This essay first appeared in the April 2018 issue of Choice (volume 55 | issue 8)
The term “environmental justice” carries with it a sort of ambiguity. On the one hand, it refers to a movement of social activism in which those involved fight and argue for fairer, more equitable distribution of environmental goods and equal treatment of environmental duties. This movement is related to, and ideally informed by, the second use of the term, which refers to the academic discipline associated with legal regulations and theories of justice and ethics with regard to sustainability, the environment, and ecology. It is this latter, more academic—though vast and interdisciplinary—use of the term that is the subject of this essay. However, activists who pay careful attention to the arguments offered with regard to the political, legal, social, and philosophical treatments of these issues are potentially in a stronger position with regard to their own social movement. In that way, the two uses of the term may progress hand in hand. More broadly, however, the foundational claim about which both grassroots activists and legal, ethical, and policy advocates can agree is that environmental burdens—climate change, pollution, and their associated health risks—are borne disproportionately by the poorest and most vulnerable populations, and tend to have the greatest impact on racial and ethnic minorities, no matter where they are in the world. This is what makes the empirical questions about the environment a normative question about justice.
Robert C. Robinson is a lecturer of philosophy at Georgia State University, Perimeter College. He is the author of Justice and Responsibility-Sensitive Egalitarianism (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014) and a forthcoming book on cosmopolitanism and environmental justice.