Historically, “environmentalism'' and “social justice” have not always overlapped. Indeed, even today, we encounter colleagues who have explicitly argued that addressing social issues might serve as a roadblock that will slow down the environmental or climate movements. The general public tends to view, and media tends to depict, environmentalism as characterized by conservation efforts aimed at protecting or restoring wilderness, parklands, and wildlife, or else on technological and economic solutions to climate change, reducing individual consumption and waste, and maximizing efficiencies while saving money. A related area, environmental justice, has been characterized by a focus on human-centric issues including reducing toxics, urban planning, worker safety, labor issues, food security, and access to public transportation. Meanwhile, those focused on supporting Indigenous sovereignty, equity and access for people with disabilities, income inequality, LGBTQA rights, dismantling white supremacy, and related challenges remain lumped into the “social justice” category writ large, seemingly separated from environmental concerns. However, this separation need not continue, given that social concerns are knit into the definition of sustainability and sustainable development. Yet mainstream media depictions and the public understanding of sustainability and the environmental movement still tend to depict two separate pathways, one focused on “nature” as separate from humans and one focused on human cultures, needs, and social systems as separate from the non-human world.
Many of the historic focus areas of mainstream environmentalism in the world’s wealthy countries underscore privilege by focusing on areas of particular interest to those with greater wealth, for example, individual consumption habits, expensive technologies such as electric cars and solar panels, or preservation of recreational spaces (most with their own histories of Indigenous displacement and racial inequity). It has tended to not focus on issues that have an impact on the daily lives of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Mainstream environmentalism until very recently has paid relatively little attention (and perhaps continues to not pay sufficient attention) to topics such as environmental remediation (e.g., air and water quality) and social issues such as public transportation or equitable access to green spaces and healthy food. Environmental justice advocates have also argued that the mainstream environmental movement has failed to appreciate the disparate impact of pollution, climate change, and toxic waste on communities of color and lower-income communities (Bullard 2000; Cutter 1995), and lower- and middle-income countries (Loo 2015).
The tendency of affluent people that fail to appropriately recognize and consider the needs and concerns of marginalized individuals can be seen in the “no more than two degrees” target endorsed by many climate advocacy groups. Such a target fails to account for the unequal climate change impacts already being felt by the poorest countries and the poorest citizens of wealthy countries, despite being those who have contributed the least to global warming. For example, the sub-two degrees target, while perhaps achievable with limited economic difficulty for higher-income countries, leaves many Pacific island nations with much, or even all, of their land under water. There should be greater recognition of the role of Pacific Islanders and Pacific Island nations in shifting climate discourse in favor of adopting stricter mitigation standards. All of this is not to say that we should stop concerning ourselves with conservation or ecosystem health, but that the cry of communities of color is that of the canary in the coal mine for all of humanity. Concerning ourselves with the issues of human communities, especially those most impacted by environmental degradation as well as social, political, and economic exclusion, is a strategy that respects life. One example is the Paris Climate Accords, which sets a goal of keeping the global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius. While there are additional goals to try to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees, the framing of them as stretch goals puts the lives of those on the front lines of climate change at risk. Setting these goals more ambitiously to include the needs of all peoples would prioritize making the world safe for us all.
Skeptics of mainstream environmentalism come honestly by their concern about the motivations and safety of spaces and groups often called “environmental.” Many of mainstream environmentalisms’ heroes have a complex history that includes racist actions and attitudes. One notable example is Madison Grant, who was both a prominent conservationist and also a proponent of the scientifically-debunked and racist eugenics movement. The much-beloved John Muir described the Ahwahneechee people of Yosemite as “strange creatures,” who “seemed to have no right place in the landscape” (Johnson, 2014). Furthermore, several members of the DEI committee report personal anecdotes and anecdotes from students and People of Color who avoided working in sustainability because they believe it is an area that privileges the perspectives and concerns of affluent, white people.
In contrast, social justice advocates and activists tend to focus on conditions for people and the cities, towns, and neighborhoods in which they live. They have also focused on creating outreach, education, and actions that address structural injustices that oppress Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, the poor, people with disabilities, and other historically underrepresented groups. Often those injustices are environmental in nature yet they may not be thought of that way by those with power and influence. People in historically underrepresented groups are more likely to live in areas riddled with pollution from heavy industry and landfills, blighted by mining or fracking, or overheated from a lack of public greenspace. They are also more likely to experience poor health outcomes due to lack of access to fresh food, health care services, health insurance, exposure to unclean air and water, and to be underserved or even ignored by governmental entities tasked with regulations that benefit public health and protect the public. Last but certainly not least, climate change is an inequality amplifier, meaning that people already living under unequal conditions will experience the effects of climate change first and worst, both in wealthy nations and poor countries around the world. The impacts of this social neglect and hostility are connected to environmental health problems such as type II diabetes, asthma, heart disease and increased risk of stroke, and certain birth defects and cancers. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbates and further emphasizes these disparities.