A Look at Environmental Justice in the United States

This exhibition is no longer on display at the William H. Hannon Library – this post is maintained for historical purposes. Please contact the Information Desk with any questions.

Even the pope is concerned. Climate change, coupled with poor disaster recovery efforts, oil spills, water contamination, and air pollution have affected millions of people worldwide. In its simplest form, concerns of environmental harm is a human rights issue. While millions are affected by various environmental occurrences every day, not all people are affected equally. In the United States, specifically, slow and inadequate responses to disasters have called into question the idea of environmental justice for all citizens.

Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. It includes the right for people to have the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards. This includes equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work (U.S. EPA 2017).

Environmental Justice: A Brief History

While politicians and activists work to hold our government and local legislatures accountable for environmental harm, history shows that environmental justice has not been a primary goal for the United States. The beginnings of environmental justice can be seen as early as the 1960s, where, in addition to the fight for other civil rights, many African-American communities were forced into toxic environments. In 1978, the government released its own brochure, Our Common Concern, indicating the ways in which environmental harm disproportionately impacts communities of color.

Following these findings, environmental justice was furthered bolstered by the Christian community, starting in the 1980s. For many in the faith, the “protection of the environment in order to protect themselves (humans) and the understanding of the integral part humans are to the larger living fabric” (source) is essential to our purpose on earth. Environmental racism, racial discrimination in environmental policy making, and the unequal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations, was coined by a pastor, Reverend Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr in 1987.

Churches and religious leaders were so moved by the environmental harm done to their communities that they conducted a study of their own. The United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice released Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, displaying the vast amount of toxic waste facilities and their concentration among minority communities. That same year, a large nonviolent protest in Warren County, North Carolina disrupted the hauling of PCB-laced soil (which is a toxic, organic pollutant) into its rural African-American community. The use of this community as a toxic landfill was sanctioned and ordered by the State of North Carolina. Over 500 people were arrested, drawing national attention to issues of environmental justice all over the country.

Current Issues in Environmental Justice

Environmental justice is not just a historical concept. Currently, there are thousands of cases of state-sanctioned environmental harm affecting communities of color in the U.S. Here are just a few that have drawn national attention:

This month’s “Explore Staff Picks” library collection (level 1 lobby) focuses on environmental justice, considering perspectives and issues from around the world. In addition to the suggested books and movies on display, here are some quick resources for learning more about climate change, environmental justice, and environmental racism: