As environmental justice goes mainstream, environmental justice advocates and practitioners must remain grounded in our political history and steadfast in our commitments to advancing outcomes and solutions, not just improving processes.
by Grant Gutierrez
You might say environmental justice is having something of a renaissance in mainstream environmental politics in the United States. Since the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, broad swathes of the American political landscape have embraced movements for justice. With this momentum, environmental justice has been catapulted onto the main stage of the mainstream environmental movement.
From the halls of Congress to local community meetings, the idea that every person, regardless of their background, deserves to live in a healthy environment is gaining traction, honoring the basic tenets and history of the environmental justice movement rooted in civil rights traditions. For example, the Biden administration recently signed a new executive order titled “Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All,” and EPA Administrator Michael Regan appointed longtime environmental justice activist, advocate, and professor of law Robin Morris Collin as senior advisor on environmental justice. In Washington State, Gov. Inslee signed the Healthy Environment for All Act (HEAL) in 2021, which essentially creates a mandate for covered state agencies to implement environmental justice reforms.
These are all positive developments that recognize the movement’s roots and represent government institutions putting their money where their mouth is, so to speak. But environmental justice advocates also have concerns about the risks involved as the movement goes mainstream.
Environmental justice has been a crucial issue for Communities of Color, low-income communities, and Indigenous communities for decades. These communities have built a movement that has fought against environmental racism, the unequal distribution of environmental benefits and harms, and the exploitation of marginalized communities for the profit of polluting industries.
But the environmental justice movement has been largely overlooked and marginalized by the mainstream environmental movement, which has been dominated by white, middle-class environmentalists focused on issues like land conservation and biodiversity protection. However, in recent years, more and more people have become aware of the disproportionate impact of environmental degradation on marginalized communities.
This shift has been driven by a growing awareness of the interconnectedness of social and environmental justice issues, as well as the recognition that the fight against climate change must be rooted in principles of equity and justice. The mainstream environmental movement has started to recognize the importance of centering marginalized communities and has begun to work more closely with environmental justice organizations to build a more inclusive and equitable movement.
One reason for this renewed attention is the growing awareness of the unequal impacts of climate change. Low-income communities and Communities of Color are more likely to live in areas vulnerable to extreme weather events, such as floods and hurricanes, and are more likely to suffer the health consequences of air pollution and other environmental hazards. As those of us in Seattle might remember, this was particularly acute in the Duwamish Valley in December 2022, when King Tide flooding devastated community members in South Park.
Another reason for the increased attention to environmental justice is the growing recognition that the environmental movement has not always been inclusive. Historically, the mainstream environmental movement has been dominated by white, middle-class individuals, and has often neglected the concerns of low-income and minority communities. As a result, environmental justice advocates have pushed for a more inclusive approach that centers the voices and experiences of those most affected by environmental harm.
As the idea of environmental justice goes mainstream, some advocates are concerned the movement will be co-opted by powerful interests, such as corporations and government agencies, that will use it as a way to deflect criticism and maintain the status quo. This is not an unfounded fear. History has shown that social movements can be co-opted by those in power who use the language of justice and equality to advance their own interests.
Another concern is that environmental justice will become a buzzword, used by politicians and corporations to give the appearance of concern for marginalized communities while doing little to address the underlying issues (read: corporations like Microsoft creating environmental justice positions and programs). This is sometimes referred to as “greenwashing,” and it is a real danger in a society where image and perception often matter more than substance. Like the word “sustainability,” environmental justice advocates cannot let the term come to mean everything and therefore nothing as it gains traction in mainstream environmental politics.
A third concern is that environmental justice will be reduced to a narrow set of technical solutions, such as emissions trading or renewable energy credits, that fail to address the underlying structural causes of environmental injustice. These solutions may be well-intentioned, but they risk perpetuating the status quo by focusing on market-based mechanisms rather than addressing issues of power, privilege, and inequality.
So what can be done to address these concerns and ensure the environmental justice movement remains true to its roots? One key step is to ensure the voices of those most affected by environmental harm are front and center in any discussion of environmental justice. This means involving community members in decision-making processes and giving them the power to shape the policies that affect their lives.
Additionally, environmental justice advocates and practitioners must keep our attention focused on solutions and outcomes, and not just processes. For example, as environmental justice has become mired in government processes and bureaucracy, many practitioners are forced into “checklists” for how to engage Communities of Color, low-income communities, and immigrant communities in public processes. Yet, simply translating a public meeting into Spanish or Khmer does not change the outcomes and lived experiences of pollution and injustice for those communities.
Another key step is to be vigilant about how powerful interests may seek to co-opt or water down the movement. The age-old and misleading adage “the solution to pollution is dilution” does not apply to watering down the potency and power of the environmental justice movement. This means holding politicians and corporations accountable for their actions, and being willing to call out greenwashing when we see it.
Finally, we need to recognize that environmental justice is not just about technical solutions. It is about addressing the underlying social and economic structures that perpetuate environmental injustice. This means tackling issues such as poverty, racism, settler-colonialism, and inequality head-on, and working to build a more just and equitable society for all.
The mainstreaming of environmental justice comes with many positive developments — at the federal level, to the tune of $3 billion of investments in EPA-administered grants. However, these prominent advancements come with serious risks. Environmental justice advocates must be vigilant about recognizing that environmental justice is not just about addressing the symptoms of environmental degradation, but also about addressing the underlying systemic inequalities that lead to environmental injustice in the first place.
To build more just environmental futures and seize on the current and exciting momentum for environmental justice, we must remain grounded in the political history of the movement with a focus on changing outcomes for those most impacted by environmental harm.
This article is funded in part by an Environmental Justice Fund (EJ Fund) grant through the City of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability & Environment (OSE).
Grant Gutierrez is employed by the City of Seattle; the opinions in this piece are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Offices of Planning & Community Development or the Office of Sustainability & Environment.
The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.
The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.
Grant Gutierrez currently serves as the Duwamish Valley program coordinator at the City of Seattle. He holds a doctorate from Dartmouth College, where he conducted community-based research focused on environmental justice and river restoration in Puget Sound.
📸 Featured Image: Extinction Rebellion protestors holding a “Climate Justice” banner at the February 2020 march in conjunction with Parents 4 Future. London, England, Feb. 22, 2020. Photo via JessicaGirvan/Shutterstock.com
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