In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Environmental Justice: Approaches, Dimensions, and Movements

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Roots of Environmental Justice—History of the US Movement against Environmental Racism
  • Global and International Perspectives
  • Environmental Justice Issues and Empirical Case Studies
  • Transnational Issues
  • Theorization of Environmental Justice
  • Organizations
  • Methods of Environmental Justice Research

Ecology Environmental Justice: Approaches, Dimensions, and Movements
Leah Temper
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 October 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0209


Environmental justice (EJ) is the struggle for access to a safe and healthy environment free from pollution and for access to the environmental resources needed for survival, well being, and social reproduction. The term environmental justice was originally born in the United States from the resistance of African American communities linked to the civil rights movement protesting toxic dumping and the siting of hazardous facilities in their communities. Scholars soon joined activists, concerned citizens, and religious leaders and communities to systematically document injustices and demonstrate that “pollution is not color blind” by demonstrating that disparities of environmental exposure exist among racial lines. EJ provided a powerful challenge to the mainstream current of the environmentalism definition of environment and nature, which focused on wilderness conservation and natural areas, such as national parks and endangered species. Environmental justice considers the inseparability of the environment from everyday life and redefines the environment as “the places where people live, work, and play.” Over time, the environmental justice framing has continually expanded to engage with multiple spatialities and forms of inequalities and has brought a far wider range of issues under the umbrella of what is the environment. In the early 21st century, environmental justice can best be understood as a shared frame and coalition of anti-toxics; labor, civil rights, indigenous, environmental, and feminist movements; and radical scholars, among others. Their common conviction is that environmental problems are largely structural and political issues that cannot be solved apart from social and economic justice and that these call for a transformative approach and the restructuring of dominant economic models, social relations, and institutional arrangements. From an initial focus on the socio-spatial distribution of “bads” (emissions, toxins) and then “goods,” (parks, green spaces, services, healthy food), environmental justice in the early 21st century encompasses a huge array of issues and has increasingly taken on transnational and transdisciplinary character and has become a meeting place for action-research among a growing network of activists, scholars, and nongovernmental organizations. EJ can be said to be a “theory in practice,” in constant coevolution and redefinition by many activist groups, international coalitions, and intellectuals.

General Overviews

Environmental justice (EJ) as a field of study is, by its very nature, transdisciplinary, and the overview works here come from a broad range of scholars from fields including geography, sociology, law, public health, anthropology, political science, urban and regional studies, ecology, environmental ethics, communications, etc. They include single- and multiple-authored and edited collections. For a comprehensive introduction to the field, see Holifield, et al. 2017; for a links between environmental justice and sustainability, see Agyeman, et al. 2003; for a critical assessment of the movement up to the early 21st century, see Pellow and Brulle 2005; and for new perspectives from critical and feminist perspectives, respectively, see the edited collections Holifield, et al. 2010 and Stein 2004. More succinct reviews of the field can be found in Mohai, et al. 2009, and from a social movement perspective, Szasz and Meuser 1997. For the most recent comprehensive study on health and pollution globally, see Landrigan, et al. 2017. Many of these works are aimed toward both activist and academic audiences and would be appropriate for undergraduate students.

  • Agyeman, J., R. D. Bullard, and B. Evans, eds. 2003. Just sustainabilities: Development in an unequal world. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

    A collection of essays from authors across disciplines that argues for centering questions of equity and social justice within sustainability discourses, introducing the concept of just sustainability that requires sustainability to take on a redistributive function. Touches on case studies from the United States and beyond on themes such as toxic waste dumps, mining, bioprospecting, petroleum exploration, and governance. Geared toward upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses.

  • Cole, L. W., and S. R. Foster. 2001. From the ground up: Environmental racism and the rise of the environmental justice movement. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    Cole and Foster write on several US-based case studies as activist participant observers. They develop a deliberative model of governance and put forward EJ’s transformative potential for radicalizing individuals, communities, and institutions. Includes chapters written by both academics and activists. The book addresses controversial issues seldom dealt with in the movement itself as well as a set of recommendations toward its improved effectiveness.

  • Holifield, R., J. Chakraborty, and G. Walker, eds. 2017. The Routledge handbook of environmental justice. London: Routledge.

    A large volume that provides a broad overview of the field. Can serve as an introduction and reference to the most important debates, controversies, and questions in current research. Primarily geared toward academics and students.

  • Holifield, R., M. Porter, and G. Walker, eds. 2010. Spaces of environmental justice. Antipode Book Series 25. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

    A critical geographical perspective. Includes chapters on actor-network analysis; on the need for in-depth gender analysis in environmental justice research; and on state theories, highlighting the significant role the state plays in shaping racialized patterns of spatial injustice. Includes several case studies from the United States, Ghana, and England.

  • Landrigan, P. J., R. Fuller, N. J. Acosta, et al. 2017. The Lancet Commission on pollution and health. The Lancet 391.10119: 462–512.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(17)32345-0

    The most comprehensive assessment of global pollution and its health and economic effects to date. The report shows that pollution is linked to nine million deaths in 2015 (one in six), and that 92 percent of pollution-associated mortality occurs in low- and middle-income countries and that it is most prevalent among ethnic minorities and the marginalized. The report calls for urgent action, arguing that pollution can no longer be viewed as an isolated environmental issue.

  • Mohai, P., D. Pellow, and J. T. Roberts. 2009. Environmental justice. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 34:405–430.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-environ-082508-094348

    A comprehensive review article. Situates the movement in its historical context and provides a broad definition. Discusses methodological problems in documenting evidence and considers mechanisms that lead to inequitable exposure to harm, from multiple perspectives. Summarizes a wide range of case studies and lists principles of environmental justice.

  • Pellow, D. N., and R. J. Brulle. 2005. Power, justice, and the environment. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

    This book continues a dialogue that started with a special panel at the 2002 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, at which social movement and environmental justice scholars appraised the record of the environmental justice movement. Its contribution includes a critical assessment of the movement’s effectiveness through an analysis of its strategies, practices, and ideology.

  • Stein, R., ed. 2004. New perspectives on environmental justice: Gender, sexuality and activism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.

    An edited collection that applies novel theoretical perspectives to environmental justice, including queer theory, ecofeminism, eco-criticism, literary and film criticism, and more. A much-needed call for addressing issues of chauvinism and homophobia related to the environment as well as within environmental movements.

  • Szasz, A., and M. Meuser. 1997. Environmental inequalities: Literature review and proposals for new directions in research and theory. Current Sociology 45.3: 99–120.

    DOI: 10.1177/001139297045003006

    A review of the literature from sociology. The authors assess what the intimate link between research and social movement has meant for environmental justice research and the silences that this has provoked. In particular, they critique the emphasis on race versus class, direct attention to studying the upper classes, and redefine global historical sociological phenomena as environmental justice issues.

  • Taylor, D. 2000. The rise of the environmental justice paradigm. American Behavioral Scientist 43.5: 508–580.

    Uses social movement theory to comment on the appeal of the environmental justice frame and the reasons for its success. Compares the environmental justice paradigm with other environmental paradigms, such as the new environmental paradigm, and notes that its pluralism in its concepts, foci, strategies, and actions have led to its resonance with a wide range of constituencies.

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