Communities of color are inundated with landfills, incinerators, waste treatment plants, mines, petrochemical plants, coal-fired power plants, and other polluting industrial facilities. These facilities are more than an eyesore; they are a threat to public health.
They are also an example of what happens when institutional racism takes on an environmental manifestation—something scholars and activists termed environmental racism.
Environmental justice (EJ), then, is the principle that all people and communities are entitled to equal protection of environmental and public health laws and regulations. Drawing on the ideas, strategies, and tactics of the numerous social causes that predated it—civil rights, human rights, public health, labor, and indigenous sovereignty—the EJ movement articulated a vision of change that fused environmental sustainability with social justice to form a model for a society in which humans and the natural world might co-exist through mutual respect and integrity.
EJ activists have endeavored to prevent the establishment of hazardous industries in vulnerable communities and reduce the volume of pollution emitted from existing industries. In addition, they successfully encouraged scholars, NGOs, and the federal government to conduct research on environmental racism, which in most cases confirmed what residents and activists had long suspected: that people of color are threatened with public health risks from toxic industries, compounding the multitude of other social hazards already present in many of these communities.
Climate change has also inspired increased attention within EJ studies. African Americans, Latinos, indigenous communities, and Global South nations contribute comparatively little to the problem of climate change, but bear the brunt of climate disruption in terms of ecological, economic, and health burdens—giving rise to the concept of climate injustice. These populations and communities are on the front lines of climate-change impacts, which may include “natural” disasters such as flooding, hurricanes, and other extreme weather events. The health outcomes of these events include increased rates of respiratory illness and infectious disease, heat-related deaths, and significant spikes in energy costs.
In addition, a number of studies find that people of color in urban areas live in the most intensely heat-stressed neighborhoods and have the fewest resources to cope with heat waves; as a result, the majority of deaths during heat waves occur in urban areas. People of color experience greater heat-related stress and illness than whites and are two times as likely as whites to die in a heat wave. These challenges are expected to intensify in the future as the expansion of global cities continues unabated.
Where we find social inequalities by race and class, we also tend to find environmental inequalities, which are harmful in their material and cultural impacts on human health and social structures, and ecosystems. The institutional violence and discrimination of environmental racism and injustice then are met with a demand for environmental justice—a vision and practice of sustainability that is inseparable from social justice.
David N. Pellow, PhD, is a former Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholar in Health Policy Research, and currently the Don Martindale Professor of Sociology and American Studies at the University of Minnesota. His teaching and research focus on environmental and ecological justice in the U.S. and globally. He is the author of Resisting Global Toxics: Transnational Movements for Environmental Justice.