It’s Time to Address Environmental Justice

 Illustration of a tidal wave approaching a group of people on shore, one person with their hand up to the wave, and reads, "Environmental justice is our cry of defiance against the onslaught of oppressive toxins and toxic oppressions that threaten to submerge our homes"
Illustration by Ricardo Levins Morales with the caption, “The costs of this tidal wave are borne most heavily by the poor, Indigenous people, and people of color. Air, water, and people all need protection.”

By Shannon Saari, Intern at Alliance for Sustainability, University of Minnesota Student ‘22

Tackling environmental issues without considering the social impacts is like watching only half of the movie. At the Alliance for Sustainability, we define sustainability as being, “ecologically sound, economically viable, socially just and humane, embodying our highest values in terms of how we treat people, animals and the planet.” It’s important to recognize that environmental issues are not solely about the health of our ecosystems; they are inherently complex and interconnected with economic and social issues. In the simplest sense, we are a part of the ecosystem, so protecting the environment is protecting human lives.

It’s also important to acknowledge that although not all of us experience the impacts of climate change or pollution in our day-to-day lives, many people, especially marginalized communities, are living in it. We all rely on the same diminishing resources and when they are unfairly distributed we perpetuate a system of discrimination. A term to capture this crisis is called environmental injustice.

What is Environmental Injustice?

Environmental injustice can be defined as the disproportionate effects of environmental risks on people of color, low-income communities, and indigenous communities due to the lack of laws to protect them and engrained systemic inequality. Therefore, environmental injustice highlights the intersection of environmental and social concerns. For example, people of color are nearly twice as likely as white people to live near dangerous chemical plants and communities living below the poverty line have a 35% higher health burden from air pollutants than the overall population. Even pro-environmental initiatives, such as a building a recycling plant, can create environmental injustice when the people they directly impact aren’t heard (as demonstrated in the photo below). Environmental hazards like air pollution are directly harming the health of disenfranchised communities who already face disparities in healthcare, education, housing, and employment. 

Protester holding a sign that reads "3x less income, 60% more asthma. #GeneralIronOut" to demonstrate how low-income areas are subjected to environmental hazards.
Protesters marching against a recycling company’s plans to open a hazardous metal recycling plant in SE Chicago after closing one in an affluent, white neighborhood due to environmental violations. Source: Oscar Sanchez

An Important Example: Access to Clean Water in the US

Washing our hands, maintaining proper hygiene, and drinking safe water are essential to the prevention of transmittable diseases and our healthy development. Depending on the duration of exposure, amount of contaminant(s) consumed and the susceptibility of the individual, contaminated water can cause numerous health problems from gastrointestinal illnesses to reproductive consequences, or even cancer. 

According to a report by DigDeep and the US Water Alliance, “Native American households are 19x more likely than white households to lack access to complete plumbing, while African American and Latinx households are nearly 2x as likely” in the US. As a basic human need, water is an indispensable and finite resource; not only does it point to an environmental dilemma our population faces, but also when unfairly distributed water clearly reveals the systemic flaws in our society. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

How do we tackle environmental injustices that are so deeply rooted in oppression? Clearly, there needs to be systemic change in environmental policies, education, and advocacy to protect those that are most vulnerable to social injustices. The voices of people of color, low-income communities, and indigenous communities have been overlooked and disrespected throughout history.

These communities have experienced first-hand the effects of climate change, pollution, and resource scarcity yet they have been carrying the fight against environmental injustice. Moving forward, we need to do our part in listening and uplifting their voices within environmental and social movements as well as in government. We can take action within our own communities through votes and support for the people and campaigns that are fueling the fight against environmental injustice. See the links below for more information and organizations you can support:

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