Environmental justice is a form of social justice

Environmental justice is a form of social justice
May 22, 2017: Democrats and Israeli environmental activists protest against Donald Trump In front of the US Embassy in Tel Aviv. Photo: Shutterstock

Environmental oppression refers to human activities that result in the contamination of the Earth and the environs of space.

The United States government released a National Climate Assessment in 2014 reporting that our global climate is in fact changing, and this is due primarily to human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels. The Assessment team, composed of over 300 scientific experts assisted by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee, investigated approximately 12,000 professional scientific journal papers on the topic of global climate change and discovered that in the articles expressing a position on global warming, 97% authenticated both the reality of global warming and the certainty that humans are the cause.

The report found that between the time span of 1900 to the early 1960s, world temperatures remained virtually stable. However, since that time, the climate of our planet has steadily increased. Scientists who conducted the study estimated that at the current rate of increase, by the year 2100, the world’s average temperatures will increase a full 9 degrees Fahrenheit relative to the early 1960s. Additional studies released after this report sighted the beginning of the depletion and ultimate total collapse of glaciers in Antarctica, which contributes to the worldwide rise of sea levels an additional 4 feet. This depletion is now irreversible.

A report in 2022 (Ripple, et al) from an international team of scientists led by Oregon State University alerted the world that the Earth’s vital signs have reached “code red” and “humanity is unequivocally facing a climate emergency.” These expert scientists found that 16 out of 35 planetary vital signs used to track climate change were at extreme record levels, including heatwaves, rising global tree cover loss due to wildfires, greater incidence of mosquito-borne infectious diseases, melting glaciers and ice sheets giving rise to sea levels that imperil coastal land masses, and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels – which, in 2022, reached 418 parts per million, the highest ever recorded).

In 2015, world leaders came together, and many signed the Paris Climate Accord to work on the vital issues of controlling human-made factors such as the destruction of natural ecosystems and the pumping of toxins into the ground, water, and atmosphere affecting climate change.

The U.S. was a signatory under the Obama administration, but Donald Trump took the U.S. out of the agreement in 2017. When taking office, President Joe Biden’s administration rejoined the Accord. But as more countries continue to adopt policies of governmental deregulations over the corporate and other business sectors, the goals of “Paris” will ultimately fail. 

“Oppression,” a noun, means “the unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power” at the individual/interpersonal, institutional, and larger societal levels. Human treatment of the environment certainly falls under this definition.

I define “social justice” as the concept that local, national, and global communities function where everyone has equal access to and equitable distribution of the rights, benefits, privileges, and resources, and where everyone can live freely unencumbered by social constructions of hierarchical positions of domination and subordination.

This concluding phrase is of prime importance, for when humans place themselves into “hierarchical positions of domination and subordination,” environmental degradation inevitably results. A non-regulated, privatized so-called “free-market” economic system lacking in environmental protections is tantamount to a social system deficient of civil and human rights protections for minoritized peoples.  I have attempted to find a term for environmental oppression that is parallel with other forms of oppression, like racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, adultism, ageism, classism, cissexism, lookism, and ethnocentrism.

Since “environmentalism” refers to concerns for the environment rather than signifying a form of oppression, and I have yet to find an appropriate term, I have coined the term “ecoism.” By extension, actions taken by individuals, groups, organizations, nations, and humanity at large in destroying our planet, we can consider as “ecoist” actions.

Environmental racism

Reverend Benjamin Chavis Jr., the former leader of the NAACP, introduced the term “environmental racism” in 1982 during a series of protests held at the proposed Warren County, North Carolina PCB landfill site. PCBs are human-made organic chemicals consisting of carbon, hydrogen, and chlorine atoms. Chavis explained “environmental racism” as racial discrimination in environmental policy-making and enforcement of regulations and laws; the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic-waste facilities; the official sanctioning of the presence of life-threatening poisons and pollutants in communities of color; and the history of excluding people of color from leadership in the environmental movement.

The case of an oil pipeline (the Dakota Access Pipeline) going through tribal lands in the United States demonstrates an example of “environmental racism.”

Environmental racism is the disproportionate exposure to and impact on communities of color to environmental pollutants, toxins, and other contaminants depriving them of the ecological benefits of clean ground, water, and air. The project, when designed, would carry oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and Montana across the Plains to Illinois. Protestors argued that a completed pipeline would desecrate spiritual ancestral lands, endanger the water supply, and unfairly burden the Standing Rock Sioux nation, which would also gain nothing from any economic development resulting from the project.

Originally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers planned to cross the pipeline under the Missouri River north of Bismarck, North Dakota but decided to reposition the route due to potential threats to the drinking water in the vastly majority-white municipality of Bismarck. The Corps decided, instead, to direct the pipeline under the river just upstream from the northern perimeter of the Standing Rock Sioux nation’s land.

The Corps made its decision after failing its federal mandate to consult with the people who would be most affected by the pipeline: The Standing Rock Sioux people—the “othered” abject bodies who do not matter or matter far less than the white people around Bismarck. Onto these bodies, therefore, “law enforcement” officers justified dousing streaming torrents from giant water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures. They also justified evicting protestors from their lands and incarcerating and prosecuting them.

The United States government set aside this land for the Sioux — land it had previously stolen from native peoples —in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. The placement of the proposed pipeline stands as yet another incident in the long and brutal track record of the dominant group inflicting physical and cultural genocide on the abject bodies who get in the way or challenge patriarchal white supremacy.

Principles of environmental justice

Delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held on October 24-27, 1991 in Washington DC, drafted and adopted 17 principles of Environmental Justice. Since then, The Principles have served as a defining document for the growing grassroots movement for environmental justice:

WE, THE PEOPLE OF COLOR, gathered together at this multinational People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, to begin to build a national and international movement of all peoples of color to fight the destruction and taking of our lands and communities, do hereby re-establish our spiritual interdependence to the sacredness of our Mother Earth; to respect and celebrate each of our cultures, languages and beliefs about the natural world and our roles in healing ourselves; to ensure environmental justice; to promote economic alternatives which would contribute to the development of environmentally safe livelihoods; and, to secure our political, economic and cultural liberation that has been denied for over 500 years of colonization and oppression, resulting in the poisoning of our communities and land and the genocide of our peoples, do affirm and adopt these Principles of Environmental Justice:

1) Environmental Justice affirms the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, and the right to be free from ecological destruction.

2) Environmental Justice demands that public policy be based on mutual respect and justice for all peoples, free from any form of discrimination or bias.

3) Environmental Justice mandates the right to ethical, balanced and responsible uses of land and renewable resources in the interest of a sustainable planet for humans and other living things.

4) 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.

5) Environmental Justice affirms the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all peoples.

6) Environmental Justice demands the cessation of the production of all toxins, hazardous wastes, and radioactive materials, and that all past and current producers be held strictly accountable to the people for detoxification and the containment at the point of production.

7) Environmental Justice demands the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making, including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation.

8) Environmental Justice affirms the right of all workers to a safe and healthy work environment without being forced to choose between an unsafe livelihood and unemployment. It also affirms the right of those who work at home to be free from environmental hazards.

9) Environmental Justice protects the right of victims of environmental injustice to receive full compensation and reparations for damages as well as quality health care.

10) Environmental Justice considers governmental acts of environmental injustice a violation of international law, the Universal Declaration On Human Rights, and the United Nations Convention on Genocide.

11) Environmental Justice must recognize a special legal and natural relationship of Native Peoples to the U.S. government through treaties, agreements, compacts, and covenants affirming sovereignty and self-determination.

12) Environmental Justice affirms the need for urban and rural ecological policies to clean up and rebuild our cities and rural areas in balance with nature, honoring the cultural integrity of all our communities, and providing fair access for all to the full range of resources.

13) Environmental Justice calls for the strict enforcement of principles of informed consent, and a halt to the testing of experimental reproductive and medical procedures and vaccinations on people of color.

14) Environmental Justice opposes the destructive operations of multinational corporations.

15) Environmental Justice opposes military occupation, repression and exploitation of lands, peoples and cultures, and other life forms.

16) Environmental Justice calls for the education of present and future generations which emphasizes social and environmental issues, based on our experience and an appreciation of our diverse cultural perspectives.

17) Environmental Justice requires that we, as individuals, make personal and consumer choices to consume as little of Mother Earth’s resources and to produce as little waste as possible; and make the conscious decision to challenge and reprioritize our lifestyles to ensure the health of the natural world for present and future generations.

* * *

The Proceedings to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit are available from the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, 475 Riverside Dr. Suite 1950, New York, NY 10115.


United States Government. (2014). National Climate Assessment. Retrieved 05/18/2023 at

Ripple, W. J., Wolf, C., Gregg, J. W., Levin, K., Rockström, J., Newsome, T. M., Betts, M. G., Huq, S., Law, B. E., Kemp, L. (2022). World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency, 2022. BioScience, 72(12), 11-49-1155.

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