The environmental justice movement, sparked by activism in low-income communities of color, brought national attention to the problem of disparate siting of pollution and hazardous waste. The EJ movement grew to take on broader issues of inequality with respect to distribution of environmental harms and access to environmental benefits, and also breathed new life into mainstream environmentalism. By challenging the “top ten” mainstream environmental groups to see environmental issues through a lens of equity and justice, the EJ movement had the potential to unite social justice and environmental issues in ways that would make them more compelling to more people, and likelier to result in an egalitarian and environmentally sustainable world. (The Natural Resources Defense Council has a very good and concise history of the EJ movement here.) At least that was the hope.
But that hope depends on making progress on all fronts. Are we? At the moment, the most optimistic answer might be “it’s hard to tell.” On the EJ front, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just announced an exciting new initiative on Environmental Justice, Plan EJ 2014. The Plan aims to incorporate EJ concerns throughout all governmental decision-making, and to make a priority of empowering communities to improve their own health and environments. This sounds promising, and is an important step towards further normalizing the EJ values embraced in President Clinton’s EJ Executive Order.
And yet, what kind of environments will minority, low-income, and American Indian tribal communities have to sustain and protect? In terms of environmental protection generally, trends seem to be heading in the wrong direction. While we are a far cry from the pre-Earth Day world of regulatory free-for-all, when industry could emit pollutants into the air and dump sludge into the rivers with little oversight, the political appetite for addressing our most serious environmental problems is small indeed. To name just a few examples, national climate legislation of any kind is off the table until at least 2013. Nearly all of the Republican candidates in the presidential race are trying to outdo each other with respect to how much they loathe the EPA. And the Obama Administration has, at the very least, de-prioritized progress on environmental protection, including a recent decision to delay yet again EPA regulations that would limit greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources.
So while equality, in any circumstances, is better than inequality, environmental equity in a throughly degraded environment hardly seems just. The EJ movement has made an enormous impression on environmentalism, but its aspirations will not be realized if environmentalism fails to make a bigger, broader and more equitable impression on our political leaders.