What is Environmental Justice?

At yesterday’s SEJC meeting Carl Kruhm asked the following question: What is a good, concise definition of Environmental Justice?

Many documents describe examples of environmental injustice.  Advocates of environmental justice make the argument that the poor and often people of color suffer a disproportionate burden of adverse environmental effects, and do not enjoy the same protections for a healthy and safe environment accorded to many in our society. In fact, there is an entire on-line journal entitled Environmental Justice (1), which publishes articles on adverse health and environmental burdens suffered by the marginalized people of the world.  On a global scale, it is also the case that people in developing nations suffer a disproportionate impact of the adverse effects of climate change, even though they contributed less, or perhaps not even at all, to the human activities that are causing climate change.

Environmental justice seeks to correct these injustices.   The Ware Lecture delivered by Van Jones at the 2008 UUA General Assembly (2)  made a strong statement about correcting environmental inequities, and also argues that as we enter a new era of sustainable development, all people must be included in the economic benefits of that development, including the marginalized, the poor, and people of color.

There are as many definitions as there are web sites addressing the issue.  The EPA uses the following definition: “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” (3), and most federal agencies use a similarly worded definition.  Wikipedia, that fount of all knowledge, describes ” a social movement in the United States whose focus is on the fair distribution of environmental benefits and burdens.”

I actually like the simplicity of the Wikipedia definition, and one could certainly settle for a short and sweet definition:  “Environmental justice is the fair distribution of environmental benefits and burdens”.  And I like the inclusion of the notion of protection, often included in many definitions.  And most of all, I like the UU affirmation of respect and love, and that we stand on the side of love for environmental justice, and I feel that the definition should stress the positive.   Although the world is currently at a turning point, facing the huge challenge of environmental and social problems accompanying global warming, I am optimistic.  So I came up with the following definition of environmental justice to ponder for a while:  “Equal access for all to a green and safe environment, and to the economic benefits of sustainable development.”


1.  Environmental Justice

2. Ware Lecture by Van Jones, General Assembly 2008

3.  US EPA Environmental Justice