The environmental justice movement (2023)

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Environmental justice is an important part of the fight to improve and maintain a clean and healthy environment, especially for those who traditionally live, work and play closest to sources of pollution.

March 17, 2016 Renée Skelton Mueller painting

The environmental justice movement, fueled primarily by African American, Latino, Asian, Islander, and Pacific Native Americans, addresses a statistical fact: the people who live, work, and play in America's most polluted environments often are poor colored people. Environmental justice advocates have shown that this is no coincidence. Black communities, which are often poor, are often the target of facilities that have negative environmental impacts, such as landfills, dirty industrial plants, or truck depots. The statistics unequivocally support what the movement rightly calls “environmental racism.” Communities of Color have struggled with this injustice for decades.

sparks of movement

Poor, rural, and mostly black Warren County, North Carolina seems an unlikely place for a political movement to birth. But when the state government decided the county would be the perfect home for 6,000 truckloads of soil spiked with toxic PCBs, the county became the focus of national attention.

Dump trucks first entered Warren County in mid-September 1982, heading to a newly constructed hazardous waste disposal site in the small community of Afton. But many frustrated residents and their allies, angry that state officials have dismissed concerns about PCB leaks into drinking water supplies, rushed to the trucks. And they were stopped and lay on the roads leading to the landfill. Six weeks of nonviolent demonstrations and street protests followed, and over 500 people were arrested, the first arrests in US history for the location of a landfill.

Warren County residents eventually lost the battle; the toxic waste ended up in this landfill. But her story of ordinary people taking desperate measures to protect their homes from a toxic attack has caught national media attention and ignited the imagination of people across the country who have suffered a similar injustice. The street protests and lawsuits by Warren County residents over the dumping operation are seen by many as the first major milestone in the national environmental justice movement.

(Video) A Brief History of Environmental Justice

Other communities of color organized to counter environmental threats off Warren County. In the early 1960s, Latino farm workers organized by César Chávez fought for labor rights, including protection from harmful pesticides, on farmlands in California's San Joaquin Valley. In 1967, African American students took to the streets of Houston to protest a garbage dump in their community that had killed two children. In 1968, residents of West Harlem, New York City campaigned unsuccessfully for the site of a sewage treatment plant in their community. But the Warren County protests were the first instance of an environmental protest by people of color to garner widespread national attention.

The facts of environmental racism

For civil rights activists watching events in Warren County, the actions of the North Carolina state government to force a toxic waste dump on a small African-American community were a continuation of the racism they had faced for decades in the areas of housing and education. and employment. But this time it was soEnvironmentRacism.

Afton's protests revived a new faction within the civil rights movement that saw the environment as another front in the fight for justice. Many of the early leaders of environmental justice emerged from the civil rights movement. They brought to the environmental movement the same tactics they used in civil rights struggles: marches, petitions, rallies, coalition building, community empowerment through education, litigation, and nonviolent direct action. Many veterans of the civil rights movement, often associated with black churches, turned up in Afton and helped draw national media attention. Among them were Rev. Ben Chavis and Rev. Joseph Lowery, then of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Rev. Leon White of the United Church of Christ Commission on Racial Justice.

After the Afton protests, environmental justice activists looked around the country and saw a pattern: polluting facilities are often located in poor communities of color. Nobody wants to have a factory, a landfill or a diesel bus depot as their neighbour. But corporate decision-makers, regulators, and local planning and zoning authorities learned that these facilities were easier to find in low-income African American or Hispanic communities than in middle-income, mostly white communities. Poor communities of color often lacked connections to decision-makers in zone committees or city councils who could protect their interests. Often they were unable to afford the technical and legal expertise they would need to contest a subpoena. They often did not have access to information about how pollution from their new "neighbor" would affect people's health. And in the case of Latino communities, critical information in English-only documents was out of reach of affected Spanish-speaking residents.

Several studies published in the 1980s and early 1990s gave new credence to claims of environmental racism. Walter Fauntroy, a congressional delegate for the District of Columbia and then chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, attended the protests in Afton. When Fauntroy returned to Washington, he tasked the Congressional Accounting General's Office with determining whether communities of color were being disproportionately negatively impacted by the location and construction of hazardous waste sites within them. The GAO study, published in 1983, found that three-fourths of the hazardous waste sites in eight southeastern states were located primarily in poor, African American and Hispanic communities.

