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Environmental justice

In this video, Paul Munro and Susie Pratt discuss environmental justice as a mode of restorying.
Hi, I’m Susie Pratt, and this is Paul Munro. And one of the modes of conducting research within the Environmental Humanities is through an environmental justice lens. So Paul, I was wondering if you could describe how environmental justice emerged? Yeah, so it’s got very strong links to the environmental justice movement, which emerged in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. And so, basically, this movement kind of argued and used evidence to demonstrate how poor socio-economic classes often lived in poorer, more polluted urban environments. And there was also a racial dimension. So often poorer black and Latino communities were particularly exposed to environmental risks.
So in short, if you were a poor ethnic minority, you were much more likely to be living in a polluted or toxic environment in the open space. Right. So how is environmental justice distinct from other modes of environmentalism? Yeah, so for example, I guess, wilderness environmentalism, which is very much the idea of an external nature— we need to protect nature from human society, and create national parks to protect it. And so environmental justice challenges this, and sees social and environmental issues intertwined. So in many ways it emerged as a critique of other environmentalisms, arguing that they’ve been race blinding, and class blind, and not fully appreciated the nuances of kind of environmental issues.
I guess it’s also important to note that it’s very much emerged as kind of an international framework. So environmental justice is used to look at global inequalities. For example, wealthy countries dumping waste, in the form of electronic waste, in poorer countries, as a way of dealing with this issue. So what is the main objective of the environmental justice movement? Yeah, so it has an effort in trying to prevent exposure to environmental risks, in particular for low income households. So very much it’s a political project. It’s very much about lobbying for better outcomes for these different communities. And I guess there’s kind of two twin kind of areas that it addresses.
So one area is the exposure to environmental risks, and getting rid of those. But the second is also how environmental policy is created. Very much policy’s underpinned by political economy. So there are political interests that influence how policy is shaped. So for example, you’re very unlikely to see a new waste dumping site put next to a wealthy community that has political clout. So there’s a differentiation of environmental processes, because of people’s social, political, and economic vulnerabilities. Therefore, environmental justice very much speaks at some of the core debates in Environmental Humanities— how the social cannot be disentangled from the environmental. They need to be addressed in tandem. So can you give us an example of a current environmental justice issue?
Yeah, so one area of debate at the moment is the issue of green grabs. So you have the phenomenon where international buyers are buying up ecosystems in poorer countries. And it’s the idea that you need to buy nature in order to save it. And one mechanism this has been realised through is through the United Nations Reducing Emissions from Avoided Deforestation and Forest Degradation, also known as REDD. And basically, the idea behind this is that wealthy nations are producing lots of CO2 emissions, which is impacting on climate change. And one way to mitigate against these is to buy out forests and stop them being deforested, so they can absorb the carbon in poorer nations.
And wealthy nations pay for these forests to be preserved. So that kind of seems like win-win. Yeah, so definitely on the face of it, it looks like a great outcome, doesn’t it? You know, people continue to live the way they want to live in wealthy nations, and forests get protected in poorer nations. But when we dig a little deeper, we see there’s kind of issues of equity within this. So in many forests in developing nations are home to where people live. They use these forests for their livelihoods. And so the idea that these forests now are to be locked up, you know, they suddenly lose their livelihoods. So there’s a question of how this is negotiated.
So who comes to the table and decides what the outcome, what the agreement is? And very rarely is it actually those on the ground that use the forest that come to this table. There’s also the broader question of equity. How wealthy people can continue to live the lifestyles they want to live just by paying off people in poorer nations that live near forests. So ultimately, for Redd or this programme to be successful, it’s not just about environment issues, but there’s a whole range of social and political issues that need to be taken into account. And so that really brings back to the core point of environmental justice that the social and the environment issues cannot be disentangled.
That was a great example. And a good point to end this conversation. So I’d like to thank you, Paul, for contributing to this discussion around environmental justice issues. And I hope you enjoyed this conversation and gained a new perspective on environmental concerns.
Let’s consider how approaches from the Environmental Humanities might help to generate more ethical, attentive and care-ful responses to complex environmental issues.
Now and in the steps that follow, some of the Educators from this course will describe their different research areas. For each example, pay attention to the interplay between facts and values and consider what Environmental Humanities is adding to a purely scientific understanding of the issue at hand.
In this video, Paul Munro and Susie Pratt discuss environmental justice as a mode of environmentalism that takes social issues into account.
As Paul explains, environmental justice presents an appealing lens to Environmental Humanities scholarship, as it attempts to break down the division between the social and the environmental. It acknowledges the role of social and political power in shaping environmental outcomes. It also implies that for better environmental futures we need to solve social and environmental issues in tandem, as they are inextricably linked.

What do you think?

  • According to Paul, how is environmental justice different from other forms of environmentalism?
  • How might an environmental justice lens help to cultivate greater attentiveness to the complexities of environmental issues?
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Environmental Humanities: Remaking Nature

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