al. (2015). Linking ecology and ethics for an interregional and intercultural earth stewardship. In Ricardo Rozzi, et al. (Eds.) Earth stewardship: Linking ecology and ethics in theory and practice. Cham: Springer International.
  • Schlosberg, David. (2007). Defining environmental justice: Theories, movements, and nature. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Shrader-Frechette, Kristin S. (2004). Environmental justice: Creating equality, reclaiming democracy. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice. (1987). Toxic wastes and race in the United States: A national report on the racial and socio-economic characteristics of communities with hazardous waste sites. New York: The United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice.