Global Environment Movement

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Global Environment Movement






Race and class may be viewed as major predictors of participation in activities and actions associated with local undesirable land uses (LULUs). This growing social problem affects quality of life for many diverse groups, but especially the poor and people of color.

The Environmental Justice Movement (EJM) fights against environmental racism and injustices in the allocation and distribution of environmental contaminants in and around communities of color, the political powerless, and the economically less fortunate. Since the mid-1980s, the EJM has become a multicultural grassroots social movement that aims to seek fairness, and meaningful involvement in the imposition of environmental poisons on disenfranchised communities of color. It seeks to promote environmental justice for people who are most at risk of exposure to toxins. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA; 1998) defines environmental justice as the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement for people of all races, ethnicities, cultures, national origins and incomes, regarding the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies” (Government Code Section 65040.12 and Public Resources Code Section 72000).

Fair treatment means that no specific population group should bear the brunt of a disproportionate share of environmental problems brought about by industrial facilities, governmental structures, and policies. Meaningful involvement means that at-risk communities of color should be participatory agents in the decision-making process that affects their local communities and thus puts them at a higher risk for environmental dangers than other, more affluent segments of our population. Thus, the environmental justice movement is the vehicle environmental justice advocates and grassroots groups use in ameliorating many of the environmental disparities among people of color and the poor communities. The goal is to provide a safe environment free of environmental stressors so people can work, live, play, learn, and pray in a nontoxic environment.


Several major forces have contributed to the growth of the environmental justice movement since the 1980s. These include grassroots activism, an active research agenda, the environmental justice leadership summit, establishment of the Office of Environmental Equity, and the signing of Executive Order 12898. Data show that one of the earliest grassroots actions occurred in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was scheduled to lead a group of African American sanitation workers in a garbage strike. Unfortunately, King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, before he could complete the environmental and economic activism process. Another case can be found in California in 1969, where Ralph Abascal of California Rural Legal Assistance filed a lawsuit on behalf of several migrant farm workers. This resulted in the ban of the pesticide DDT. Following this protest, Linda McLeever Bullard in 1979 filed the Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management, Inc. lawsuit on behalf of Houston’s Northeast Community Action Group, the first civil rights suit challenging the siting of a waste facility.

Also in 1979, Robert D. Bullard completed his Houston Waste and Black Community Study for the Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management, Inc. lawsuit. He found that waste dumps were not randomly scattered throughout the city but were disproportionately located in African American neighborhoods. This was the first study to examine the causal factors of environmental racism. Bullard also found that housing discrimination, lack of zoning, and decisions by public officials over fifty years produced the environmentally unequal outcomes (Bullard 2000a, 2005). However, it was not until 1982 that environmental justice received national attention in the United States. In 1982 African American residents in Warren County, North Carolina, protested against a PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) landfill being placed in their community, which resulted in over 500 activists being arrested. This outcry for environmental justice was the most widely publicized case of collective behavior and social-movement activism. It galvanized the environmental justice movement in the United States, prompting the need for national studies to validate the existence of environmental racism. It also sparked the conceptualization of the concept “environmental racism,” a term coined by Benjamin Chavis to refer to “racial discrimination in race-based differential enforcement of environmental rules and regulations; the intentional or unintentional targeting of minority communities for the siting of polluting industries such as toxic waste disposal; and the exclusion of people of color from public and private boards, commissions, and regulatory bodies” (Chavis 1992, pp. 4–5).

Two major landmark studies in the 1980s confirmed the validity of racial differences in the distribution of toxic sites among local communities. These included the U.S. General Accounting Office and the United Church of Christ studies. The U.S. General Accounting Office study (1983) chronicled eight southern states. The goal was to determine the impact and correlation of environmental degradation on communities of color. This study revealed that three out of four off-site commercial hazardous waste landfills in the southeastern United States were located within predominately African American communities. The national study in 1987 by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice found that race was the most significant factor in determining where waste facilities were located. Some of the study’s findings showed that three out of five African Americans and Hispanic Americans lived in communities with one or more uncontrolled toxic waste sites, and that 50 percent of Asian-Pacific Islander Americans and Native Americans lived in such communities. Scholars continue to document environmental concerns faced by minorities and the poor with respect to environmental contaminants— showing that health risks from being exposed to such hazards are higher for minorities than for their white counterparts.

Research by Bobby Emmett Jones and Shirley Rainey on perceptions of environmental justice and awareness and health and justice in the Red River community found that blacks were more concerned about environmental issues than whites and that they perceived environmental exposure as placing them at a higher health risk than whites (Rainey 2005). They also thought that environmental racism was the cause of their environmental situation. Bullard asserts that environmental racism combined with public policies and industry practices provides benefits for whites while shifting industry costs to communities of color. It is reinforced by governmental, legal, economic, political, and military institutions.

Another milestone in the growth of the environmental justice movement was the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, DC, in 1991, which led to the identification of seventeen environmental justice principles as a guide to address environmental problems. These environmental justice principles available at, serve as a guide for grassroots groups:

  1. Environmental Justice affirms the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, and the right to be free from ecological destruction.
  2. Environmental Justice demands that public policy be based on mutual respect and justice for all people, free from any form of discrimination and bias.
  3. Environmental Justice mandates the right to ethical, balanced and responsible uses of land and renewable resources in the interest of a sustainable planet for humans and other living things.
  4. Environmental Justice calls for universal protection from nuclear testing, extraction, production and disposal of toxic/hazardous wastes and poisons and nuclear testing that threaten the fundamental right to clean air, land, water, and food.
  5. Environmental Justice affirms the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all peoples.
  6. Environmental Justice demands the cessation of production of all toxins, hazardous wastes and radioactive materials and that all past and current producers be held strictly accountable to the people for detoxification and the containment at the point of production.
  7. Environmental Justice demands the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement, and evaluation.
  8. Environmental Justice affirms the right of all workers to a safe and healthy work environment, without being forced to choose between an unsafe livelihood and unemployment. It also affirms the right of those who work at home to be free from environmental hazards.
  9. Environmental Justice protects the right of victims of environmental injustices to receive full compensation and reparations for damages as well as quality health care.
  10. Environmental Justice considers government acts of environmental injustice a violation of international law, the Universal Declaration On Human Rights, and the UN Convention on Genocide.
  11. Environmental Justice must recognize a special legal and natural relationship of Native Peoples to the U.S. government through treaties, agreements, compacts, and covenants affirming sovereignty and self-determination.
  12. Environmental Justice affirms the need for urban and rural ecological policies to clean up and rebuild our cities and rural areas in balance with nature, honoring the cultural integrity of all our communities, and providing fair access for all to the full range of resources.
  13. Environmental Justice calls for the strict enforcement of principles of informed consent, and a halt to the testing of experimental reproductive and medical procedures and vaccinations on people of color.
  14. Environmental Justice opposes the destructive operations of multi-national corporations.
  15. Environmental Justice opposes military occupation, repression and exploitation of lands, peoples and cultures, and other life forms.
  16. Environmental Justice calls for the education of present and future generations which emphasizes social and environmental issues, based on our experience and an appreciation of our diverse cultural perspectives.
  17. Environmental Justice requires that we, as individuals, make personal and consumer choices to consume as little of Mother Earth’s resources and produce as little waste as possible; and make the conscious decisions to challenge and reprioritize our lifestyles to insure the health of the natural world for present and future generations.

The efforts of the summit led to the establishment in 1992 of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Equity, later renamed the Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ). The purpose of the OEJ is to serve as the focal point for environmental justice concerns within EPA. It provides coordination and oversight regarding these concerns to all parts of the agency. The OEJ engages in public-outreach activities, provides technical and financial assistance to outside groups investigating environmental justice issues, and serves as a central environmental justice information clearinghouse.

Finally, President Bill Clinton’s 1994 signing of Executive Order 12898 was another milestone for the environmental justice movement. This Executive Order required all federal agencies to develop environmental justice strategies and to promote nondiscrimination in federal programs substantially affecting human health and the environment and to provide minority and low-income communities access to public participation in matters relating to human health or the environment. These events have been instrumental in the growth of the environmental justice movement. Environmental justice advocates continue to fight against environmental injustices that plague many people of color and poor communities.


Many communities of color and economically distressed communities have become dumping grounds for community exploitation and environmental racism. This type of environmental injustice can be found throughout the world. In the United States, for example, “Cancer Alley”—an eighty-five mile industrial corridor in Louisiana stretching from Baton Rouge to New Orleans—is home to 138 of the nation’s petrochemical production facilities. This industrial corridor has been described as the “Zone of National Sacrifice” (Wright 1998; Johnson 2005). There are several environmental problems in the United States that have received local, national, and international attention. Affected communities include West Dallas, Texas (lead contamination); North-wood Manor, Texas (municipal landfill); Institute, West Virginia (chemical emission); Alsen, Louisiana (hazardous waste); Tuscon, Arizona (industrial toxic waste site); Emelle, Alabama (hazardous waste site); southside Chicago (waste sites); Oak Ridge, Tennessee (toxic chemical plant exposure); Dickson, Tennessee (well water and landfill); and Nashville, Tennessee (landfill). Exposure to environmental hazards has impacted negatively on residents of these communities’ health and quality of life.


Environmental degradation also poses a threat to economically and socially disadvantaged communities globally. For example, the Bhopal disaster in India in 1984 caused a toxic chemical release of heated methyl isocya-nate (MIC) gases from Union Carbide, which catastrophically killed over 20,000 and injured between 150,000 and 600,000 people. Other examples include the Niger Delta, Nigeria, where oil resource exploration and production has taken place and has impacted disastrously on the environment and quality of life of the people of this territory (Douglas et al. 2005; Westra 1998); Puerto Rico has become one of the “world’s most heavily polluted places” as a consequence of toxic exposure from oil refineries, petrochemical plants, and pharmaceutical companies (Weintraub 2006); in the Pacific, islands have been used for nuclear and atomic weapons testing. Residents’ exposure to radiation from this testing has caused major health problems.

In North America, Native American groups have also been very active in their efforts to protect and reclaim land, resources, culture, religion, and all else that belongs to them from social and environmental exploitation. Environmental activist Winona LaDuke points out that even though Native Americans and other indigenous peoples worldwide have been exploited for economic gain and bear the health risks from industry and public policies, including the danger posed by the high number of radioactive sites on Native American land, they are virulent in their actions to bring about environmental justice (LaDuke 1999, 2005). Native Americans are addressing environmental justice initiatives by producing energy for their communities using green power. The White Earth Reservation is reintroducing sturgeon into the headwaters of the Mississippi and Red Rivers, and the Nez-Perce are returning to the breeding of quality horses (LaDuke 2005).

Finally, a local environmental justice grassroots movement (made up of women) in Plachimada, the southern state of Kerala, India, formed to fight against environmental racism from the Coca-Cola Company. These local residents, along with national and international leaders such as Vandana Shiva, protested the unfair treatment of their water supply and won a victory over the environmental exploitation by Coca-Cola. The Coca-Cola plant in Plachimada is accused of creating severe water shortages and pollution by stealing over 1.5 million liters of water per day to use in production. Pollution is said to come from the company depositing waste material outside the company premises on paddy fields, canals, and wells, causing serious health hazards and deaths. Shiva continues to fight against pollution, diversion through dams, and privatization that is killing rivers and water bodies and affecting the health and quality of life of India’s population. These are only a few examples of how economic exploitation, racial oppression, devaluation of human life and the natural environment, and corporate greed are compromising the quality of life of communities and cultures around the globe.


From its strong civil rights beginnings, the EJM in the United States has grown from a small number of grass-roots groups to over 500, not counting grassroots groups that are developing on a global scale to fight environmental racism. This movement has been led mainly by local working-class women of color with the aid of scholars, social activists, and policy makers, who have argued in countless studies, reports, congressional testimonies, theoretical and popular books and journals—in print and broadcast media—that environmental racism is a real problem that must be addressed.

Environmental justice groups started out framing environmental racism issues around civil rights issues but have grown to include land rights and sovereignty, social justice, and sustainable development (Agyeman et al. 2003; Bullard 2005). These groups have expanded their grievances from toxic waste to incinerators, smelters, sewage treatment plants, chemical industries, air pollution, waste disposal, facility siting, wildlife, pesticides, lead, asbestos, landfills, water contamination, urban sprawl, transportation, and sustainability in general. The EJMs goal is for better living in local communities, with safe jobs, urban redevelopment, and clean air and water. The grassroots activism of environmental justice groups is an ongoing process fueled by unresolved environment justice issues.

SEE ALSO Antiracist Social Movements.


Agyeman, J., R. D. Bullard, and B. Evans. 2003. Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World. London: Earthscan/MIT Press.

Bullard, Robert D. 2000a. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

———. 2000b. “Principles of Environmental Justice.” Adopted October 27, 1991, in Washington, D.C. In People of Color Environmental Groups Directory, ed. Robert D. Bullard. Atlanta, GA: Clark Atlanta University Environmental Justice Resource Center.

———., ed. 2005. The Quest for Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Chavis, Benjamin. 1992. “Environmental Racism Defined.” In Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards: A Time for Discourse, ed. Bunyon Bryant and Paul Mohai, 4–5, 163–178. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Douglas, Oronto, Von Kemedi, Ike Okonta, and Michael Watts. 2005. “Alienation and Militancy in the Niger Delta: Petroleum, Politics, and Democracy in Nigeria.” In Quest for Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution, edited by Robert D. Bullard. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books

“Environmental Justice: Principles.” Available at

Foster, Sheila. 1993. “Race(ial) Matters: The Quest for Environmental Justice.” Ecology Law Quarterly 20 (4): 721–753.

Johnson, Glenn S. 2005. “Grassroots Activism in Louisiana.” Humanity and Society 29 (3–4): 285–304.

LaDuke, Winona. 1999. All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

———. 2005. Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Rainey, Shirley. 2005. “Residents Speak Out: Sharing Concerns About Environmental Problems, Public Health, and Justice in Clarksville, Tennessee.” Humanity and Society 29 (3–4): 270–284.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 1998. Guidance for Incorporating Environmental Justice in EPA’s NEPA Compliance Analysis. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. General Accounting Office. 1983. Siting of Hazardous Waste, Landfills, and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Weintraub, Irwin. 1994. “Fighting Environmental Racism: A Selected Annotated Bibliography.” Electronic Green Journal Issue 1, June. Available from

Westra, Laura. 1998. “Development and Environmental Racism: The Case of Ken Saro-wiwa and the Ogoni.” Race, Gender, and Class 6 (1): 152–162.

Wright, Beverly. 1998. “Endangered Communities: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in the Louisiana Chemical Corridor.” Journal of Public Management and Social Policy 4 (2): 181–191.

Shirley Ann Rainey

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