revolving image loop


If we care about environmental justice, we care about how people are affected by their environments and about people having an opportunity to influence decisions that have an impact on the environments in which they live. In particular, we care that people have a fair ‘say’ in environmental decisions and that environmental benefits (e.g., clean air, green spaces) and environmental burdens (e.g., pollution, the costs of mitigating climate change) are fairly distributed.

Discussions of environmental justice often distinguish procedural environmental justice from substantive (or distributive) environmental justice. Procedural environmental justice is usually understood to require the opportunity for “all people regardless of race, ethnicity, income, national origin or educational level” to have “meaningful involvement” in environmental decision-making. Procedural environmental justice, like democracy more generally, may be considered a good thing in itself. However, the main value of procedural environmental justice is often assumed to lie in the contribution it can make to substantive environmental justice. Substantive (or distributive) environmental justice is usually understood to require that environmental benefits and burdens are distributed fairly. If everyone has the opportunity to participate in environmental decision-making (procedural environmental justice), each person has the opportunity to defend her own and everyone else’s substantive environmental rights. Therefore, it is likely to be more difficult to impose unfair environmental burdens (substantive environmental injustice) on people through a just procedure than it is through an unjust procedure.

There are many different accounts of distributive environmental justice. These different accounts give different answers to three key questions: Who are the “recipients” of environmental justice? What is distributed? What is the principle of distribution? In this short introduction, I identify some of the common answers offered to these questions and the differences between them.

The first question – Who are the recipients of environmental justice? – is about who has environmental rights or who matters when we think about the distribution of environmental benefits and burdens. This question has a number of possible answers ranging from only current citizens of a single state to all current and future generations of living (sentient and non-sentient) beings. The “scope” of our “community of justice” will determine whether our conception of environmental justice is anthropocentric (all humans) or non-anthropocentric (humans and other sentient beings), intergenerational (current and future generations) or merely intragenerational (current generation only), and international (all people or all nation-states) or merely domestic (one nation-state). Historically, the United States Environmental Justice Movement has focussed on a narrow community: current US citizens. This is reflected in current US environmental law and policy. More recent definitions of environmental justice in the US and throughout the world have expanded the community of justice to include the citizens of other states and future generations. The members of the Global Justice and the Environment project team are all committed to defending an expanded cosmopolitan and intergenerational account of environmental justice, which includes all humans of this generation and future generations.

The second question for a theory of distributive environmental justice is, “What is distributed?” Historically, the US Environmental Justice Movement has concentrated on “environmental hazards”, “toxics” or “pollution”. If economic justice is about the distribution of a benefit or a ‘good’ (money or resources), environmental justice has usually been about the distribution of burdens or ‘bads’. Advocates of environmental justice have argued that the distribution of environmental burdens is not fair. Some social groups – notably low income groups and ethnic minorities – are more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards. For example, recent research in the U.K. found that “66% of carcinogen emissions [in England] are in the most deprived 10% of [local authority] wards” (Friends of the Earth 2001, 1). In the U.S. there is a much longer history of research that shows a correlation between low-income groups and pollution. On a global scale, many of the burdens associated with climate change, such as flooding, desertification and extreme storms, are likely to be felt (and, in some cases, are already being felt) most severely by the (economically) poorest people in the world.

More recently, the idea of environmental justice has been extended beyond burdens to include benefits. In one sense, benefits were always part of the environmental justice debate. For example, air pollution is only a burden because clean air is a benefit. However, the new focus on benefits is rather different. The emphasis is not on the basic goods (clean air, clean water, uncontaminated land) that are undermined by environmental hazards but rather on a more general idea of “environmental quality” and “being able to experience quality environments” (such as green spaces, countryside, etc.).

The third question that any conception of distributive environmental justice must answer is, “What is the principle of distribution?” Theoretically, many principles of distribution are possible. In practice, advocates of environmental justice have employed three principles of distribution:
equality plus a guaranteed standard;
a guaranteed minimum with variation above that minimum according to personal income and spending choices.
The early conceptions of environmental justice stressed the unequal distribution of pollution. The complaint was that low income and minority communities suffered “a disproportionate burden from this type of health threat”. The burden of environmental hazards should be equally shared.

In time, the ideal of “an equal opportunity to be polluted” was replaced by the idea that “no one should be forced to suffer from the adverse effects of environmental hazards”. More precisely, the commitment to an equal distribution of pollution was supplemented by a specification that the level of pollution should be reduced to zero. It is not enough that the inequality in exposure to environmental hazards is removed. In addition, it is necessary to ensure that no one suffers exposure to environmental hazards. The requirement of guaranteed standards shifts attention from ‘bads’, such as pollution, to ‘basic goods’ such as clean air and potable water. The focus moves from equal burdens to equal rights to the basic environmental goods necessary for health. These first two accounts of the principle of distribution are most readily associated with the first conception of what should be distributed.

The second conception of what should be distributed – the “experience of quality environments” – has also been expressed in terms of equal rights. For example, Julian Agyeman describes “access to the countryside” as “an environmental right: the right to roam in public areas”. Again, we have a guaranteed standard – a quality environment – for everyone. However, there is a sense in which the ‘equality’ in this case differs from the equal right not to be polluted. The right to access quality environments does not imply that everyone lives the same distance from quality environments or can afford to visit quality environments with the same frequency. Instead, it requires that everyone have the real opportunity (transport, money, knowledge, confidence) to visit quality environments – e.g., to access the countryside – at reasonably frequent intervals. Similarly, the ‘right’ to live in a quality environment does not imply that everywhere is the same or even that every area is as ‘desirable’ as every other area but rather that the ‘least desirable’ areas meet certain standards. It is not inequality per se that is the problem but the failure to ensure that minimum standards are met for everyone. The principle of distribution is that everyone has a right to a certain minimum standard but beyond that standard there is room for variation.

In summary, we have seen some of the main features of the idea of environmental justice, and, in particular, some of the possible answers to key questions that any theory of environmental justice must answer. There is much more that might be said and the debates about how we should understand environmental justice are constantly developing. In particular, the most recent debates about global environmental justice make use of new ideas, such as environmental and ecological space. Moreover, debates about particular environmental issues, especially climate change, have led to arguments for equal ‘carbon footprints’ or ‘equal per capita carbon emissions’. The Global Justice and the Environment project team have discussed many of these ideas in our papers.