Environmental Justice

Environmental Justice is defined as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, concerning the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. It 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 to live, learn, and work.

During the 1980s, minority groups protested that hazardous waste sites were preferentially in minority neighborhoods. In 1987, Benjamin Chavis of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racism and Justice coined environmental racism to describe such a practice. The charges generally failed to consider whether the facility or the area’s demography came first. Most hazardous waste sites are located on a property used as disposal sites long before modern facilities and disposal methods were available. Areas around such sites are typically depressed economically, often due to past disposal activities. Low-income people are often constrained to live in undesirable but affordable areas. The problem more likely resulted from insensitivity rather than racism. Indeed, the ethnic makeup of potential disposal facilities was most likely not considered when the sites were chosen.

Decisions in citing hazardous waste facilities are generally made based on economics, geological suitability, and the political climate. For example, a site must have a soil type and geological profile that prevents hazardous materials from moving into local aquifers. The cost of land is also an important consideration. The high cost of buying land would make it economically unfeasible to build a hazardous waste site in Beverly Hills. Some communities have seen hazardous waste facilities as a way of improving their local economy and quality of life. Emelle County, Alabama, had illiteracy and infant mortality rates that were among the highest in the nation. A landfill constructed there provided jobs and revenue that ultimately helped to reduce both figures.

There would be no hazardous waste facilities in an ideal world, but we do not live in an ideal world. Unfortunately, we live in a world plagued by rampant pollution and the dumping of hazardous waste. Our industrialized society has necessarily produced waste while manufacturing products for our basic needs. Until technology can find a way to manage (or eliminate) hazardous waste, disposal facilities will be necessary to protect both humans and the environment. By the same token, this problem must be addressed. Industry and society must become more socially sensitive in selecting future hazardous waste sites. All humans who help produce hazardous wastes must share the burden of dealing with those wastes, not just people experiencing poverty and minorities.

Indigenous People

Since the end of the 15th century, established nations have claimed and colonized most of the world’s frontiers. Invariably, these conquered frontiers were home to people indigenous to those regions. Unfortunately, indigenous people were wiped out or assimilated by the invaders, while others survived while trying to maintain their unique cultures and way of life. As a result, the United Nations officially classifies indigenous people as “having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies” and “consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories or parts of them.” Furthermore, indigenous people are “determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations, their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions, and legal systems.” A few of the many groups of indigenous people around the world are the many tribes of Native Americans (i.e., Navajo, Sioux) in the contiguous 48 states, the Inuit of the arctic region from Siberia to Canada, the rainforest tribes in Brazil, and the Ainu of northern Japan.

Many problems face indigenous people, including the lack of human rights, exploitation of their traditional lands and themselves, and degradation of their culture. In response to the problems faced by these people, the United Nations proclaimed an “International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People” beginning in 1994. According to the United Nations, this proclamation’s main objective is “the strengthening of international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous people in such areas as human rights, the environment, development, health, culture, and education.” Its major goal is to protect the rights of indigenous people. Such protection would enable them to retain their cultural identities, such as their language and social customs, while participating in the political, economic, and social activities of the region in which they reside.

Despite the lofty U.N. goals, the rights and feelings of indigenous people are often ignored or minimized, even by supposedly culturally sensitive developed countries. For example, in the United States, many of those in the federal government are pushing to exploit oil resources in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the northern coast of Alaska. The “Gwich’in,” an indigenous people who rely culturally and spiritually on the herds of caribou that live in the region, claims that drilling in the area would devastate their way of life. Thousands of years of culture would be destroyed for a few months’ oil supply. Drilling efforts have been stymied in the past, but mostly out of concern for environmental factors and not necessarily the needs of the indigenous people. Curiously, another group of indigenous people, the “Inupiat Eskimo,” favor oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They would potentially reap economic benefits from the region’s development because they own considerable amounts of land adjacent to the refuge.

Image of an Inuit Woman taken in the year 1907
Figure 1. An Inupiaq woman, Nome, Alaska, c. 1907. Credit: This work is in the Public Domain, CC0

The heart of most environmental conflicts governments face usually involves what constitutes proper and sustainable levels of development. For many indigenous peoples, sustainable development includes an integrated wholeness, where no single action is separate from others. They believe that sustainable development requires the maintenance and continuity of life from generation to generation and that humans are not isolated entities but are part of larger communities, which include the seas, rivers, mountains, trees, fish, animals, and ancestral spirits. These, along with the sun, moon, and cosmos, constitute a whole. From the point of view of indigenous people, sustainable development is a process that must integrate spiritual, cultural, economic, social, political, territorial, and philosophical ideals.

Suggested Supplementary Reading

Miller, E. “Flint Water Crisis: A Turning Point For Environmental Justice.” WOSU Public Media.<http://radio.wosu.org/post/flint-water-crisis-\ turning-point-environmental-justice#stream/0>


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Introduction to Environmental Sciences and Sustainability Copyright © 2023 by Emily P. Harris is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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