Further evidence of environmental racism came through the efforts of the United Church of Christ's Racial Justice Commission (CRJ), led by the Reverend Benjamin Chavis, who was also with the Afton protesters. With Chavis directing, the CRJ releasedToxic waste and race in the United States, a 1987 report that has become an indispensable tool for strengthening support for environmental justice action. The report, prepared by UCC Research Director Charles Lee, showed that race was the most important factor in determining where hazardous waste facilities were located in the United States. We also found that because of the strong statistical correlation between the reason and the location of hazardous landfills, the location of these assets in communities of color was not accidental, but the intended result of local, state, and federal land use policies. And in 1990, the sociologist Robert BullardThrown into Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Qualityanalyzed the struggles for environmental justice in various African American communities; The stories emphasized the importance of race as a factor in finding facilities that produce unwanted toxic substances.

find new allies

In the 1990s, leaders of the burgeoning environmental justice movement began to look to traditional, mostly white, environmental organizations for allies. These were groups that have long fought to protect nature, endangered species, clean air and clean water. But they had little or no involvement in the environmental struggles of people of color, who were constantly attacked by neighboring hazardous waste sites, garbage transfer stations, incinerators, landfills, bus and diesel truck repair shops. Industry sectors. Chicken processors, oil refineries, chemical manufacturers and radioactive waste storage areas. That year, several environmental justice leaders signed a widely circulated letter to the "Big 10" environmental groups, including the NRDC, accusing them of racial bias in policy development, hiring and the composition of their boards, and urging them to address issues. poisonous. Pollution in communities and workplaces of black and poor. As a result, some of the leading environmental organizations developed their first environmental justice initiatives, added people of color to their team, and decided to consider environmental justice in policy making.

Environmental justice leaders have also pushed their agenda within government. In 1990, a group of leading scholars and supporters of the movement sent letters to Louis Sullivan and William Reilly, both senior officials in the first Bush administration, to share some of their findings on the disproportionate impact of environmentally harmful facilities. The letters asked for meetings to discuss necessary government action. Sullivan, who is African American, ignored the letter. Reilly accepted the offer and met with the group later that year, a meeting that led to the formation of the US EPA's Office of Environmental Equity.

In October 1991, the growth of the environmental justice movement was evident when the first National Summit of People of Color Environmental Leadership was held in Washington, D.C. for three days. The summit brought together for the first time hundreds of environmental justice leaders from the US, Canada, Central America, the Marshall Islands and beyond to network and strategize. But the roster, which included Reverend Jesse Jackson, Dolores Huerta, Cherokee Tribe President Wilma Mankiller, and directors of the NRDC and the Sierra Club, also showed that environmental justice was embraced by many in the mainstream. . In addition, the Summit produced the Principles of Environmental Justice and the Call to Action, two key documents of the environmental justice movement.

National Recognition

When Bill Clinton became president in 1992, it was clear that environmental justice was becoming an increasingly important issue for leaders in a core constituency of the Democratic Party. Clinton appointed two environmental justice leaders, Rev. Benjamin Chavis and Dr. Robert Bullard, to his natural resources transition team, where they helped make environmental justice an important part of Clinton's stated environmental policy.

Environmental justice eventually became federal policy during the Clinton administration. Before leaders of the movement across the country, including then-NRDC Director of Environmental Justice Vernice Miller-Travis, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898 in the Oval Office on February 11, 1994, setting out their policies, or programs, for low-income people of color. It also directed federal agencies to look for ways to prevent discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in all state-funded programs that deal with health or the environment.

Today and tomorrow

Since dump trucks arrived in Afton, North Carolina more than 20 years ago, many community environmental justice organizations have sprung up. Today, many of these groups have become powerful and enduring forces for environmental protection and social change in their communities:

  • Concerned Citizens of South Central (Los Angeles), a housing and community development company that led the fight against the now infamous LANCER incinerator in the late 1980s, provides leadership on environmental issues and a host of other social justice issues.
  • West Harlem Environmental Action was formed in 1998 to address the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant site and has led action on many other environmental issues in New York City and upstate New York.
  • Through the Louisiana Avatar Project, coordinated by the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, rural parishes in Louisiana's Cancer Alley have made great strides in outreach, research and intervention in hundreds of environmental actions to protect communities from further degradation and destruction.
  • The Mothers of East L.A., originally organized to block the site of a prison in the East Los Angeles community, turned their attention to opposition to a hazardous waste incinerator and then took on other local social and environmental issues.

Traditional environmental groups have also formed associations to support environmental justice organizations in many of their struggles. Groups like the NRDC often provide technical advice and resources to environmental justice organizations, provide expert testimony at hearings, and participate in litigation. These partnerships are ongoing success stories in many parts of the country.

Environmental justice remains an important part of the struggle to improve and maintain a clean and healthy environment, especially for those who have traditionally lived, worked and played closest to the sources of pollution.

Correction: On August 3rd, 2020 this story was updated with the correct name of the Los Angeles Incinerator project, LANCER.

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What are environmental justice movements? ›

Environmental justice is a social movement to address the unfair exposure of poor and marginalized communities to harms from hazardous waste, resource extraction, and other land uses.

What is the environmental justice movement and why is it important? ›

Environmental justice is an important part of the struggle to improve and maintain a clean and healthful environment, especially for those who have traditionally lived, worked and played closest to the sources of pollution. Protestors block the delivery of toxic PCB waste to a landfill in Afton, North Carolina, 1982.

What is the focus of the environmental justice movement? ›

The environmental justice movement was started by individuals, primarily people of color, who sought to address the inequity of environmental protection in their communities.

What does the environmental justice movement promote? ›

The EJ movement is an inter-generational, multi-racial and international movement that promotes environmental, economic and social justice by recognizing the direct link between economic, environmental and health issues and demanding a safe, clean community and workplace environment.

What started the environmental justice movement? ›

The initial environmental justice spark sprang from a Warren County, North Carolina, protest. In 1982, a small, predominately African-American community was designated to host a hazardous waste landfill. This landfill would accept PCB-contaminated soil that resulted from illegal dumping of toxic waste along roadways.

What are the three 3 components of environmental justice? ›

In this paper we show how the topic of social impacts of conservation can be divided into the concern for three types of justice: 1) distributive justice; 2) procedural justice; and 3) what we call sense of justice.

What is environmental justice in simple terms? ›

Environmental Justice - The right to a safe, healthy, productive, and sustainable environment for all, where "environment" is considered in its totality to include the ecological (biological), physical (natural and built), social, political, aesthetic, and economic environments.

What did the environmental movement accomplish? ›

The existing Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were amended to better address the causes and effects of pollution, and regulatory measures were put into place. Between 1972 and 1976, several new federal acts were also passed, regulating ocean dumping, pesticides, and the transportation of waste.

What incident kicked off the environmental justice movement in 1982? ›

In September of 1982, over 500 people were arrested while protesting a landfill. 5 Residents were concerned about the leaching of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) into water supplies. This kicked off 6 weeks of protests and sparked a movement.

What was the main concern of the environmental movement? ›

The modern Environmental movement, which began in the 1960s with concern about air and water pollution, became broader in scope to include all landscapes and human activities.

What is environmental justice summary? ›

Environmental justice is 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.

What is an example of an environmental justice issue? ›

The Flint Water Crisis

Some examples of environmental injustice are well-known in political and popular culture. The situation in Flint, Michigan, is one of the leading examples. Flint is a town in Michigan that faces major water contamination and lead exposure thanks to the actions of its government.

What issues can environmental justice help solve? ›

Problems that environmental justice helps solve include, for example: Fair treatment of all, regardless of color, race, or socioeconomic status. Adequate access to healthy food. Ensuring clean water and air in all communities.

Who was responsible for the environmental movement? ›

June 1962: "Silent Spring"Rachel Carson's Silent Spring is published. Acclaimed as the catalyst of the modern environmental movement, Silent Spring condemns the overuse of pesticides.

What are 2 environmental issues that could lead to environmental injustice? ›

Pollution, climate change, and more have stripped from these communities the right to their most basic needs: clean water, food, air, and safe housing. Here's a look at how these issues spurred the environmental justice movement—and how much work still needs to be done.

What are the 5 important environmental laws? ›

Clean Air Act Of 1999 (RA 8749) Ecological Solid Waste Management Act (RA 9003) Clean Water Act (RA 9275) Environmental Awareness And Education Act Of 2009 (RA 9512)

What are 3 social issues that could lead to environmental injustice? ›

The most 4 social issues that could lead to environmental injustice is Anti-Social behavior, Poverty, Drug-abuse, racial discrimination.

