What is environmental justice? (Plus 10 nonprofits to support)
Author: Leah Thomas
While many environmentalists are ready to advocate for endangered species, what happens when people’s lives are also at risk because of the same environmental hazards? That’s where environmental justice—a branch of environmental activism that focuses on people and their right to a safe living environment— comes in.
Read on to learn some examples of real-life environmental justice issues we face today, what we can do to help realize a world with access to clean air, clean water, fresh and healthy foods, and safe environments for all, and more.
When you think about the environment, you might envision trees, wild animals, and vast waterways. Your mind might start to picture your favorite National Park or scenic nature view—but do you ever think of yourself and where you fit into that equation?
Humans are a part of nature and our neighborhoods and cities are their own ecosystems. But overtime, we’ve developed language and barriers to keep us separated from what’s normally considered “nature”.
That separation makes it easier to disconnect from environmental degradation or not even know when and where it’s happening. The same soil that lines a National Park, is the same soil that’s under our homes and buildings. The water that serves as a habitat for marine life is the same water that comes out of our sinks and bathtubs. We aren’t as disconnect as it may seem. So when “nature” is destroyed or polluted, so is our home—and our health and safety are at risk.
It’s easy to remain unaware of environmental degradation when it isn’t happening in your backyard or impacting your daily life. The majority of environmental news focuses on climate science, endangered species, ice-melting, or even recycling. But in 2015, a different story broke through the news cycle: an entire city in Michigan didn’t have clean drinking water. 12 people died in Flint, Michigan and one hundred thousand people were left with lead-poisoned water. A small policy change to save money poisoned a town with polluted water. It’s hard to imagine living in a society which treats people this way, but it happens every day. Just like animals are left with degraded habitats in the wild, so are humans in cities like yours.
Policy changes like this that put profit before human health and environmental safety happen often in marginalized communities. In fact, communities of color have higher exposure rates to air pollution and are targeted more often for hazardous waste, landfill, and industrial site placement.
While many environmentalists are ready to advocate for endangered species, what happens when people’s lives are also at risk because of those same environmental hazards? That’s where environmental justice comes in, a branch of environmental activism that focuses on people and their right to a safe living environment.
What is environmental justice?
The Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as “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.” Environmental justice is the intersection between both social justice and environmentalism, where the inequality of who is being impacted is also considered.
Unfairly, vulnerable communities pay the highest price for environmental damage caused by polluters. Sometimes people forget that at the heart of environmental impact are real people and their livelihoods. Many communities don’t have the luxury of a physical barrier between them and environmental hazards. Unfortunately, low-income and communities of color are already disproportionately impacted by the impacts of climate change and this will only continue without political action and protection.
Examples of environmental injustices happening today
One of the most common environmental injustices facing marginalized communities is the proximity to air-pollution. A 2010 study found that people of color in the U.S. were exposed to 37% more nitrogen dioxide (a transportation-related pollutant) than white Americans. This exposure has real consequences with children of color reporting higher rates of asthma.
Environmental injustices are happening every day in communities struggling to have their voices heard. Some neighborhoods across the country don’t have access to fresh produce and healthy foods—a problem known as food deserts. Mining communities in Kentucky and Southwest Virginia face landslides, polluted water and negative health impacts from mining dust. Communities where oil and gas extraction take place, waterways and soil are being polluted with toxic fracking fluid that can negatively impact the environment and human health.
How we can support environmental justice
So how do we stop environmental injustices? To start, we can continue to fight in court and challenge violations of environmental policies happening in vulnerable communities. In this day and age of social media, bringing awareness to an issue can start with a single Instagram post or tweet. There’s an enormous amount of power in elevating voices by re-tweeting and sharing these stories with your network.
You can also support local, state and federal politicians who are advocating for both the protection of public lands and conservation as well as combating environmental injustice. Make sure candidates recognize the inequality at the heart of climate change and recognize those who will be most urgently impacted.
If you’d like to get involved and help nonprofits and organizations fight to keep marginalized communities safe, below are 10 amazing resources to connect with, donate to, and follow along with that are making real change across the country.
10 nonprofits working on environmental justice to support
A 1% for the Planet nonprofit partner, this organization was formed by residents facing environmental safety concerns with mountaintop removal mining to fight back and keep their communities safe. They organize neighborhood cleanups and advocate for legislation to stop pollution and mountaintop removal.
EarthJustice is an environmental nonprofit public interest organization with a network of lawyers tackling environmental injustice and litigating environmental issues. They’ve actively supported the indigenous communities at Standing Rock to fight the Dakota Access Pipeline expansion project.
Diné Bikéyah (pronounced di-NAY bi-KAY-uh) means “people’s sacred lands” in the Navajo language. Utah Diné Bikéyah is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that works toward healing of people and the Earth by supporting indigenous communities in protecting their culturally significant, ancestral lands. They’re currently suing the Trump administration alongside Patagonia for the decrease of Bear’s Ears National Monument.
This organization of young people advocate for government officials to recognize the urgency of the climate crisis. Their diverse leadership and member base bring environmental justice concerns to the forefront. They’re advocates of The Green New Deal and more direct environmental policy.
Climate Justice Alliance is an organization focused on just transition strategies to implement locally-rooted economies and shut down extractive industries in marginalized communities. They’ve collaborated with Puerto Rican environmental activists to help recover after the hurricane.
Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project engages in transformative action to restore land and culture. Their goal is to turn away from environmental hazards and to uplift low-income and minority communities by creating healthy, resilient and life-affirming local economies.
Got Green’s goal is to strengthen low-income communities of color through leadership development and community activism. Their Food Access, Young Leaders and Climate Justice committees tackle different environmental justice issues.
Green For All’s goal is to advance solutions that bring clean energy, green jobs, and opportunities to low-income and the most-polluted communities in the world, from increasing green transportation to fighting against air and water pollution.
This community-based organization in Southern California provides workshops to prepare community members to get politically active and engage more directly in the environmental justice decision making impacting their lives. Their work has helped influence policy to create more equitable, safe, and clean communities.
This environmental health and justice non-profit works with communities that neighbor oil refineries and chemical plants to fight against unsafe environmental conditions.
Leah Thomas is a midwest native currently living in Southern California that's passionate about sustainability, wellness and social justice. Her studies in Environmental Science and Policy led her to working in the sustainable apparel industry and currently on the Communications team at Patagonia. In her free time, she manages her blog, Green Girl Leah, and enjoys writing essays and poetry. You can follow along with her work on Instagram @GeenGirlLeah