When you first learned about the climate crisis, what did you hear? In my high school environmental science class, we talked extensively about the possible extinction of polar bears due to sea level rise and the chance of a silent spring due to the biodiversity crisis. While these issues are of grave importance, they felt very distant and unrelated to the everyday issues I saw in my hometown of Durham, North Carolina. The movement around climate crisis felt like a faraway issue—temporally and spatially—so I engaged in other social movements that felt more pressing. It wasn’t until I learned about environmental justice that I developed a language to describe some of the intersectional issues that I’d experienced, such as my home being closer to a landfill than a decent grocery store, and began to reconnect with my environment and my community in a more meaningful way.
Environmental justice, a term coined by Robert Bullard, Paul Mohai, Robin Saha, and Beverly Wright in the 1980s, describes the equitable distribution of environmental benefits and harms experienced as a result of rectifying systems of oppression. In the groundbreaking work “Toxic Waste and Race,” Bullard et al. argued that across the US South, landfills were disproportionately sited in low-income communities of color—leading to disparate human health impacts, lower economic value of property, and less greenspace available for these communities. While the concept of environmental justice has been understood for centuries, it wasn’t until the convergence of the US Civil Rights, Chicano, LGBTQ+, and Feminist movements that the specific intersection around race, class, gender, and environment became better understood systemically and institutionally. This reading list provides an overview of the most pressing issues, questions, and discourses in environmental justice.
Laura Pulido and Devon Peña, “Environmentalism and Positionality: The Early Pesticide Campaign of the United Farm Workers’ Organizing Committee, 1965–71.” Race, Gender & Class 6, no. 1 (1998): 33–50.
Pulido and Peña unpack what it means for an environmental issue to become one of environmental justice. Is it at the intersection of environmental and social concerns? Or is it defined by the socio-economic status of the participations? In this process of what the authors deemed as issue identification, positionality is key. Positionality refers to an individual’s unique perspective due to lived experiences, worldviews, and their identity. Pulido and Peña problematize how an environmental justice issue comes about, using the case study of the Early Pesticide Campaign of the United Farm Worker’s Organizing Committee. Anti-pesticide movements haven’t necessarily been considered a “movement” within environmental justice. That is, not until it was recognized that farm workers experience harm from pesticides at a “confluence of forces” dictated by race and class. It was this combination of viewpoints and backgrounds that turned the anti-pesticide movement from one of purely ecological underpinnings to one of social justice.
Manuel Pastor, Robert Bullard, James K. Boyce, Alice Fothergill, Rachel Morello-Frosch, and Beverly Wright, “Environment, Disaster, and Race After Katrina,” Race, Poverty & the Environment 13, no. 1 (2006): 21–26.
Pastor et al. redefine the concept of a natural “disaster”—interrogating whether it’s the hazard itself or the social systems in place that turn a hazard into a disaster. The authors make clear that Hurricane Katrina exposed the racialized, gendered, and classist underpinnings of US institutions and systems. Pastor’s research team draws upon the lived experiences of different communities across Louisiana to understand the disparate impact of Katrina, centering attention on the power asymmetries that caused different levels of disaster vulnerability and impact. Post-Katrina, they demonstrate that systems of governance perpetuated the crisis by continuing to under-provision social services and basic needs to communities most impacted by the hurricane.
Eric Holt-Giménez and Yi Wang, “Reform or Transformation? The Pivotal Role of Food Justice in the U.S. Food Movement,” Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts 5, no. 1 (2011): 83–102.
Environmental justice is inextricably linked to the calls for food security, food sovereignty, and food justice. One-sixth of the US population is designated as food insecure. Holt-Giménez and Wang trace the political economy of food injustice in the US, finding that the foundational issues for the disproportionate distribution of safe, healthy, culturally relevant foods are the corporate food regime, globalization, and free trade. Holt-Giménez and Wang argue that without solutions that address these systems directly, they remain merely reforms in a movement that demands revolution. The authors question how a food revolution could materialize, exploring avenues for community food sovereignty including local food supply chains and family farming.
Robert D. Bullard and Beverly Hendrix Wright, “The Politics of Pollution: Implications for the Black Community,” Phylon (1960-) 47, no. 1 (1986): 71–78.
Clean air is vital to human health and wellbeing and ecosystem functioning. It’s often overlooked and taken for granted in policy spaces, which allows for polluting facilities to exist in places where there is a “path of least resistance.” Bullard and Wright observe that these areas are typically politically disempowered, poorer, and disproportionately home to Black people. This has allowed for vulnerable communities to become “sacrifice zones,” where landfills, incinerators, smelters, and US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated Superfund sites are located, despite the health and economic impacts on surrounding communities. Bullard and Wright draw upon case studies from Houston, Texas, and North Carolina to interrogate how institutionalized racism affects the politics of pollution.
Melanie Barron, “Remediating a Sense of Place: Memory and Environmental Justice in Anniston, Alabama,” Southeastern Geographer 57, no. 1 (2017): 62–79.
Environmental injustices cannot, and should not, be devoid from space and place. Barron, in a story-like fashion, engages with the legacy of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) pollution left by the Monsanto Company in Anniston, Alabama, and the “violence of forgetting” by systems of governance that have created vulnerability in West Anniston’s Black community. The legacy has materialized in human health consequences, as “Anniston residents are routinely cited in EPA documentation as having the highest levels of PCBs in their blood of any known population.” Barron deems this lack of investment in environmental and pollution remediation measures a “slow violence” against the people of West Anniston and understands this inaction as the “erasure of Black life.”
Pavithra Vasudevan and Sara Smith, “The Domestic Geopolitics of Racial Capitalism,” Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space 38, no. 7–8 (2020): 1160–1179.
Drawing upon lived experiences from Badin, North Carolina, and Flint, Michigan, Vasudevan and Smith explore how the racialized burden of living in toxicity is embodied at work and at home. By being in community with smelt workers in Badin, North Carolina, and activists in Flint, Michigan, the authors are able to explain how toxic exposure has rendered these communities as “sacrifice zones and colonial subjects…not citizenry.” The authors define this analytical lens as “domestic geopolitics,” revealing how racialized communities within the US operate as internal colonies within the nation’s borders. Framing the issue as domestic geopolitics also allows the reader to understand how environmental injustices such as toxicity permeate the “intimate sphere of social life that constitutes the home, family, and community.”
Chelsea Grimmer, “Racial Microbiopolitics: Flint Lead Poisoning, Detroit Water Shut Offs, and The ‘Matter’ of Enfleshment,” The Comparatist 41 (2017): 19–40.
Michel Foucault, famed philosopher of political economy, coined the term biopolitics, defining it as the power of a system, institution, or individual to “make live and let die.” This term has been used to describe how institutions, particularly governing bodies, are informed by systems of oppression to render some bodies as worthy of living and others as forgettable. Grimmer builds upon Foucault’s theory of power to understand how the Flint Water Crisis operated as what she deems racial microbiopolitics, or “the mattering of lives at the level of the flesh’s relationship to life and its molecular registers.” The Flint Water Crisis arose from an attempt to secure cheap, maltreated water for the predominantly low-income community of color that is Flint, Michigan, resulting in the lead poisoning of the community by the lead piping system. Rather than positing the crisis as the fault of simple mismanagement, Grimmer challenges the reader to interpret it as a form of violence against the people of Flint, materialized at the molecular level.
Carolyn Finney, Wairimü Njambi, Audrey Peterman, William O’Brien, “Race and Parks,” View 18 (2018): 52–57.
Visitors to national parks, conservation areas, and greenspace in urban areas tend to be overwhelmingly white and well-off and disproportionately underrepresent other ethnic minorities. “Race and Parks” brings together three scholars of critical race theory and environmental justice for a roundtable discussion on why these disparities exist and how to overcome them. Njambi and Finney both note how these visitation patterns are informed by a history of white supremacy, exclusion, segregation, and violence, leading African Americans to have a warped connection with natural spaces. Finney additionally dives into the coloniality of enclosing natural spaces, questioning “who becomes invisible, forgotten and erased in the stories about land and belonging?” Issues of ownership, discovery, memory, and legacies are interrogated in this conversation.
Salvatore Saporito and Daniel Casey, “Are There Relationships Among Racial Segregation, Economic Isolation, and Proximity to Green Space?” Human Ecology Review 21, no. 2 (2015): 113–32.
Saporito and Casey explore the question of correlation between racial segregation, economic opportunity, and proximity to environmental benefits, specifically looking at urban landscapes. Greenspace provides humans with innumerable environmental services, such as carbon dioxide sequestration, natural cooling (mitigating the urban heat island effect), water and air quality improvement, natural hazard defense, and stormwater management. Using data from the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index, which signifies where healthy vegetation is via remote sensing, the authors analyze several US cities to discover where there were differences in exposure to vegetation between and among racial and economic groups. While their results indicate a statistically significant relationship between these variables, there are some key limitations to their study that restrict the conclusions that can be drawn from it. Research such as this indicates that there’s a need for more qualitative and quantitative data exploring the explanatory relationship between racial segregation, socio-economic status, and proximity to environmental benefits, such as greenspace.
Kyle Whyte, “Settler Colonialism, Ecology, and Environmental Injustice,” Environment and Society 9 (2018): 125–44.
The United States is a settler-colonial state, meaning that it’s occupied by permanent settlements of colonizers that have sought the displacement and replacement of Indigenous communities to create a dominant society that exercises full political, economic, and cultural control. Whyte looks at two ways settler colonialism and environmental justice intersect: vicious sedimentation and insidious loops. Drawing upon Anishinaabe intellectual traditions, Whyte explores the concept of collective continuance—a way of maintaining Indigenous social resilience and autonomy. He explains how acts of environmental injustice undermined Indigenous collective continuance, such as the depiction of Indigenous lands as empty, yet savage, therefore deserving of domination. He concludes by providing a theoretical outline of how to facilitate justice and reconciliation despite a settler colonial legacy.