What are the two principles of environmental justice? ›

The principles of environmental justice are to: Increase ecological protection and safety within disadvantaged communities. Expand cultural awareness and address potential language barriers.

Which environment movement was most successful? ›

Chipko Movement, 1973

The 1980s saw the debate on environment move from just deforestation to the larger issues of depletion of natural resources.

What caused the environmental movement in the 1960s? ›

Growing Environmental Consciousness

Images of the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California fueled outrage over environmental issues. Rachel Carson's bestselling book Silent Spring, published in 1962, introduced many Americans to the devastating effects of the large-scale use of pesticides, especially DDT.

What environmental movement started in 1983? ›

Appiko Movement was started in 1983. Chipko Movement was started in 1973.

In what state did the environmental justice movement begin? ›


It is widely recognized that one prominent wave of the environmental justice movement first gained traction in 1982 in a predominately African-American community in Warren County, North Carolina.

What was the environmental movement in 1980s? ›

Saving the Ozone Layer

It turned out there was a hole in the ozone layer caused by CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons, which were commonly found in aerosol items like hairspray, as well as refrigerants and foams. The news alarmed the American public. And by the 1980s, activists called for a global ban on CFCs.

Who started the first environmental movement? ›

In 1892, John Muir founded the Sierra Club in the US to protect the country's wilderness. Seventy years later, a chapter of the Sierra Club in western Canada broke away to become more active. This was the beginning of Greenpeace.

What is the example of environmental movement? ›

Chipko Movement started on April 24, 1973, at Mandal of Chamoli district of Gharwal division of Uttarakhand. The Chipko is one of the world-known environmental movements in India. The movement was raised out of ecological destabilisation in the hills.

What is environmental justice and when did it first start? ›

The environmental justice movement emerged in the late 1980s when a blistering report exposed massive disparities in the burden of environmental degradation and pollution facing minority and low-income communities.

How do you explain environmental justice to a child? ›

Justice means fair treatment—fair treatment for everyone! So Environmental Justice is a new term that simply means making sure that everyone has a fair chance of living the healthiest life possible.

Why is environmental justice a social justice issue? ›

Social justice aims to ensure fair treatment of individuals and groups. The concept of social justice is that every group or individual receives a fair share of social and economic benefits, as well as environmental benefits. As such, environmental justice is an integral part of social justice.

How does environmental justice affect our society? ›

Environmental justice is important because it is a basic human right. It allows everyone to have some level of agency over the decisions that impact their lives. Without environmental justice, many people are made to be victims of the plans and ambitions of others.

Who is most affected by environmental justice? ›

Environmental injustice and environmental racism are unacceptable and cause detrimental health conditions, as well as premature deaths, in communities across the United States. Unfortunately, it is often the most at-risk in society who are affected by environmental injustice, including minority and poor communities.

How is environmental justice a human rights issue? ›

Domestic and international tribunals have concluded that failure to protect the environment violates a variety of human rights (including the rights to life, health, food, water, property, and privacy; the collective rights of indigenous peoples to their ancestral lands and resources; and the right to a healthy ...

What are some examples of environmental justice? ›

Environmental Justice Examples

Equal access to natural resources to achieve sustainable development (to meet needs without compromising future generations). The reduction of ecological and social inequalities. The equitable payment of the ecological debt.

What are some examples of environmental related political movements? ›

Activations like the School Strike for Climate and Fridays for Future have led to a new generation of youth activists like Greta Thunberg, Jamie Margolin, and Vanessa Nakate. They have created a global youth climate movement.

What are the elements of the environmental justice movement? ›

Environmental justice calls for universal protection from nuclear testing, extraction, production and disposal of toxic/hazardous wastes and poisons and nuclear testing that threaten the fundamental right to clean air, land, water, and food.


1. Environmental justice | Social Inequality | MCAT | Khan Academy
2. Climate Justice And Human Rights Explained
(Amnesty International)
3. Ask a Scientist LIVE: How can social & environmental justice movements build political power?
(Extinction Rebellion UK)
4. Community Collaboration on Climate Change to hold first public event
5. What is Environmental Justice?
(Center for Earth Energy and Democracy)
6. Environmental Justice: Then and Now | The New School
(The New School)


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