In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Environmental Justice

  • Introduction
  • Reference Sources
  • Government Reports
  • Organizations
  • Geography Journals
  • Interdisciplinary Journals
  • Role of Scale
  • Climate Change and Climate Justice
  • The Future of Environmental Justice

Geography Environmental Justice
Jason A. Byrne
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0008


“Environmental justice” is both a social movement and a research subject. Broadly defined, environmental justice means that all people—irrespective of race, ethnicity, class, gender, and physical ability—have the right to live in clean, healthy, and safe environments; to have equal access to safe and healthy workplaces, schools, and recreation areas; and to have access to safe and nutritious food and clean water. Environmental injustice was first recognized in the United States and has been traced to “Jim Crow” ideology. Racial segregation laws were enacted across the United States between the mid-1870s and mid-1960s, and, later, racially restrictive housing covenants, patterns of mortgage lending (redlining), and outright discrimination restricted non-whites to specific suburbs, jobs, and educational facilities. People of color (e.g., African Americans, Asians, and Latinos) typically lived near polluting factories and in substandard housing with poor-quality facilities. Similar processes and patterns occurred in Australia, Canada, and South Africa, among other countries. Formal recognition of environmental injustice began in the 1960s, when activists for environmental justice began to fight race- and class-based oppression, initially as part of the US civil-rights movement. What started as local-scale protests, where people of color and low-income earners joined together to fight against locally unwanted land uses, rapidly grew into a national social movement. During the mid-1980s, the environmental-justice movement was especially prominent in the southern United States (e.g., Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama). Groups of concerned citizens joined religious leaders and politicians of color to systematically document cases of disproportionate exposure to environmental harm, and fought for remediation and compensation. Such harm has included landfills, toxic waste dumps, waste incinerators, farm chemicals, lead paint in houses, industrial “cancer alleys,” uranium enrichment facilities, biotechnology labs, and even “transit racism.” The US-based movement has now expanded internationally and has adopted a set of overarching principles. Environmental inequity is emerging as a major problem in China and India. Scholars from a wide variety of disciplines, including law, sociology, public health, land-use planning, and geography, have joined activists to document injustices. Scholars have used various research techniques to prove that disproportionate exposure is real and has often been intentional. Environmental justice is different than “environmental racism,” which refers to race-based environmental inequity rather than to the interactions between race and class and how they form mutually reinforcing systems of oppression. Environmental justice is also different than “ecological justice,” which refers to the intrinsic value of nonhuman species and their right to moral considerability.

General Overviews

Many overviews of environmental justice are edited collections from outside geography, originating from within the fields of law, sociology, political science, public health, and history. These general overviews have identified techniques that could be used to investigate the spatial concentration of locally unwanted land uses within predominantly non-white and low-income communities, and have discussed legal and governance options for recourse to action, such as lobbying, political incorporation, forced buyouts and relocations, and lawsuits. Many general overviews have also catalogued examples of successful environmental-justice campaigns, illustrating lessons learned through detailed case-study investigations. Geographers have written some of these overviews, most notably within the field of natural-hazards research. These ideas have found expression in much of the “urban political ecology” literature in geography. Looking further back, we can see that geographers have been concerned about the spatial expression of environmental inequalities since the 1970s.

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