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What Environmental Justice Means—and Why it Matters

January 4, 2022

Environmental activism isn’t just about protecting the natural world—it’s also about protecting people. Nowhere is this concept better illustrated than with the environmental justice movement. At its most basic level, environmental justice asserts that environmental issues and social justice are inextricably linked.

What is Environmental Justice?

Environmental justice is the idea that people of all cultures, races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds deserve fair protection from environmental and health hazards, as well as equal access to the decision-making processes behind environmental policies and development.

Historically led by Black, Latino, Indigenous, and low-income communities, the environmental justice movement in the United States has a few separate but connected goals:

  1. Highlight the fact that historically marginalized groups of people—generally low-income and/or Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities—are disproportionately affected by pollution, climate change, and other environmental dangers.
  2. Work to stop corporations, businesses, and government bodies from placing landfills, chemical plants, oil refineries, and other pollution-causing sites in or near marginalized communities; help create a cleaner, healthier, and safer environment for these groups.
  3. Give disenfranchised communities the ability and tools to participate in policy decision-making about the environments in which they live and work.

In an interview with Earth First! Journal, pioneer of the environmental justice movement Dr. Robert Bullard summarized, “The environment is everything: where we live, work, play, go to school, as well as the physical and natural world. And so we can’t separate the physical environment from the cultural environment. We have to talk about making sure that justice is integrated throughout all of the stuff that we do.

The Origins of the Environmental Justice Movement

The environmental justice movement isn’t new. Historically oppressed groups have fought for their environmental well-being for years, but the concept didn’t gain widespread meaning and momentum in the United States until the latter half of the 20th century. Among its many goals, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s prompted activists of all kinds to reckon with a difficult reality: African Americans were often experiencing severe health effects as a result of living in close proximity to toxic landfill sites and polluted areas.

In 1968, Black activists came together during the Memphis Sanitation Strike to fight for better working conditions for Memphis garbage workers. The strike marked the first time a group of people in the United States collectively opposed unfair environmental practices. Then, over a decade later, in 1979, a group of Black homeowners in Texas formed the Northeast Community Action Group to oppose a proposed landfill near their local schools. Their lawsuit cited environmental discrimination and set a precedent for activists to come.

However, it wasn’t until a 1982 protest in Warren County, North Carolina—when over 500 Black civil rights activists gathered to protest a landfill in their community—that the fight for environmental justice finally attracted national attention and spurred mainstream coverage and research.

The Evolution of the Movement

Over the past several decades, elected officials and the larger public have become increasingly aware of unfair environmental practices manifesting as environmental racism and class discrimination.

A 1987 study was the first of its kind to highlight the significant correlation between race and toxic waste site locations. The report found that over 15 million African Americans, 8 million Latinos, and half of all Asian/Pacific Islanders and Indigenous Americans resided in communities with at least one abandoned or uncontained toxic waste site.

Since then, countless groups and councils have formed to address environmental inequities, including the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, and the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. In 1990, Dr. Bullard published Dumping in Dixie, the nation’s first book on environmental injustice. Then, in 1994, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order to funnel federal resources into addressing the poor environmental conditions in minority and low-income populations.

Policy-makers have increasingly joined the efforts to create change, enacting new laws and bringing oversight to the issue, but individual grassroots activists are still the driving force behind the environmental justice movement. A large number of Goldman Prize winners have been part of that movement and have helped push the nation—and the world—forward.

For 13 years, teacher-turned-activist Margie Richard (United States, 2004) led a community campaign to fight against the Shell refinery that released toxic chemicals into the air near her home in Louisiana. Thanks to her tireless work, Shell agreed to reduce its emissions by 30% in 2000.

Activist and high school student Destiny Watford (United States, 2016) mobilized her community to prevent an incinerator from being built in her Baltimore neighborhood. Grandmother Sharon Lavigne (United States, 2021) held peaceful protests to stop the construction of a plastics manufacturing plant next to the Mississippi River, and continues to campaign against industrial projects in her community.

Sharon Lavigne joins community members in adding flowers to a fence around the Buena Vista Cemetery, the burial site of enslaved ancestors
Sharon Lavigne adds flowers to a fence around the Buena Vista Cemetery, the burial site of enslaved ancestors. The fence was erected by Formosa Plastics when it purchased the land for a proposed petrochemical complex in St. James Parish, Louisiana. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

Environmental Justice Today

Today, the environmental justice movement also focuses on the ramifications of a global and insidious threat: climate change. A 2021 report from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows how climate change is harming vulnerable populations in the United States.

The report found that African Americans are 34% more likely to live in areas with high rates of childhood asthma, and 40% more likely to live in areas with extreme temperature-related deaths.

Recently, President Joe Biden issued an executive order to establish the first White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, as well as the Justice40 Initiative, which will work to ensure that 40% of clean energy and climate investments go to disadvantaged communities.

There’s still a long way to go in the fight for environmental justice, but there is progress. Thanks to grassroots activism and increased public awareness about climate change and other environmental issues, more elected officials, corporations, and concerned citizens are making strides to ensure that everyone has access to a clean environment.

Learn more about this year’s Prize winners and find out how you can support their causes.

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