What Is Environmental Justice?
Environmental justice resides at the intersections of environmentalism and social justice. To advocate for environmental justice means to work towards a fair distribution of environmental benefits and burdens regardless of people’s race, income, national origin, or another demographic. Although the EJ movement has gained mainstream recognition in the US in recent years, this movement takes myriad forms and has persisted for many years in communities across the globe. Demands for EJ may emerge as mainly nonviolent, direct action movements. For example, communities who typically experience an environmental injustice, such as rampant deforestation or toxic waste contamination in their neighborhood, come together to defend their families and communities from these injustices.
EJ is both a social movement and an academic approach to environmentalism that seeks to address environmental inequities and their root causes by incorporating a social justice lens. Within an EJ framework, environmental inequities are tied to social and economic disparities, which are understood as products of systemic racism, classism, and sexism. Many EJ activists and academics perceive the inequitable distribution of environmental injustices on marginalized populations (like BIPOC communities, womxn, individuals experiencing poverty, and people with varying mental and physical abilities) as inevitable outcomes of the discriminatory socio-economic and political conditions of the world today.
EJ is multifaceted and dynamic, and while it often responds to issues of distributive justice (as in the case of unequal distribution of environmental goods and harms), EJ also seeks to address issues of unjust community and legal procedures, as well as justice as it relates to being recognized and respected in society (Schlosberg, 2007). An EJ approach to environmentalism looks to create change at both the personal and institutional levels, often through direct action, to ultimately dismantle environmental injustices and create a just, sustainable, and equitable future for everyone.
Environmental justice has a variety of definitions. Here are some examples of what environmental justice can mean.
Dr. Robert Bullard, the Father of Environmental Justice, defines EJ as ‘ the principle that all people and communities have a right to equal protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations,’ and that the priority of EJ is to ‘reduce environmental, health, economic and racial disparities.’
Greenaction, a non-profit organization geared toward environmental justice, defines EJ as the ‘cultural norms and values, rules, regulations, behaviors, policies, and decisions to support sustainability, where all people can hold with confidence that their community and natural environment is safe and productive.’ They say that EJ is achieved when ‘all people can realize their highest potential, without interruption by environmental racism or inequity,’ and that an EJ community is ‘one in which both cultural and biological diversity are respected, and where there is equal access to institutions and ample resources to grow and prosper.’
The US Environmental Protection Agency defines EJ as ‘the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. This goal will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.’
The US Department of Energy says that EJ means ‘no population bears a disproportionate share of negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations or from the execution of federal, state, and local laws; regulations; and policies.’ They also add that environmental justice requires ‘effective access to decision makers for all, and the ability in all communities to make informed decisions and take positive actions to produce environmental justice for themselves.’
Linking Campus Sustainability Projects to Environmental Justice
The We Mean Green Fund (WMGF) was formed to empower UNT students, faculty and staff to integrate environmental sustainability into the university’s operations, services and campus culture at large. While past community-driven WMGF projects have engaged the UNT community primarily in environmental aspects of sustainability, we’d like to encourage future project leaders to creatively address direct components of environmental sustainability that relate to social inequalities brought on by systematic oppressions like racism, sexism, and classism.
Although funding for We Mean Green Fund projects comes from the student Environmental Service Fee and must support campus environmental improvements, project leaders still have the unique opportunity to link their campus sustainability projects to environmental justice concepts and pose solutions to environmental inequalities through interdisciplinary strategies. Incorporating an environmental justice (EJ) lens into the work of the WMGF is crucial to fostering campus environmental sustainability efforts that serve all people equitably.
Examples of Environmental Justice in Action
While prioritizing EJ themes in WMGF projects is not a requirement, past student and employee project leaders have incorporated elements of EJ into their WMGF projects.
WMGF project leaders can shape equitable sustainability messaging and outreach in their projects by amplifying diverse voices and including those who may feel discounted from current sustainability measures. This can be done through investigating the underlying structures of oppression that can exist within environmental sustainability, as well as how privilege and oppression can influence sustainability.
The UNT Community Garden project which launched in 2017 not only provides additional green space to the campus, enhancing wildlife habitat and providing pollinator-friendly foraging grounds, it also invites students and employees to grow and eat fresh, nutritious food at no cost to them. Students and employees have access to adopt a garden plot and learn how to garden for themselves and others. This food security initiative attempts to decrease hunger by providing access to knowledge and experiences that secure people with healthy food.
Mean Green Gowns for Grads
The Mean Green Gowns for Grads (MGGG) project extends the life cycle of graduation ceremony regalia like caps and gowns through a reuse initiative that prevents used caps and gowns from prematurely entering the landfill. This inclusive program helps alleviate financial barriers for our students who may not otherwise be able to afford to participate in graduation. MGGG supports first-generation college students, DACA students, historically underrepresented students, and low-income students. In addition to sustainable reuse, the goal is to support marginalized and disadvantaged students to progressively achieve greater equality.
Our Commitment to Environmental Justice
The We Mean Green Fund recognizes the roles that colonialism, white supremacy, legacies of stolen labor, exploitation, patriarchy, and oppression play in the mainstream environmental movement and contemporary environmentalism, as well as society at large. While there is still much work to be done, the We Mean Green Fund is committed to helping address environmental injustice through education, project facilitation, outreach, inclusive leadership, and meaningful partnerships. We recognize that our power as an organization is tied to responsibility for justice and that we must address past and current systems of oppression to help build a just, safe, equitable, and sustainable future for all.
We hope to inspire a new wave of interest in building and highlighting EJ solutions and concepts through UNT community led WMGF projects. The WMGF is actively working to spark cross-university conversations about environmental sustainability within the context of EJ and looking to facilitate WMGF projects that engage students and employees with issues of EJ through equity, representation, and access to sustainability. Utilizing this justice framework, students and employees can affect positive social progress in the UNT community, while at the same time bringing environmental improvements to the campus.
Environmental Justice Resources
Media LibraryThe UNT Media Library has various resources available to UNT students and employees, free of charge, related to environmental justice.
The Environmental Justice Guide includes documentaries, movies, books, articles, and games that discuss examples of environmental injustices across the world.
UNT Library SystemThe UNT Library System also has books relevant to environmental justice. E-books, audio, and print options are available depending on the resource.
CoursesUNT offers a variety of courses that teach topics of and related to environmental justice. This list may not be comprehensive, as more classes are added to the course list. Search for the classes on the course catalog to read the descriptions and check for semester availability.
ANTH 4400: Environmental Anthropology
GEOG 2170: Culture, Environment and Society
GEOG 4210: Urban Geography
GEOG 4420/5420: Capitalism, Nature, and Climate Change
PHIL 2500: Environment and Society
PHIL 4740: Environmental Justice
PUBH 3010: Social Justice and Behavioral Foundations in Public Health
PUBH 3025: Environmental Health
SOCI 4260: Environmental Sociology
SOCI 5260/6500: Sustainable Community Development