Tshering T. Lama O’Gorman, PhD candidate in the Discipline of Geography and Planning, has written this wonderful reminder of how the hybridity of environmental justice provides multiple lenses for analysis, as well as the opportunity for changing the rules of the game.
There are very poor people living in places that are highly exposed to climate change who have done nothing to contribute to the global warming crises but will suffer the most severely from it. Climate change impacts are already being recorded in the Himalayas including Nepal, with rapid glacial retreat from significant warming being the most evident (Cruz et al. 2007; Shrestha and Aryal, 2010). In the last few years, the villagers of Dhye, in the remote mountain district of Nepal, had to migrate due to extreme water shortage as a result of glacial retreat. Unfortunately, with little help from the government, the villagers relocated on their own to another perilous location on the river bank which is vulnerable to flooding (Devkota, 2014).
The fact that the poorest among us will suffer the most from the negative impacts of so-called modern progress and economic growth that will be played out in the catastrophic impacts of global warming comes as no surprise to anyone. In fact, most of us feel that there’s not much that can be done about it as that is always how it has been. Just because that’s the way it has been for some time has made the climate crisis for the poorest, in a way, ‘invisible’ to many of us, the globally ‘better off’ people (Oxfam 2016). We can stop seeing something that has always been there before our eyes.
It is generally accepted that the only way for the poor to escape their dire conditions is to become wealthy, to join the ranks of the ‘better off’. In the meantime, all the ‘better off’ people are trying to get more wealthy to secure better chances for themselves and their children. In this manner, we all continue to propagate and remain trapped in the capitalist, growth cycle which has led us to the global environmental crisis we are in now. It is therefore necessary now, more than ever before, to fundamentally change the rules of the game and the environmental justice (EJ) movement can potentially be the gamechanger to effect the radical transformations we need.
The hybridity of the environmental justice movement, perhaps more than any other, provides us multiple frames to analyse and find recourse for the many injustices that range from the environmental to the social and humanitarian that is unfolding gradually due to global warming. EJ is becoming a global force for social change and democratization as it articulates a vision for global justice, human rights and sustainability (Mohai et al. 2009). The EJ frameworks offer insight into the unjust and inequitable impacts of climate change to marginalised, poor communities and nations.
The lived experience and cycle of suffering of impoverished and historically marginalised peoples often lie just beyond the gaze of the privileged, in the periphery or the penumbra (Nixon, 2011). Nixon writes that the poor, even though they are in the majority throughout the world, are faced with the twofold challenges of invisibility and the amnesia of the privileged, who firstly cannot ‘see’ their plight and secondly, if they do see their plight, they forget it very soon. Environmental justice, through its recent engagement with intersectionality and its bringing together of the environmental and civil rights movements, provides multiple frames that make it possible to ‘see’, comprehend and analyse the many layers, complexities and differential scales that have made poor people ‘invisible’ within nations and between nations.
The EJ movement was brought about by a coalition and hybridism of environmental and civil rights movements that had never been seen before. Most scholars would point to the landmark 1982 protests in Warren County, USA, as the first time that environmental justice concerns made it to the forefront of the national American stage and from there to a wider western audience (Bullard, 1990; Cutter, 1995; Mohai et al. 2009). In this historic event, civil rights activists, black political leaders and environmentalists came together in what was then an unlikely coalition to protest the dumping of highly contaminated soil in a largely African American, poor area.
Environmental justice was at first mostly concerned with the inequitable distribution of environmental risks which was what the Warren County issue was about. Prior to that, race-based movements as well as those led by other minority groups and the poor, had voiced their exposure to high environmental risks but environmental activist groups who were mainly from white, middle class communities, had not joined in with them. The early mainstream environmental movement in the United States was not overly concerned with social inequalities or the impacts to marginalised human populations from environmental pollution. It was mainly concerned with the loss of nature and biodiversity. Retrospectively today, one can see that it was an understandable merger as it is commonplace knowledge now that negative environmental conditions are another indicator of social and economic inequities.
Robert Bullard, an American sociologist, is often called the father of Environmental Justice, as he first brought attention to the fact that people of colour and other marginalised groups, such as recent immigrants to the USA and poor people, were the ones who lived in neighbourhoods where hazardous facilities were increasingly being sited and disproportionate levels of environmental pollutants were being dumped. Bullard (1990) found that communities of colour were deliberately being targeted for dumping environmental pollutants and this conscious targeting was due to historic and contemporary institutionalised racism.
From those early studies to later ones, it is evident that unequal distribution of the environmental benefits as well as its negative impacts, resulted from the continued reinforcement of deeply embedded historic, cultural and economic hierarchies which were manifested by the privileged, wealthy people lacking empathy for those who were ‘other’. These supremacist, entitled attitudes based on race, colour, gender, ethnicity and class have become institutionalised and systemic through the history of colonisation, capitalism and resource exploitation. At the same time, these hierarchies are not only maintained by the Global North, it also plays out within the Global South among people of the same nation where ruling groups violently repress and marginalise micro minorities to extract valuable resources from their lands that they leave behind stripped or contaminated.
Schlosberg (2004) writes that it would be inadequate to define environmental justice as just about equity as this notion is outcome focused. EJ is not only concerned with the distribution of benefits and risks and the inequities therein. Schlosberg explains that EJ has threefold concerns: recognition, distribution and participation. In order to ensure that EJ is achieved, Schlosberg (2004, page 534) agrees with Harvey (1996, page 401) that it is imperative to ‘confront the fundamental underlying processes and their associated power structures, social relations, institutional configurations, discourses and belief systems that generate environmental and social injustices’.
Like Bullard, Schlosberg (2004) emphasizes that EJ needs to be truly inclusive with active community participation in decision making that recognises local knowledge and diversity. Bullard (1999) stressed that environmental justice is a grassroots movement which calls for active community participation. The movement does not accept that a community is powerless but calls for community engagement as power resides in all of us. We could think of how Foucault (1980) frames power relationships here as the French social theorist argued that power is multiple, resides in all of us and arises everywhere. Similarly, EJ movements have shown how power can be challenged successfully. If in 1990, Bullard was among the first to call attention to the environmental racism in the US; by 2000, he was writing that grassroots activism for environmental justice had resulted in some success to transform how unfairly communities of colour were treated by the US federal government (Bullard and Johnson, 2000).
Climate justice has been shaped by the discourse and movement for environmental justice. The environmental violence from climate change is a delayed destruction that is occurring very gradually, and it doesn’t get the attention and top priority that immediate violent events do (Nixon, 2011). However, it is real violence nevertheless, with catastrophic risks for human lives and livelihoods. EJ is concerned with how environmental risks come to borne by poor, marginalised communities as a healthy environment is a basic right of all people according to the Rio declaration (UN, 1992). Cutter (1995) writes that economic activities together with physical location and social geography generates the landscape of risk and that environmental equity originates from social, generational and procedural dissimilarities. In current management approaches, it is standard practice to analyse and plan for inequities in risk exposure, mitigation and compensation. It follows that it is therefore imperative to consider, manage and compensate environmental risks, including planetary climate change risks that are unevenly and inequitably spread across nations and peoples.
To attempt to fully comprehend the injustices unfolding from global warming, one needs to deeply consider the far-reaching impacts across geographical and temporal scales of climate change. In his book Slow Violence, Nixon (2011, page 46) brings attention to what he calls ‘temporal and spatial webs of violence’ which make poor people and places they inhabit invisible to the privileged in this age of neoliberal globalization. He explains how this occurs by using Indra Sinha’s fictional novel ‘Animal’s People’ which is based on the real life leakage of toxic gas in Bhopal India, from a pesticide plant owned by the American company, Union Carbide, which killed between 5000 to 15000 people in 1984. In the years that followed, thousands more died or were afflicted with life threatening disabilities. Sinha’s novel dramatically illustrates the risk relocation from a wealthy nation to a poorer one. It also elucidates how an array of distancing strategies were employed that were temporal, legalistic, geographical, scientific and euphemistic to distance the responsibility and relation to the corporate bastion as the disaster played out over a long time frame and at a huge distance from the parent company.
There are clear parallels in the slow violence wrought by a pesticide plant to the slow moving, gradually unfolding, tragic and disastrous long-term impacts of climate change to poor people and poor nations that are removed in great distance by space and time and by the many layered complexities of being independent nations from those first world countries who are the biggest perpetrators. It is entirely possible that the suffering of those deeply impacted, poor people and the responsibility of the perpetrators will remain lost and invisible in the geographical and temporal distances and multi layered complexities.
Bullard, R. D. and Johnson G., 2000. Environmental justice: Grassroots activism and its impact on public policy decision making. Journal of social issues, 56 (3), 555-578.
Bullard R., 1990. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality. Westview Press. Boulder, United States.
Cruz R.V., Harasawa H. and Lal M., Wu, S., Anokhin, Y., Punsalmaa, B., Honda, Y., Jafari, M., Li, C. & Ninh, N.H., 2007. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability: Working Group II contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2007): 469-506.
Cutter S., 1995. Race, Class and Environmental Justice. Progress in Human Geography. 19 (1), 111-122.
Devkota F., 2013. Climate Change and its’ Socio Cultural Impact in the Himalayan Region of Nepal. A Visual Documentation. Anthrovision. Vaneasa Online Journal 1.2., Accessed 1 June 2021.
Harvey, D., 1996. Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference. Oxford, Blackwell, United Kingdom.
Mohai, P., Pellow D., & Timmons R. J., 2009. Environmental Justice. Annual Review of Environment and Resources. 34, 405-30.
Nixon, R., 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press, United States.
Oxfam, 2016. An Economy for the 1%: How Privilege and Power in the Economy drive extreme inequality and how this can be stopped, 210 Oxfam Briefing Paper, oxfamilibrary.openrepository.com/handle/10J45/59264 , Accessed: 1 June 2021.
Schlosberg D., 2004. Reconceiving Environmental Justice: Global Movements and Political Theories. Environmental Politics, 13 (3), 517-540.
Shrestha A.B. and Aryal R., 2011. Climate Change in Nepal and its impact on Himalayan glaciers. Regional Environmental Change 11, 65-77.
Xu J., Grumbine R.E., Shrestha A., Eriksson M., Yang X., Wang Y. and Wilkes A., 2009. The Melting Himalayas: Cascading Effects of Climate Change on Water, Biodiversity, and Livelihoods. Conservation Biology 23, 520-530.
United Nations 1992, Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/generalassembly/docs/globalcompact/A_CONF.151_26_Vol.I_Declaration.pdf, Accessed 1 June 2021.d